So what do you do when your home is burgled?
THE murder of John Monckton and the attack on his wife, Homeyra, during an apparent burglary in their London home has once again highlighted the true dangers and indeed the legal and moral dilemma members of the public face when they are confronted with intruders on their own property.
From a police perspective, the advice to potential victims of burglaries is unequivocal and clear-cut and you should never "have a go", so to speak, but for the victims of crime this is a very difficult thing to put into practice, especially when your natural instincts are to defend yourself, your family and your own property - the very pillars of your life that are being violated and potentially destroyed by criminals.
As a law-abiding individual confronted by an intruder in your home you face a catch-22. If you attack the burglar, or react in an "over the top" manner, as was recently illustrated in the case of Tony Martin who shot intruders in his Norfolk farmhouse, you will inevitably end up on the receiving end of a prison sentence that will far outstrip that imposed on the intruder in your own home. This situation has resulted in a lack of belief in the law among the public or rather a belief that the law isn’t exactly on your side when your home is broken into.
To this end it is perhaps important not to dwell on the situation involving Mr Martin because, regardless of the appeal procedure he successfully went through to secure his freedom, in many ways the law still points to his particular attack on the intruders who entered his home as a pre-meditated assault. He had previously been the victim of a number of burglaries within his home and as a result of this he was effectively prepared for further intrusion and reacted as such when his farmhouse was broken into again.
But what the Martin case does reflect is the general fear felt by the public over rising crime rates and the extent to which they will go to protect themselves. As the case involving Mr and Mrs Monckton shows those most at risk from aggravated burglary are the wealthy, individuals identified by criminals as prosperous professionals. However, at the other end of the scale, people living in inner cities and on council estates face a similar level of risk.
When individuals are confronted by intruders there are some actions they should follow. Direct contact should be avoided whenever possible. If unavoidable, the victim should adopt a state of active passivity. In most cases the best form of defence is always avoidance. If this isn’t possible, act passively, be careful what you say or do and give up valuables without a struggle. This allows the victim to take charge of the situation, without the intruder’s awareness, through subtle and non-confrontational means. People can cooperate but initiate nothing. By doing nothing there is no chance of inadvertently initiating violence by saying something such as "Please don’t hurt me".
In a situation involving housebreaking it is also important to remember that many common burglars are adolescents, most likely starting out on the first rung of the criminal ladder, and they are therefore prone to lashing out if confronted and in the worst case scenarios killing out of panic and fear.
Sometimes the perpetrator of a burglary is even more terrified than the victim and in many cases when things go wrong it is the perpetrator of the crime who panics. Although they sometimes go equipped with weapons, in most cases they probably don’t intend to use them but in the heat of the moment, and the fear of either getting caught or attacked themselves, they use them. They don’t expect the person they are trying to hold up to retaliate or react. Mostly the knife is there simply for intimidation rather than intent to use it and they finish up killing somebody by accident rather than design.
This, of course, does not excuse their actions, but it is certainly worth taking on-board when you consider confronting an intruder. While saying this, in my own experience counselling victims of crime in recent years, there has also recently been a marked increase in the use or the threatened use of dangerous weapons in burglaries and common assaults. This, in itself, is a deeply worrying trend and, although not entirely excusing over-retaliation from homeowners, creates an understandable degree of sympathy for members of the public who lash out at intruders in their home. In truth it is an incredibly difficult situation to assess.
What is perhaps most important is dealing with the victims of the crime and helping them through the aftermath. As someone with wide experience of counselling the victims of violent robberies in their homes it is essential to remember the post-traumatic stress associated with such incidents.
The truth is aggravated burglary causes enormous stress as the victim’s home has been violated. This situation is magnified when the victims and their family have been threatened or assaulted and can lead to a whole range of post-traumatic stress disorders. Like the victims of rape and violent assault, members of the public who experience criminal intrusion in their home experience episodes and often show all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress like panic attacks, sleep disorders, flashbacks and social withdrawal.
Like other serious crimes the aftermath of a burglary can be the start of a process that continues to destroy the victim’s self-esteem and even relationships with their loved ones and more often than not reinforces their feelings of guilt and self-blame over the situation. The damage to the victim from the original crime can also be magnified by the court experience and, more likely in today’s society, the lack of support from local authorities and the police.
The trauma can be dealt with in a number of ways with professional help, counselling to develop effective coping strategies and taking time off from stressful professional activities. People who fail to seek help often develop further psychological problems. Men especially are not good at accepting support, but some simple counselling immediately after an attack can substantially reduce the risk of long-term psychological problems.
Dr Ian Stephen is an Honorary Lecturer (Forensic Psychology) at Glasgow Caledonian University and has worked in a number of prisons with long-term prisoners and young offenders. He was a consultant to forensic psychology television series Cracker.
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