Retired police officer recalls the harrowing moment he found a woman dying at home after being attacked by her partner as he urges forces to make tackling domestic violence a priority to save lives

  • Former police officer says combating domestic violence should be a top priority 
  • Speaks out in Crossing the Line by John Sutherland, published by Orion Books
  • Since start of lockdown, at least 16 women and children have been killed at home
  • Recalls two domestic violence cases that shaped him during career as a PC
  • Recalls the moment he found a victim of domestic violence dying in Brixton

Should the Home Secretary ask me, on the basis of all my years as a police officer, which crime should be prioritised ahead of any other, without hesitation I would say domestic violence.

You may find this surprising, given the terrible toll taken by drugs, alcohol and knife crime. But an even greater source of damage to society than all of these is the physical and mental abuse that takes place every minute of every day behind our front doors.

When I joined the Met in the early 1990s, violence in the home was still regarded by many as a private matter. ‘Just a domestic’ was a common expression among police officers.

But as I came to realise, there is no such thing.

John Sutherland explains why he thinks combating domestic violence should be the number one priority of police forces in his new book Crossing the Line, published by Orion Books

In England and Wales, two women every week are killed by a current or former partner: the lives of daughters, mothers and sisters ended with shattering brutality by men of unchecked rage – men who might once have claimed to love them.

Since the start of the current lockdown, at least 16 women and children have been killed at home. In the Met alone, officers have arrested 100 people a day for domestic violence offences, an increase of 24 per cent.

Sadly, it doesn’t end there. The charity Refuge estimates that three women each week take their own lives as a consequence of domestic violence. 

Statistics published by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary suggest that it accounts for 11 per cent of all crime committed in this country, 13 per cent of all sexual offences and a third of all assaults resulting in injury.

In Crossing the Line, John Sutherland explains that some women would rather risk further abuse than risk losing their families

No respecter of gender or class or sexuality or geography, domestic violence can happen to anyone – although the fact is that the majority of victims are women, and the majority of perpetrators are men.

If you live in a city, it is happening within 100 yards of your front door. If you live in the country, the distance may be greater, but the reality is the same.

It’s no exaggeration to say that domestic violence is terrorism on an epic scale – and the single greatest cause of harm in British society.

Last month, the Domestic Abuse Bill resumed its passage through Parliament. Our political leaders now have an opportunity to ensure that more is done to protect victims and survivors, and bring attackers to justice.

In my formative years as a PC, calls to deal with domestic violence were seen as nothing but hassle for the police. Seasoned officers were experts at finding reasons not to attend.

And when an officer without a ready-made excuse eventually made it to the scene, they were met invariably by a wall of silence, or a series of blanket denials from everyone involved.

Whatever the neighbours might have heard through the walls was nothing more than a minor disagreement that had long since blown over. Visible injuries would swiftly be explained away by couples as the consequence of a slip on the stairs or a collision with an open cupboard door. 

On many occasions both parties would have been drinking and neither would be making much sense. It was usually one person’s word against another’s, and all too often the victim – usually female – would be reluctant to make a formal allegation.

Even if she initially agreed to give a statement and her drunken husband or boyfriend was locked up for the night, she had usually changed her mind by the morning. No sooner was the man released than they were back together again.

The author said two cases he came across in the early days of his career as a PC influenced him deeply (pictured: a scene of domestic violence, stock picture)

And for the bewildered and exasperated police officers, it meant a load of paperwork for no apparent result. Really, what was the point?

I might have ended up feeling the same had it not been for two incidents.

The first was a murder in south London. A colleague and I were the first police unit to arrive at the scene, just off Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. I found the victim: a woman face down and lifeless on the landing. Her name was Marion.

I saw her body again at the mortuary the following morning. The pathologist revealed that she had been stabbed multiple times in the throat. The suspect, I later found out, was a former boyfriend. Someone she had trusted, perhaps even loved.

The second, also in Brixton, was another young woman stabbed repeatedly, this time by her current partner. He was still at the scene when we arrived – sitting on the sofa, handcuffed and silent and staring.

She was coated in blood and fading away. Her name was Jane. I helped carry her to the ambulance. I stood and watched as the remarkable medical team at King’s College Hospital opened her chest in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to save her life.

I’ve carried the memories of those two women with me for years. And I will carry them for the rest of my life.

Over time I attended many more such calls. Not all were murder scenes, thank God, but all were scenes of deep sadness and desperate need: places of violence that was psychological as well as physical; violence that was repeated time and again, driven by drink and drugs and resentment and rage.

And yet despite everything we officers saw on an all too regular basis, our attitudes remained too slow to change, too slow to realise that there were lives to be saved.

