13 Jun 2013

Essex police must try harder on domestic abuse cases

Essex police, heavily criticised two years ago for failing four women murdered by abusive partners, still has more to do in responding to domestic violence, finds the police watchdog.

Maria Stubbings and her brother Manuel

Two weeks ago Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh said that he would take “personal oversight” of plans to improve the way the force dealt with domestic abuse.

Thursday’s report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has recommended a review of the way Essex police prioritises domestic abuses incidents. At the moment most cases are assessed as a priority response, which makes it hard for control room staff to identify cases needing the fastest response.

In addition it advised the force to ensure the right information is available to staff who handle abuse cases by, for example, including a standard question establishing how frightened a caller feels.

It also said that the force needs to “develop staff understanding around the response to domestic abuse and how dealing with it effectively can improve the confidence of victims and prevent homicides.”

Four murders in four years

In 2011 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) published its findings of repeated failures in Essex police’s handling of reports of abuse following the 2008 killing of Maria Stubbings (shown with her brother) by her ex-boyfriend Marc Chivers, the 2011 fatal shootings of Christine Chambers and her two-year-old daughter Shania by David Oakes, and the murder of Jeanette Goodwin at the hands of her ex-partner eight weeks later.

Essex Police apologised at the time, and the latest report by HMIC inspectors finds that force had taken steps to improve the way it handles such cases.

Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh said he had asked in August 2012 for the HMIC to make an independent assessment of the force’s progress thus far:

“[The report] recognises the substantial steps that have been taken to make sure suspects are arrested at the earliest opportunity, that calls are dealt with quickly and that intelligence is developed to identify those at greatest risk.

“But I also recognise that it highlights several areas where we need to streamline our processes, improve communication, and provide a better service to victims. This includes improving information sharing between other agencies by tackling the issue with a genuine partnership response and commitment.

“I stated only two weeks ago that I would now be taking personal oversight of the force’s plans to shape the way we deal with this particularly important issue. There has been some really positive work done so far and I have already acknowledged that there is still much work to be done.”

Vital work

Zoe Billingham, HM Inspector of Constabulary, said: “Domestic abuse is a very serious crime, as the tragic cases of Maria Stubbings, Christine Chambers, her two-year-old daughter Shania and Jeanette Goodwin demonstrate. And it’s absolutely vital the police get the handling of these cases right for victims.

“Essex Police should be recognised for taking the positive step of asking for this issue to be reviewed, and the force has taken a number of important steps to address how domestic abuse cases are handled.

“However, there is still more work to do to ensure that victims get the best possible service from their force.”

Ms Stubbings, a 50-year-old mother of two from Chelmsford, was strangled with a dog lead in 2008 by Chivers who also killed a previous girlfriend.

The IPCC found there was no assessment of the risk Chivers posed to Ms Stubbings and as a result she was not afforded proper protection.


Christine Chambers, 38, from Braintree, was complaining about violence from Oakes for two years before the murders and the IPCC found the force’s response was “inadequate”.
Jeanette Goodwin, 47, was stabbed 30 times by Martin Bunch, 44, in front of her husband at her home in Southend, Essex.

The IPCC found she received an “inadequate response” from Essex Police on the day of her murder, adding that the force did not recognise the need for urgent action.

Improved training

Since the deaths, Essex Police have improved training and ensured officers who attend incidents are provided with better intelligence, such as reports of previous attacks, HMIC said.

But the review found that while individual officers provide appropriate protection and support of victims, the overall approach to dealing with victims is fragmented.

This risks undermining trust among victims and increases the likelihood of victims being unwilling to support prosecutions, the report said.