VULNERABLE populations are identified as those with fewer resources, less access to the latter and less power within larger groups. People differ in their exposure to risk on the basis of their social group, gender, ethnicity, age, etc. Vulnerable groups mostly include women, children, transgender, elderly people, certain ethnic groups or minorities, immigrants and persons with disabilities.
Vulnerability is most often associated with poverty, but may also be an outcome of isolation, insecurity and being in a defenceless positon in the face of risk, shock or stress. Crime disproportionately affects vulnerable groups, putting them at risk of a secondary victimisation. Hence, the police’s role in assisting them becomes even more crucial.
When vulnerable persons fall victim to crime, it is far more difficult for them to access the criminal justice system. In addition to the physical, social and economic dimension of vulnerability, there is also the attitudinal aspect where over-dependence on a family member becomes a challenge — mostly in the case of women and children. This co-dependence affects them adversely when combined with social and economic reliance on close male members of the family.
These vulnerabilities obstruct the reporting of crime by women, children and marginalised groups. They face violence both within the confines of their homes and confront crime in public spaces. Street crime, house robberies, theft, traffic accidents and harassment leave them even more traumatised. Making that judgement call on whether or not to share the account of emotional or physical harm with one’s nearest relatives becomes difficult.
Social biases must not come in the way of police work.
More often than not, co-dependence works in favour of the accused or criminal, because of the time the head of a family takes to report the crime — or not. Many times, the head of the family prefers not to report the crime because of the shame associated with it or mistrust in the fairness of the criminal justice system. Even if it is decided to report the crime, the justice system being adversarial in nature, consumes both time and resources. The ordeal of accompanying and presenting the victims before a court of law usually leads to an out-of-court settlement or a withdrawal of the complaint.
To make matters worse, in case violence has been perpetrated by a close family relation, it becomes near impossible for the family/victim to report the crime; it is after overcoming many social difficulties that they reach out to the police. Given the latter’s role as gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, it is imperative for the police to understand the importance and sensitivity of its response to underprivileged groups.
Innate social biases must not come in the way of professional police work. Women, children and minorities already face police biases and lack of empathy. Being suspicious of complaints, mistrusting the account of crimes related by them, doubting their intention in accessing the police station, disbelief in the crime committed against them and holding them responsible for the violence done to them reflect bias by the first responders. Approaching the police takes courage and victims must be shown trust and respect.
Globally, discriminatory practices are corrected through training and sensitising the police towards vulnerable populations. Policies are carefully reviewed to adapt to the needs of marginalised groups and put in place a bridge of trust between them and the police. These policies also prohibit profiling and stereotyping as well as discrimination based on vulnerability. At the tactical level, officers are trained for crisis intervention techniques and alternative ways of resolving conflict. At the operational level, vulnerable populations are effectively engaged so that they share their problems and help the police devise cultural and social responsiveness to violence.
To this end, female police officers are usually tasked with gaining access to the community and taking confidence-building measures. It is a generally accepted fact that vulnerable populations feel safer and more secure with female police officers and engage with them freely. This not only opens a window of opportunity for the underprivileged to share their issues but also creates a channel for community policing. Where prevention of crimes against vulnerable people is concerned, effortless access and prompt reporting can ensure a measurable reduction in crime.
Multi-agency working is also key to the early and effective identification of risk to vulnerable people, and to preventing those perils from escalating. Ideally, these relationships bring about improved information-sharing, joint decision-making and coordinated action. It is therefore necessary to engage with stakeholders from both the public and private sector to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable populations.