In 1999 I was promoted to the rank of detective inspector with the Racial and Violent Crime Task Force. But I came across exactly the same attitudes as I’d experienced on frontline duties.

The Met already had a domestic violence working group but the senior officer who’d chaired it had retired and none of my high-ranking colleagues wanted to take the responsibility on. Way too busy, they said.

Since the start of the current lockdown, at least 16 women and children have been killed at home. In the Met alone, officers have arrested 100 people a day for domestic violence offences, an increase of 24 per cent, John said. Pictured: a woman clenched in fear, stock picture)

To be honest, I was reluctant, too. Though my early experiences with domestic violence murders had left a deep mark, I thought that there was more interesting and important work to be done. How wrong I was.

My eventual decision to get involved with that group – a mixture of survivors, charity workers, professionals and police – transformed my life.

Through these highly committed and remarkable individuals, I began to understand some of the complex reasons why victims might be reluctant to report incidents. And how so many women live in a state of permanent, multi-layered fear. 

They are afraid of the next attack and they are frightened that any attempt to contact the police will be met with terrible retribution. To put it bluntly, they live in constant fear of being killed.

They are also afraid of losing their children, their rationale being that if they tell the police, the officers will inform Social Services, who, in turn, will take their kids away.

Many women would rather risk further abuse than risk losing their families.

And it’s not just their children they are frightened of losing – it’s their homes and financial security.

It’s easy to say to a domestic violence survivor, ‘Why don’t you just leave him?’ But it’s never that simple.

Ministers unveil £76million package for domestic violence victims 

Earlier this month, ministers unveiled a £76million package for domestic violence victims as they admitted the coronavirus lockdown is making it harder for people to seek help. 

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced the funding, saying the government would not ignore the ‘reality’ of what many vulnerable individuals face during the crisis.

He said victims of domestic abuse will get priority access to local housing, and money will be channelled to charities.

Calls to domestic abuse help lines have soared as victims are trapped with abusive partners during the lockdown.

First, where would she go? And how would she provide for her family? And anyway, what is to stop her former partner tracking her down and taking his revenge?

A further disturbing reality is that some women believe that the abuse is their fault – that, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, they somehow had it coming to them.

It happened because she burned his dinner, or was late home from work, or wore something he didn’t like, or because his football team had lost. Almost anything might set him off.

For all the progress made, the harsh fact remains that one in four women in this country will experience domestic violence at some point.

In the year ending March 2017, 1.2 million women in England and Wales reported experiencing domestic violence and abuse. A staggering tally. But what makes it worse is that it is undoubtedly a significant underestimate.

Figures suggest that less than 24 per cent of domestic violence-related crime is reported to the police. And yet officers still receive a call every 30 seconds – two a minute, 120 every hour. Any one of those could lead to a murder.

According to Refuge, domestic violence costs the UK economy about £23 billion a year. But I rarely consider the money. Instead, I think about Marion and Jane, and all the others like them. I wonder whether we might have been able to do something to save them, if not on the day of their murders, then in the days and weeks beforehand.

I wonder at what they endured – the punches, the kicks, the verbal abuse and taunts, the slaps, the sexual assaults – before the knives were drawn. And I find myself wondering what has to happen before we can finally vanquish this horrific crime for ever.

Though we might have come a long way in understanding the impact domestic violence on its immediate victims, society as a whole has barely begun to consider the horrific effect on the children who live in its shadow.

A study last year revealed that one in five under-18s has been exposed to domestic violence, while the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) estimates that up to 250,000 children are living in violent homes.

The extreme trauma that results has repercussions that last a lifetime.

The testimony of Erwin James is powerful evidence. He was born in 1957 to poor Scottish parents, and his early years were marked by tragedy and trauma. At the age of seven, his mother, Jeannie, died in a car crash after a drunk-driver lost control and collided with a lamp-post.

Erwin’s father suffered serious injuries and the accident changed Erwin’s life for ever.

Following his return from hospital, his father began drinking heavily. Initially, young Erwin found a way to deal with it but everything changed when his dad found a new partner, Stella.

In his book, John Sutherland argues that assaults on a partner in the presence or hearing of her children should automatically be guilty of an assault on the children, too (pictured: a distressed little girl listening to her parents arguing, stock pictures)

‘He punched her and he kicked her,’ recalls Erwin. ‘Stella screamed in pain, in fear. Bodies were hitting against the walls.’

Eventually, his father was sent to prison. With him behind bars, Erwin became involved in petty crime. When his dad was released and later caught him stealing, he attacked his son repeatedly. Once, he threatened to kill Erwin.

Unsurprisingly, the young boy’s life fell apart and by the age of ten, he was running wild.

Just before his eleventh birthday Erwin was put into care, but he ran away many times, sleeping rough while continuing to commit crime.

