Police officers in London will receive extra instructions on helping children accused of witchcraft and sorcery with plans to expand the training nationwide if it proves effective.
Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe, head of the Metropolitan Police’s religious violence unit, told The Independent that officers on the street were rarely equipped to spot the signs that a child might be in danger and needed better training.
“We’re very well aware that usually the first person on scene is going to be the young, two or three years service cop who probably has no understanding of this whatsoever,” he said. “We're not naïve enough to think this is just happening in London. It is happening in Birmingham, it’s happening in Leeds, Manchester and other big cities across the country.”
The 28-year veteran of the Met is an expert on child abuse investigations and heads up Project Violet, a unit specifically set up to tackle religiously motivated violence such as witchcraft abuse and female genital mutilation.
He was speaking following the conviction last month of a woman and her boyfriend who beat 15 year-old Kristy Bamu to death because they believed he was a witch. Fuelled by their belief in kindoki, a Congolese term for sorcery, Eric Bikubi and Magalie Bamu horrifically tortured the teenager and his siblings over four days before finally drowning Kristy in a bath.
The case shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the prevalence of belief in sorcery within some immigrant communities and whether the authorities were doing enough to tackle such abuses. Senior officers openly admit that the crime is underreported and are trying to examine ways to encourage more victims to come forward.
Project Violent has now created an “aide memoir” which will be circulated to all police officers in the capital whilst extra-training will be put on for recruits at Hendon Police College. It details the kind of language and terms used by people who accuse others of sorcery and advises on what signs officers should look for to gauge whether a child is at risk.
In June the Department of Education will also roll out a “national action plan” to encourage police, teachers, social workers and medical professionals to take a more proactive role in looking out for witchcraft victims.
During the trial of Kristy Bamu’s killers, no links to churches which promote believe in spirit possession and exorcisms were established, but previous cases have shown how rogue pastors often play a key role in convincing people that their children are witches.
Det Sup Sharpe said he wanted local officers to pay closer attention to unregistered churches that often spring up in residential streets.
“It’s the non-registered churches that concern us,” he said. “Once we can identity those we can start to engage with them. There are all sorts of potential safeguarding issues, especially if children are attending.”
He defended the police’s record on pursuing people who carry out female genital mutilation, a practice common within some Middle Eastern and African communities where a girl’s clitoris - and sometimes her labia – are removed with appalling consequences. The practice was made illegal in Britain nine years ago but there has never been a successful prosecution. Det Sup Sharpe said an enormous amount of preventative work is now done each year, especially in the run up to the summer holidays when girls are most at risk of being mutilated. But he said convictions remained difficult because intelligence was simply not being passed up the chain to police. Calling on community leaders and professionals to come forward when girls are attacked he said: “If we’re informed we will investigate it rigorously but we need to be made aware of it. We’re looking to convict people involved in this but until we get that intelligence we require to prosecute it is very difficult for us.”
He was also critical of a recent investigation by undercover journalists who filmed a doctor and a dentist saying they were prepared to carry out or organise female genital mutilations. Arguing that the burden of proof to gain a conviction was often much higher than that needed to publish a news report, he said: “I can understand the undercover sting and that it’s a great story for the reporter but I think sometimes it may be best to make contact with the police first because there are certain things we can do to make sure we can secure a conviction. Sometimes with the tapes we get there isn’t enough to secure a conviction.”