Opinion: Fighting domestic violence in a European context

Kristian Jaani. Source: Politsei- ja piirivalveamet

Estonia faces the same challenges in dealing with domestic violence as other European countries, writes Kristian Jaani, head of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA)'s North Prefecture. The country is smart enough to learn from other countries' experiences, but can also pass on its own experience, he writes in an opinion piece on ERR's online Estonian news.

A meeting in Vienna at the end of April brought together police chiefs from over 40 European capitals, and one of the topics up for discussion was domestic violence, its trends, and what means can be used to make an impact on the problem.

I can say that while the assembled officers used very different examples in their presentations, they spoke of exactly the same challenges. The title of an Austrian, Icelandic or German presentation might just as well have been changed to "Estonia" and the bulk of the content would still have been appropriate to our environment.

However, the differences are there too. For instance, whereas in Estonia, alcohol and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand, there is no link drawn between the two in Iceland. Unfortunately, there are too many instances of domestic violence there too.

In Harju Country, the most populous in Estonia, every seventh call to the emergency number, 112, is related to domestic violence. One in 15 reported crimes are connected to the same issue, and in a quarter of these cases, a child is either a witness or a victim – these children need special help and support too.

My colleague from Reykjavík rightly pointed out the importance of cutting through the chain of events that can influence a child and lead to domestic violence on their part in later life. We have seen all to much of this in our police work.

Not a new phenomenon

In reading (the classic A. H. Tammsaare novel-ed.) "Truth and Justice," we can see that, in fact, domestic violence has always existed. Over the long term, the amount of information related to this topic has risen. This is a good thing. It may sound negative on the surface, but it demonstrates that people are exerting the courage to turn to the police for more help and intervention in such cases, or to be made aware of it.

There is simply more scope for awareness and seeking help now, than at the time "Truth and Justice" was written and set.

In my own presentation at the conference, I related to the police chiefs how we can make such interventions, and gave the example that in the past, common knowledge about domestic violence did not translate into action. There were neighbors, nearby people, but the awareness from the family or community was not raised.

It is easy to understand how victims may want to keep silent in such situations, but about other people, less so. The more we talk about domestic violence, the better. In Estonia, there are some very good speakers at the highest level, who are tackling this topic – both President Kersti Kaljulaid, and several members of the Riigikogu. Their speeches raise awareness and instill courage related to the issue and its victims.

The European judicial area has a relatively homogeneous attitude towards domestic violence, which has been criminalized everywhere. In Estonia, before 2015, there was no distinction so far as statutory law went, between domestic violence and "stranger" violence. Up to three years' imprisonment was possible as a court sentence in both cases. However, as of 2015, domestic violence has been categorized as a separate offense, and the maximum penalty has been increased to five years.

As an aside, if we jump back around a couple of decades ago, domestic violence was still in the hands of the civil courts.

I can recall as a young investigator being at the scene of a domestic violence incident where the only recourse suggested to the victim was a civil prosecution. Although there were some distinguishing details, it could be said the overriding principle was this was a "family matter." A Portuguese colleague related a similar example. However, nowadays that legal approach simply would not exist.

My European colleagues also spoke a lot about helping victims quickly, from shelters, to an immediate restraining order. We are also applying the principles of quick and immediate assistance, in Estonia, starting with counselling as well as rapid assistance until we can provide victim support. We are increasingly using these opportunities.

For example, last year, criminal cases involving domestic violence were implemented both in pre-trial proceedings and in restraining orders. In fact, we need to make more use of these remedies. Furthermore, the police officer themselves can impose a 12-hour ban on contact on the part of the perpetrator, and there are places where the perpetrator can go, or be transported, during that time.

There is a wide variety in the European countries, however, as to how long this ban on contact can be imposed. In Latvia, for example, this can be up to eight days, but only 48 hours in the case of Romania. In some countries, a police officer does not have the powers to impose this and has to go to the courts or the prosecutor. It is another story, of course, when the perpetrator is detained as a criminal suspect.

It is most important for the victim to get help quickly

In Estonia, we have taken great steps recently to prevent domestic violence or its severest consequences. One important change is the 24/7 victim support hotline.

The Social Security Board's Victim Support Emergency Service 116 006 can also be called in the presence of a patrol. Previously, this hotline only operated during business hours and working days.

In very complex and high-risk domestic violence cases, we have adopted the MARAC (Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference, a victim-focused information sharing and risk management meeting attended by all key agencies, where high risk cases are discussed-ed.) case management model, launched in the UK and Finland. Its aim is to identify victims of high-risk domestic violence and to secure their protection in cooperation with specialists from various agencies.

It is important to note that this is a science-based approach. MARAC is a toolbox which provides professionals with what they need, and at the same time taking into account the individual considerations of the person in need.

Again, the crucial thing is to provide rapid help in domestic violence cases. This means not only a quick police response, but also the right aid to all the family – victim, perpetrator, dependents. Assistance has to begin at the scene.

Here, we have to keep in mind the applicants' own attitudes, and the language we use when communicating with victims is aimed at assessing each case, and finding and offering help accordingly. As an aside, I must note we also take the trouble to help the abuser. Like it or not, he or she also requires help.

In order to better deal with domestic violence, it is necessary to further increase the speed of proceedings via the police, prosecutor's office and court. The longer the victim has to wait for a procedural decision, the more delaying his or her return to normal life. The more times the victim has to recall his/her experiences, the more he/she will have to replay the role as victim.

As of now, we have got to the stage where in one third of cases, we are seeing a seven day timescale from the beginning of a case, to that case reaching the prosecutor's office. This is an improvement just on the situation this time last year, but we want to increase this proportion further.

Better use of body-cams can also help combat recidivism and expedite procedures. One video speaks over a thousand words.

Domestic violence is not just a problem within the family, but it affects the whole of society. If we want our society to be healthy, we must first of all contribute to the healing of close relationships.

The courage of the victims in talking, and the courage of eyewitnesses in intervening, allows the police to respond more quickly, and to provide professional help with other professionals, before it is too late.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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