Serial and Priority Perpetrators – Tragedy? Or a Systematic Failure?

Dissertation on Serial perpetrators
Posted February 9, 2018 by

A Foreword on Serial and Priority Perpetrators

In 2016, our Operations Manager, Zoë, completed her MSc in Criminology and Criminal Psychology. Her dissertation focused on the identification and management of serial perpetrators of domestic abuse in England and Wales. She won the Sage award for Best Masters Dissertation.

In the post below, Zoe shares some extracts from that dissertation, and her thoughts on the ways in which our approach to these offenders needs to improve.

What is a Serial perpetrator?

For clarity: The term ‘Serial perpetrators’ is usually used to refer to individuals who have used or threatened violence or abuse against two or more victims who are unconnected to each other (ACPO, 2009). Many commentators have argued that focusing solely on targeting these perpetrators (i.e. those who have more than one victim) might mean we ‘miss’ other areas of potential risk.

What is a Priority Perpetrator?

The term ‘Priority Perpetrators’ addresses this potential risk by encompassing serial perpetrators alongside those who repeatedly offend against the same partner, and also those engaged in high-risk abusive behaviours, regardless of the number of victims involved.


Tragedy? Or a Systematic Failure? Serial and priority perpetrators

In early 2018, there was extensive media coverage and widespread outrage surrounding the trial of Theodore Johnson, a man who pleaded guilty to murdering his ex-partner. What made this case so utterly shocking is that this was the third partner or ex-partner he has killed: the first was in 1981.

Shortly afterwards, The Guardian asked: “Is this a uniquely tragic triple crime, or a systematic failure to take domestic violence seriously?”

It is tragic, absolutely. But unfortunately, it is by no means ‘unique’.

Numerous examples

On 2nd January 2012, the body of Claire O’Connor was discovered in the boot of her own car. Claire had died from blunt force trauma to her neck (McAteer, 2015, p. 10). In 2013, Aaron Mann – Claire’s ex-partner – was jailed for her murder (Dimmer, 2015). Mann had two known partners before Claire, with both relationships characterised by domestic abuse (McAteer, 2015, p. 12). He had numerous domestic abuse-related convictions and arrests against his name (McAteer, 2015, p. 14), along with several other incidents involving previous partners of which agencies were aware, but no official reports were made (McAteer, 2015, p.14). After identifying a number of failings in both risk assessment and risk management prior to Claire’s murder, the Domestic Homicide Review into Claire’s death posed the question:

“How are known perpetrators identified and how are the risks that they pose to others assessed? For example, an initial incident may not be serious, but if it is perpetrated by someone known to present high risks to partners, how can this be factored in and influence the overall risk assessment and risk management plan?”

Two years later, on the 18th February 2014, Hollie Gazzard was murdered by her ex-partner, Asher Maslin, at the age of just 20.  Hollie was stabbed 14 times in the neck, chest and torso, inside the hair salon in which she worked, in front of her colleagues, dying two hours later in hospital. Maslin, himself only 22 at the time of the murder, had a significant criminal history including violence in a non-domestic setting (Warren, 2015, p.19). His domestic abuse history was equally extensive, including a total of 24 violent incidents against 4 different individuals, 3 of whom were ex-partners (one being Hollie) and one of whom was his mother (Warren, 2015, p. 29). In the review into Hollie’s death, Warren (2015), observed:

“Paul [the review panel’s pseudonym for Maslin] had a long history of violence towards women…the review panel therefore concludes that if all the evidence had been known to any one agency, it would have been predictable that Paul would at some stage critically injure or kill someone”

A History of Serial Abuse

Multiple other Domestic Homicide reviews (hereafter DHRs) continue to tell similar stories, highlighting a failure to both recognise, and manage, the risks posed by individuals with significant histories of serial and high-risk domestic abuse offending (See: South and Vale Community Safety Partnership [SVCSP] & Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children’s Board [OSCB], 2016; Ashman, 2014a, 2014b; Davis, 2016; Lundberg, 2014).

Theodore Johnson’s case is shocking, but it is not unsurprising to those working in the Violence and Abuse sector: this has long been an area of public protection work that requires urgent attention. Studies have demonstrated that up to 18% of domestic abuse perpetrators who re-offend do so against a different partner (Hester & Westmarland, 2006), and ACPO (2009) have estimated that there may be as many as 25,000 serial perpetrators of domestic abuse in contact with police at any one time in the UK. Research clearly demonstrates that without effective intervention, perpetrators of domestic abuse are likely to continue their behaviour (Hester & Westmarland, 2006, p.35; Sonkin, 1987 cited in Richards, Letchford & Stratton, 2008, p. 129) and, further, that abuse tends to escalate in both frequency and severity as it is repeated (Richards, Letchford & Stratton, 2008, p. 128).

Calls for Change

As such, calls for a more proactive response to these serial/priority perpetrators are not new. As early as 2004, Richards warned that prolific and serial domestic abuse offenders were, literally, ‘Getting Away With It’. In 2009, referencing Richards’ work, The Association of Chief Police Officers [ACPO] published their report ‘Tackling Perpetrators of Violence Against Women and Girls’. This report presented a number of recommendations to ensure the “wider recognition, and improved management, of serial perpetrators of violence against women and girls”, including that a register and tracking system be introduced in order to improve both the identification and management of these individuals (ACPO, 2009, pp. 29-34).

5 years later, however, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary [HMIC] still noted that “most forces do not have a systematic approach to targeting repeat or prolific perpetrators of domestic abuse” (HMIC, 2014a, p. 106). Even when reviewing this position in the light of the 43 resulting force action plans, they concluded: “…these plans showed there is a lack of consistency around the management of serial perpetrators” (HMIC, 2015a, p. 96), and further, “very few forces include domestic abuse perpetrators in their Integrated Offender Management (IOM) process” (HMIC, 2015a, p. 96).

