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23 August 2007

Walk on by?

Going to the rescue of a stranger is dangerous. A few days ago, Ben Davies had to decide whether to

By Ben Davies

The assault was sudden and violent. An argument escalating in a microsecond. The young man with gold ear studs hit the woman around the head and then dragged her screaming in distress into the council estate.

Around them, people were going to work – largely unaware or keen not to get involved with a vicious assault that was blatantly taking place on the hill in north London. Cars drove on, a few pedestrians stopped, not sure how to respond.

Along with the cyclist in front of me, I slithered to a halt and – not quite believing what we had seen – we tentatively went back to the entrance of the estate where the man briefly detached himself from what was clearly a domestic argument.

“Stop looking you motherfuckers or I’m going to fuck you both up as well,” he screamed. It sounded like a bad American movie. We backed off. Two middle-class guys in their thirties on their way into work, not at all keen to intervene in what had now subsided back into an argument. A very aggressive argument.

In truth, I was scared. I took a couple of steps down the hill to call the police, while my companion kept an eye on the situation from behind a hedge. We were joined by a young doctor from the hospital across the road who had witnessed more of the initial attack – the girl being hit across the head. He said he had recently finished a stint in A&E where he had been horrified at some of the injuries resulting from domestic disputes. We stood and waited for the police.

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Silent witness

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If you have passed the Whittington Estate in north London, even in the middle of the day, it is possible you will have felt an urge to walk swiftly past. To the outsider its unusual construction, dating from the 1970s, gives the impression of a concrete muggers’ paradise, with its walkways and underground car park.

But appearances are deceptive and, in fact, this is by no means the frontline between what the tabloids call anarchy and the “law-abiding society”. Certainly there is crime, but it is relatively low level compared with some other parts of the London Borough of Camden.

I cycle past the hospital and estate twice daily on my way to and from the New Statesman‘s offices in Victoria. That day, I resumed my journey into work, agonising that I hadn’t intervened in a more immediate way; if you witness an assault and don’t intervene, the injuries that can be inflicted in seconds, let alone the five or ten minutes while you wait for the police, can be fatal.

Then again, you might think of Evren Anil, fatally wounded on 5 August in south London after complaining to two youths who chucked a half-eaten chocolate bar into his sister’s car. Or Garry Newlove, who died on 12 August in Warrington after being beaten up when he complained about vandalism to his car. And all the others. Intervening can be fatal, too.

But here is the worry we should all have. If a man feels he can hit a woman at 8.15 on a summer’s morning in the middle of a street where there are plenty of witnesses, then he clearly feels no one is going to do anything to stop him. And if he feels that, then we really have gone wrong in this country.

In 2003, an ICM poll carried out for the BBC questioned 1,020 adults in short- and long-term relationships about their attitudes to violence and abuse. Asked what they would do if they saw somebody kicking or mistreating their dog, 78 per cent said they would intervene or call the RSPCA or the police. When it came to witnessing somebody kicking or mistreating a partner, only 53 per cent said they would intervene or call the police.

In my case, when I stopped and started going back up the hill to the incident, I was definitely encouraged in my decision when I was joined by the other cyclist. Other people did stop but they were mostly elderly or perhaps lived on the estate and were afraid of the repercussions.

Later, I talked to a senior police officer about the whole issue of intervening.

“Incidents like the one you witnessed are disturbing – and things like this [sudden and very public violence] are occurring with increasing frequency in urban areas,” said the officer, before adding that the right thing to do was to step back and wait for the police. He went on to tell me that, as far as domestic violence in particular is concerned, Metropolitan Police policy has improved substantially over the past few years.

According to the Met press office, each of the 32 London boroughs has a dedicated Community Safety Unit.

“We no longer need a statement from the victim to charge a suspect if there is evidence of domestic violence taking place,” said a Metropolitan Police spokesman. “Our objectives are to stop the violence while protecting victims and their children, and to hold perpetrators accountable through the criminal justice system.”

The Greater London Domestic Violence Project (GLDVP) works with key agencies across the capital to develop city-wide policies and to raise awareness. The organisation’s director, Davina James-Hanman, says that people who witness domestic violence are best advised to contact the police: “Often, when you intervene she [the victim] will defend him because she is trying to get safely through the next hour.”

James-Hanman believes the level of intervention on the part of official agencies is higher now than it has ever been. But that does not solve the dilemma for the individual witness of sudden violence. There are occasions, too many occasions, when the authorities are simply not on hand.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs select committee, charged with examining public policy on such matters, said tragedies such as the case of Garry Newlove come about because of the “final straw syndrome” – where people act because, for whatever reason, the police aren’t around.

“What is shocking to people is the lack of proportionality – for example, a row over a sweet wrapper leading to a death,” he said.

“The most worrying aspects are the public displays of violence; the perpetrators believe they will get away with it because of people’s reluctance to intervene in a private matter and because of the fear of reprisal. We need citizens to act in a collective way – if five people had intervened in your case, the perpetrator may have been less willing to continue.”

Timely intervention

Vaz, whose committee has announced an inquiry into domestic violence, says the government has a duty in all this to explain what a good citizen can do. “We need to focus the minds of the police because people are increasingly not reporting domestic violence,” he adds.

I had only a dim awareness of the scale of domestic violence before I witnessed a young man explode into a violent rage on his girlfriend in the middle of the London rush-hour, an experience that made me pick up the phone to learn more.

People who are violent to their partner are more likely to be violent to their children. A failure to intervene or report such crimes is costing lives. If you ring up the Home Office and ask for statistics about domestic violence, you will be told it accounts for 15 per cent of all violent incidents and that around two women are likely to be killed by a partner each week. A shocking figure is the link between pregnancy and domestic violence, 30 per cent of which starts when a woman is expecting a child.

That concurs with an observation from James-Hanman: “Most calls to the police about domestic violence occur between 4pm and 8pm,” she said. “Abusers like to be the centre of attention and this is the time when women are focusing on homework, getting dinner and so on.”

As I waited with the doctor and the other cyclist for the police to arrive, it was deeply frustrating knowing every second that passed probably meant the perpetrator was more likely to get away with his crime. It would be nice to think our tiny intervention gave him pause for thought, time to cool down a little. Perhaps not walking on by meant this violent young man became aware of being watched.

When, ten minutes later, two officers arrived in a van and, having asked for descriptions, set off in pursuit, the man and his victim had disappeared out of our view and into the estate. A second police vehicle arrived and told us we could go as they already had our phone numbers. We shouldn’t worry, they’d sort it out.

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