‘Vulnerable’ is one of the most frequently used words in policing today.
Broadly speaking it is used as a term within a whole range of dreadful crimes, including child sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, hate crime, modern slavery, missing people and harassment and stalking.
Sadly, this is not an exhaustive list and the demand on police resources to protect vulnerable people seems to be ever-increasing, despite this being at direct contrast to society’s abhorrence of such offences.
The College of Policing have identified many different areas of public protection and there is a volume of guidance that we expect our operational staff to know, understand and implement. This volume of material is too great for any one person.
However, there is an opportunity to simplify this complexity for public contact staff – after all, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
In all these dreadful crimes, the underpinning factors and signs to look out for have some commonality.
The dictionary definition of vulnerability is ‘capable or susceptible to harm or injury’ and whilst this is simple and informative we do need to recognise that there are two aspects to vulnerability: personal and situational.
Personal characteristics can make someone vulnerable and these can range from the issues such as gender, age and health to the very specific, such as substance misuse or mental health.
Situational characteristics are about the circumstances that person lives or finds themselves in, such as whether they are isolated, being financially controlled, or coerced in some way.
The underlying factors, which people need to question and look out for are particular signs of control or power of one individual over another. Violence, threats, addiction control or money control can be a means to control, exploit or harm a victim.
We must ingrain a working practice to question human relationships and gain people’s trust and confidence, identify the risks, and bring that person to safety – recognising that sometimes this can take time.
Given the increasing pressure on our members and their staff to manage this demand, my Association called recently for a number of reforms in the way policing and other public services deal with protecting vulnerable people, including agreeing a common definition of what vulnerability actually means.
Breaking down vulnerability to these terms makes it sound like it should be very simple to come up with a common definition. It clearly isn’t, but nevertheless there is a call to leadership to resolve this as soon as possible.
Not only are there deep individual and societal problems which make abuse, exploitation and harm possible – few of which the police have any hope of combating alone – but public services are also still too far apart in their strategies, priorities and available resources.
Such a massive challenge – to protect every vulnerable person from harm – requires a ‘one public service’ approach. Where every member of any agency, who has direct contact with the public, is aware of the signs to look for and the approach to address the risk. Any definition and approach to vulnerability must be simple and recognisable to all.
So no matter how challenging it may be, we have to try and simplify how we think of, understand and approach vulnerability.
If we do not, we risk missing opportunities across the whole of the public services to protect people who are suffering at the hands of others.
Paul led Operation Imperial, the largest investigation of its type in the UK into forced labour which has resulted in convictions totalling more than 31 years so far. He is speaking about vulnerability at the Wales Anti-Slavery Conference on 18th October, Anti-Slavery Day which was created to raise awareness of modern slavery and to inspire government, business and individuals to eliminate it.