THE WEST SUSSEX GAZETTE AND SOUTH OF ENGLAND
June 11, 1987
‘It’s the sexual and psychological child abuse that tests the emotions of the unit’s most hardened officer.’
New Police Women’s Unit brings personal touch to a public service
Set up in March, the Police Women’s Unit at Worthing is a pilot scheme for the rest of Sussex. MIKE CUERDEN meets three members of that unit, which has dealt with almost 300 cases in just 12 weeks!
Every week, an average of more than two women are accosted in Worthing. These figures may shock you. They even shocked the police unit dealing with them. But there is no reason to believe that the number of incidents had risen suddenly. The reason why they had come to light, and why officers could be so definite about the extent of this and many other problems, lies on a desk in a cramped office at Worthing Police Station. In just 12 weeks the bulging file had already reached page 230.
Last year, when the more “intimate” problems were dealt with as part of the station’s already heavy workload, the total number of recorded incidents was just 15! Alongside the large blue file is another book reflecting the seamier side of Worthing’s respectable exterior. The “Indencecy File”, mostly involving child victims, has its own compartment at the headquarters of the newly-formed Police Women’s Unit.
The room measures about 12ft by 5ft, and five women officers have had to share it since the unit was set up in March. Within the next few days the unit is moving to a much larger room. It needs to be bigger, too.
The unit is a pilot scheme for the rest of the Sussex Force. If considered successful, there is talk of the idea spreading throughout the country. As yet, it is too early to say definitely whether the unit will become a permanent fixture in Worthing and other stations throughout the county.
There are those who, already, are in no doubt about its necessity. “At first there was concern that we wouldn’t have enough work to keep us busy,” said W.P.C. Samantha Coates, the youngest member of the team. She has only two years’ service. But you “grow up” quickly in this, one of the force’s smallest sections.
Dealing with child abuse and neglect, indecency offences, alleged rapes, drugs inquiries and cot deaths have given her more experience in the last three months than could have been gained from years on general duties. Already the number of separate incidents stands at about 300.
W.P.C. Carol Jones has spent 20 years in the force. Before being selected for the unit she spent the previous three years as Worthing’s Juvenile Liaison Officer. She is still shocked by what she sees. But one of the secrets is not to show it. “I’ve always maintained that common sense is the number one quality needed by a police officer,” she said.
“But in this unit, especially, you need to be understanding, sympathetic, a mediator, be able to gain a person’s confidence and, I suppose, be a psychologist as well.”
Of the incidents reported and investigated, the most common are indecent exposure (35), domestic problems (39), indecent assault (20) and accosting – by the “kerb crawler” (27).
Those are just some of the headings in an internal, three-monthly report presented by Sgt. Sandra Shiner, who has been in charge of the unit since its formation. As well as dealing with cases in Worthing, the unit’s expertise has been needed in Henfield, Shoreham and Burgess Hill. Had the unit not existed, many of those cases would have been dealt with by women officers lacking in specialist experience.
The unit has brought a vital personal touch to a public service. Offering a friendly, warm smile and the chance for a confidential chat has smoothed out many a domestic row. ”We get to know the same families who keep cropping up and they get to know us. That is a help for everyone,” added W.P.C. Jones. It’s the sexual and psychological child abuse that tests the emotions of the unit’s most hardened officers. Anatomical dolls are used to help children describe experiences which can lead to arrests and convictions. But the unit knows there are many more cases which could, and should, come to light.
“There must be neighbours and relatives who suspect that a child is being abused, but don’t get involved because they think it isn’t their business,” said W.P.C. Coates. “All we ask is that they contact us.”