He recalls: ‘It was just a way of life. I never considered the impact on others. Drunkenness and violence became established character traits. By my early twenties, I had left behind two serious relationships that had broken down due to my alcohol-fuelled, violent behaviour, and I was well and truly adrift.’

In 1984, Erwin murdered two men and was jailed for life – remaining prison for two decades, written off by the world.

Many years later, at a literary festival where he had been invited to speak about his recently-published memoir, I met Erwin.

I liked him immediately. He explained that his life had been transformed by a prison psychologist called Joan Branton. She worked on a wing that housed 85 murderers but did not define them by their crimes.

She didn’t see Erwin as he saw himself. She taught him that contrary to every instinct and belief he held, he was redeemable. With her gentle help, he began to unravel the carnage and chaos of his life.

Erwin has never tried to excuse what he did. In fact, he is lacerating in his description of his own sense of guilt and it is clear that he will carry that burden for the rest of his life.

‘There are people still grieving because of me,’ he says. ‘There are two people who are not here because of my actions.’

With the psychologist’s help, he began to understand that while he alone was responsible for his criminal acts, he was not responsible for the catastrophes of his childhood.

I mourn the fact that Erwin’s story – of the long-term consequences of childhood exposure to extreme violence and trauma – is far from unique. 

As calls to domestic violence helplines and arrests soar, a long-term strategy is ever more necessary. It must address properly the complexities of these incidents, and the devastating harm done to both immediate victims and to their children.

I believe, for example, that any suspect who assaults their partner in the presence or hearing of her children should automatically be guilty of an assault on the children, too.

There must be a plan which offers effective programmes compelling men to confront the reality of their violent behaviour and providing them with support to change.

More than anything, though, we need a plan that recognises that nothing matters more than saving lives.

When I was growing up, people smoked in pubs and restaurants, none of us wore seat-belts, most of us didn’t give a second thought to the idea of climate change, and men battered women behind closed doors.

These days, my children think that anyone who smokes is an idiot, the first thing we do when we get in the car is put our seat belts on, and the global warming sceptics are the ones in denial.

There is only one thing on that childhood list that is still to change. It is long past time.

Extracted from Crossing the Line by John Sutherland published by Orion Books.

There is a compelling need for far greater restrictions on the availability of pornography

As a dad to daughters, I’m increasingly concerned by the highly-sexualised world they are growing up in. I’m troubled deeply by all the ways in which women are objectified, and womanhood is defined by body shape and sex appeal, along with an entirely misplaced set of ideas about skin-deep beauty.

In 2013, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner suggested that the exposure of young people to pornography was linked directly to unrealistic attitudes about sex and to beliefs that women were sex objects. It’s a viewpoint with which I wholeheartedly agree.

During my 1980s adolescence, most porn was out of my reach – on the top shelf of the newsagents or in the small X-rated section of the local video store. But the 1990s saw the beginnings of online porn and the advent of pay-per-view downloading.

Initially, the requirement to use a credit card to access films and pictures acted as an informal age verification mechanism – protecting some children from seeing the sorts of things that no child should ever see.

But that changed when access to porn became free at the point of consumption. Anyone could watch, children included.

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of porn, what is in no doubt is the devastating impact its easy availability is having on the lives of children, who are growing up in a porn-soaked world.

As a police officer, the ubiquity troubled me most. Kids with any kind of internet connection now get their sex education online, and you don’t need to be a puritan to share an enormous sense of concern about the consequences.

What is it that boys now expect? And what is it that girls are placed under endless pressure to accept? What is it that passes for healthy and normal when it comes to sex?

A horrific gang-rape in north London involving five teenage boys and a teenage girl happened in the early years of online porn streaming, and I believe there is a connection between those two things.

Of course rape existed before the internet – I don’t think that porn is exclusively to blame for the rise in sexual offending – but there seems no end to the further damage done by the so-called advance of technology.

It’s not unlike the situation I’ve observed with boys who carry knives. Sex offenders are getting younger; much younger. And at the same time, the seriousness of the crimes appears to be escalating.

Porn is fantasy; the people portrayed in it are not in real-life situations. And it is precisely this dehumanisation that can lead a 14-year-old boy with no available alternative in terms of healthy sex education or role-modelling to imagine that he can have whatever he wants, whenever and wherever he wants it.

There is a compelling need for far greater restrictions on the availability of pornography, beginning with the implementation of a mandatory block on access to online porn for anyone under the age of 18.

Extracted from Crossing the Line by John Sutherland published by Orion Books.

  • Those affected by the issues raised in this story can contact the National Domestic Abuse helpline on 0808 200 0247, or fill in a submission form.

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