Content warning: graphic discussion of domestic violence and murder
At least one woman is murdered by her current or former male partner every three days in the UK. Shamefully there is no centrally compiled list of these women – it is left to individual activists to try and keep track of how many femicide victims there are, and to remember them.
The above figures only represent the number of homicides that we know about, however. The podcast Hidden Homicides highlights the cases of a number of women who were in abusive relationships and died suddenly in potential homicides.
A common theme in these cases was the abject failure of the police to protect the victims, and subsequently to properly investigate their deaths. A stark example of this is the murder of Susan Nicholson. Her killer, Robert Trigg, had been reported to police 13 times for domestic abuse, and one of his previous partners – Caroline Devlin – had died in similar circumstances to Susan. Despite this, police did not prosecute him for any of these incidents and did not even arrest him at the time of Susan’s death. An initial inquest wrongly ruled that Susan’s death was accidental – Trigg was not prosecuted until Susan’s parents hired investigators themselves and proved that he was responsible for both her and Caroline’s deaths.
Another woman, Katie Wilding, was found dead next to her abusive former partner Mitchell Richardson, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. Despite Richardson having been reported to police repeatedly, and legally not allowed to contact Katie due to the abuse he inflicted on her, police quickly ruled the death to be an accidental overdose. Richardson’s mother cleaned the flat in which she found the bodies for an hour before calling emergency services, but was not prosecuted for this as the police did not consider it a crime scene. Police failed to adequately store the evidence – when they opened the evidence months later “there was a multitude of black flies coming out of the bags”, rendering the evidence useless.
Failure to adequately preserve relevant evidence was even more starkly apparent in the case of Emily Whelan. Emily’s partner, who her parents believed was coercively controlling her, reported that he had found her blue and not breathing. Her death was quickly ruled to have been caused by a seizure. When Emily’s mum visited her house after her death she saw that Emily and her children’s belongings had been packed up as if they were ready to leave – without her partner. A victim of abuse ending the relationship threatens the abuser’s control, and can be a trigger event for an escalation in violence. Concerns were raised by Emily’s family and eventually her partner was arrested and questioned, and a second postmortem was ordered – but due to the local hospital and subsequently the local council failing to adequately store her body, it had begun to decay. A particularly concerning aspect of this was that petuchiae – red spots in the eyes, a common sign of strangulation – had been present at the first postmortem but had gone by the time the second was carried out. As a result the pathologist was unable to rule out any third party involvement in her death.
Louise Tickle does an excellent job of bringing these tragic cases to light on Hidden Homicides, and highlighting the appalling police failures involved. Sussex Police in particular are singled out as having failed in four cases, leading to four preventable deaths. She puts forward some positive demands for reform of how the police deal with sudden deaths in relationships where domestic abuse was known to occur: for example, police should initially assume it is a homicide investigation rather than a tragic accident or illness. This would ensure that proper postmortems were immediately carried out. She also proposes that nationwide statistics should be centrally collected on all sudden deaths of women known to be in abusive relationships, so the scale of this problem can be accurately understood. However, these changes will not protect women who are currently living in abusive relationships – the whole approach of the justice system needs to change.
Institutional problems require systemic change
Unfortunately, Louise does not link the problems with how the police approach domestic abuse to a wider critique of the misogynistic justice system as a whole. She highlights “insultingly short” sentences for abusers, but doesn’t mention the far more severe sentences given to women who defend themselves against violent men. It appears that she thinks the police’s careless approach to domestic abuse can be reformed through better training: while of course no-one would oppose better training in handling domestic abuse, for any agency that comes into contact with victims, the problems with the police are institutional.
The Met Police in particular has a disgraceful record on sexism. They failed to arrest PC Wayne Couzens for exposing himself, and two days later he brutally murdered Sarah Everard. Spy cops have for decades abused their positions to take advantage of women they are investigating, even to the extent of having children with them. These issues cannot be reformed out of the police. Instead we should immediately disband all spy cops units, along with riot police and special branch, and replace police forces with democratically controlled bodies that are specifically designed to protect women and workers, not to protect capitalism.
Malcolm X famously said that you can’t have capitalism without racism. You also can’t have capitalism without sexism. We need a socialist society, not a capitalist system built on the backs of women, workers and all oppressed people.