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Reporting abuse and establishing productive relationships with the police

Durham Council and the local police work collaboratively together to protect councillors from abuse and harassment.

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Durham Council has a strong relationship with the police, with regular meetings between the Monitoring Officer and the Deputy Chief Constable where any incidents of harassment, abuse or intimidation against councillors can be raised.

The council keeps a log of such incidents and uses it to determine the appropriate course of action which is proportionate to the level of threat. The council's health and safety team assess the level of threat using a pre-established process, and if it is low, it is logged, and if it is serious or explicitly violent, it is immediately flagged to the police.

The challenge:

Durham has noticed an increase in the number of councillors experiencing abuse, harassment and threats of violence. Not only is this highly distressing for elected members, their families and those who support them, it may put people off standing for election.

The solution:

Durham Council has a strong commitment to protecting councillors from abuse, harassment, and intimidation and takes threats against councillors very seriously.

The council's approach to dealing with harassment or abuse of councillors is proportionate to the level of threat using the expertise of the council’s legal and health and safety teams to decide how to proceed. This is supported by engagement with the police as appropriate to address serious incidents and provide essential advice and support depending on the severity of the situation.

For example, the council’s Monitoring Officer, meets regularly with the Deputy chief constable. This provides an opportunity to flag concerns and share intelligence. In the meetings they discuss any issues related to councillor’s experiences of harassment or threats of violence, and the police provide advice and guidance. The police are very responsive to issues that need to be reported in between meetings.

Councillors are encouraged to report all incidents of abuse, harassment and intimidation to Members Services even if it is considered to be minor or low level. All such incidents are logged internally and where appropriate with the police. This helps track incidents and identify patterns of behaviour which may pass the threshold for police action.

Member services in consultation with health and safety team assess the level of threat using a predetermined process.

Where the risk is low, the incidents will be logged and appropriate advice given to the councillor (e.g. how to amend social media settings/re-direct or block emails). In more serious cases, which do not meet the threshold for police action, the council will consider whether to take action e.g. writing to the individual and/or seeking an injunction. In serious of cases of abuse harassment and intimidation, the police will take appropriate action.

Where it is considered that an individual’s behaviour threatens the immediate safety of councillors or staff, a decision may be taken to place that individual on the Potentially Violent Persons Register. Such behaviour includes conscious, deliberate or malicious acts of violent, aggressive or abusive behaviour towards council employees or councillors. It is possible for those who interact with the public to check whether someone they are due to meet is on the register and what mitigations are in place.

The council also offers training on health and safety as part of the councillor induction programme. Additional advice is provided, and risk assessments are undertaken in response to specific incidents. This has included conducted security assessments of councillors’ homes and providing advice in relation to additional security measures. Where appropriate addresses may be flagged by the police for a priority response. All councillors have access to the employee assistance scheme which provides well-being and counselling support.

The impact:

Abuse and intimidation in politics is a rising issue and it’s critical that councils and police are well connected to deal with these issues effectively and efficiently. A good and well supported relationship between the council and police allows the council to raise issues directly at a senior level, rather than relying solely on the usual crime reporting mechanisms which can be ill-suited to handling the nuance of abuse of elected members.

Councillors at the council feel well supported by the council whether or not they have experienced abuse or intimidation, and this helps them to continue their councillor role with confidence.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The approach is borne out of strong and effective working relationships between the council and police. The approach has long been integrated as business as usual at the council. Working with the police to manage issues of abuse and threats against councillors in this manner is more efficient and creates a swifter resolution that usual methods.

Lessons learned:

  • Proactively creating a relationship between police and the council can take time, but it also helps to set appropriate expectations and foster a more nuanced understanding of what issues affect councillors in local policing and the role of police in dealing with these issues.
  • Using a consistent method to assess what needs to be deal with by the council and what should be reported to the police can help councillors to understand the risks of the incidents they encounter and councils to provide consistent and effective support which is tried and tested over time.
  • Reporting and logging incidents can help the council and police to build a picture of ongoing or escalating issues before they become too serious.