My Dissertation’s Findings

My own dissertation research, undertaken in 2016, reached similar conclusions. Through the use of requests to each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I found that provision for both the identification and management of serial perpetrators of domestic remains inconsistent across England and Wales.

In England, for example, less than half of the police forces reported a clear process for both the identification and management of serial perpetrators. Just over a third (33%/n=13) detailed systems which, although not a total lack of provision, appeared to fall short of a process which would enable them to clearly and consistently identify serial perpetrators and to manage them as routine, whether alone or within a wider cohort of priority/high-risk domestic abuse offenders. 6 force areas in England reported having no identification or management processes in place, representing 15.4% of English forces without the ability to identify, monitor or manage serial perpetrators. Further, those forces with clear processes in place appear to be approaching the issue differently across different areas, with various combinations of approaches/projects and no one model appearing to directly mirror another.

In addition, only a small number of forces (Essex, Hampshire, North Yorkshire, and Northumbria) made specific reference to taking a multi-agency approach to this area of work or to making use of intelligence from partner agencies in their assessments of risk. This was particularly surprising given that multi-agency working is recognised as best practice nationally in terms of the response to domestic abuse (Home Office, 2014; Tapley, 2010). This failure to work collaboratively is at odds with the learning from multiple DHRs, which emphasise the importance of multi-agency working and information-sharing in this area (see, for example: Ashman, 2014b, p. 47; Home Office, 2013a; McAteer, 2015, p.73; SVCSP & OSCB, 2016, p. 45, 61). It also – crucially – fails to acknowledge that not all domestic abuse incidents are reported to the police.

Current Response to Serial Perpetrators

We are, however, beginning to see emerging pockets of good practice. The approach in Hampshire, for example, includes both direct work with offenders and a single point of contact (SPOC) service to assess, monitor and track serial perpetrators (Hampton Trust, 2016). Importantly, this response has been built around both multi-agency working, and cross-agency information-sharing, between the Domestic Abuse Prevention Partnership (DAPP), the police Offender Management HUB, and other key local agencies, including frontline domestic abuse services (Hampshire Constabulary, 2016b). Aurora New Dawn is proud to be a part of DAPP, and to work alongside both The Hampton Trust and Baseline Consultancy in pushing forward the response to serial/priority perpetrators in the County.

Another example of co-ordinated work in this area is the DRIVE project, currently being run by Safelives across two pilot sites, and designed to “challenge the behaviour of perpetrators, and co-ordinate the response they receive across all agencies.” (Safelives, 2016). DRIVE targets serial and repeat perpetrators, providing a one-to-one intervention with the aim of promoting long-term behavioural change (Safelives, 2016). Whilst the two approaches are different in design, the DRIVE project, like the Hampshire response, is quite clearly committed to “a multi-agency response to domestic abuse with partner agencies” and “sharing information, both within and between agencies about people at risk of experiencing or perpetrating domestic violence and abuse.” (Safelives & Social Finance, 2015, pp. 5-6)

How to tackle Serial Perpetrators

Despite these pockets of localised good practice, the fact remains that there is currently no formalised legal framework or national process by which serial perpetrators are routinely identified, monitored and managed in England and Wales. It is this that needs to change, and urgently. A co-ordinated approach is required – mandated at a national level, and robustly led locally – which focuses on placing responsibility on serial/priority perpetrators for their behaviour and, crucially,  on disrupting their offending. In order to do this, we need clear national guidelines, borne from the sharing of best practice and examples of models that demonstrate ‘what works’ in terms of effective identification and management.

I would go further, however, and argue that one of the key ways in which we can make strides in this area is through the creation of a register for serial perpetrators, operating along similar lines to the sex offenders register. Both ACPO (2009) and Paladin (2014) have proposed this response, and calls for implementation continue to grow, with a petition to this effect amassing 135,000 signatures to date. Whilst a register is not a solution in itself, it absolutely offers the potential to drive forward a cultural shift, a sense of national consistency, and a more proactive policing response to those who pose the highest risk of harm (Paladin, 2014, no pagination).

Ultimately, when we are looking to keep victims safe, this is not an ‘either/or’ situation. The proactive targeting of priority perpetrators must be included in work to tackle domestic abuse, and it is crucial that this forms part of a collaborative response alongside specialist, well-resourced victim services.

In short, our response to this cohort of dangerous offenders must be substantially improved if we are to have the chance of reducing both the costs – and the impact – of domestic abuse over the coming years:

“Tracking, responding to and dealing with serial perpetrators is less well developed as a method of protecting victims. This is just starting to change but the circumstances of this review underline the need for it. The learning from this review stems almost entirely from the knowledge of events and interventions in the perpetrator’s 2 previous relationships. This is fitting as it contributes to a growing body of knowledge that suggests tracking and management of serial perpetrators has a significant role in protecting future potential victims.” – Domestic Homicide Review into the death of ‘Ms Z’ (Ashman, 2014a, p. 5)

Aurora’s Position on Serial Perpetrators

We at Aurora believe it is imperative to tackle the continued serial abuse of perpetrators in order to better protect victims and survivors. By continuously putting the onus on the victim, perpetrators continue to abuse multiple victims, their abuse escalates and the endpoint for many of their victims is death. This is about murder prevention.

You can sign the petition for a register of serial stalkers and domestic abuse perpetrators here.

Aurora New Dawn

Are you affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article? If so, please get in touch!

You can sign the petition for a register of serial stalkers and domestic abuse perpetrators here.

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