openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Domestic abuse is rising. Why aren't all police being trained to deal with it?

Victims face a postcode lottery, with just over half of England and Wales’s police forces having adopted a training programme to deal with such abuse

Marisa Bate
14 April 2021, 12.00am
In lockdown, calls to domestic abuse helplines are skyrocketing
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RooM the Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

It is not particularly difficult to find stories of how the police have failed victims of abuse, but that doesn’t make them any less shocking.

Take the following: a Metropolitan police officer who was accused of physical and sexual abuse, including rape, by two female police officers was allowed to continue working for three years, unsuspended. The Met’s handling of the allegations was found to feature “very poor rationale”, according to an investigation by Essex Police, yet it was still claimed there was not enough evidence to take the case to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Speaking to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, one of the alleged victims said, “I have no trust for the service I work for.” The other said, “You feel like you are being gaslit by the police.”

This particular incident speaks to the wider issue of how many believe the police perpetrate, enable and undermine violence against women, which campaigners say leads to systemic failures when it comes to policing it.

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In March, a story resurfaced of 19-year-old Shana Grice who was fined by Sussex Police in 2016 for wasting police time after she repeatedly reported being stalked. The force dismissed Grice until her stalker broke into her house, slit her throat and attempted to burn her body.

Last month, a misconduct hearing heard how a police constable from Essex Police had “failed to undertake any adequate investigation” after Linda Vilika reported her husband to the police when he made threats to her life. Eight days later, he brutally murdered her. Repeated failures are unforgivable because there is such a small margin for error. On average, it will take 50 incidents of domestic abuse before a victim will call the police.

The problem of how police respond to violence against women and girls is not a new one, but has been the subject of much national discussion after the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard in March, for which a Met police officer has been charged, followed by an aggressively policed vigil of mostly female mourners. After public outrage, a report by the police inspectorate found police at the vigil had “acted appropriately”.

On average, it will take 50 incidents of domestic abuse before a victim will call the police

How police deal with such violence also raises a particularly pertinent question ahead of the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill, which is finally expected to become law by the end of April.

In particular, police training will be crucial when new offences, such as non-fatal strangulation and post-separation abuse, are introduced. “The bill brings opportunity, but it also brings challenges,” says Nicole Jacobs, the UK government’s designate domestic abuse commissioner. “It will require more of all our services, particularly the police”.

Yet it seems we can’t work off the assumption the training simply needs to be ‘topped up’. Many are concerned about the existing deficit in police training regarding domestic abuse.

Domestic Abuse Matters (DA Matters), is a highly effective training programme with a proven success rate – a 41% increase in arrests for coercive and controlling behaviour. Coercive control has been linked by experts to serious harm and homicide. However, DA Matters has only been adopted by just over half of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, where forces must pay for the training themselves, compared to every force in Scotland, where it was paid for by the government.

Jess Phillips MP, shadow minister for domestic abuse and safeguarding, who on International Women’s Day (IWD) last month read out the names of the 118 women and girls murdered by men in the past year, as she has done every year since 2016, said the adoption of DA Matters is essential. “Why hasn’t this happened and why are the government not centrally auditing this? For years I have heard story after story about poor handling of cases of coercion and domestic abuse. Why on earth has the home secretary not insisted on it?”

Not only are victims left facing a postcode lottery, five years after former prime minister Theresa May criminalised coercive control, but the lack of consistent uptake of DA Matters also casts serious questions about the potential of the Domestic Abuse Bill. It also begs the question if there is a link between a culture of not taking violence against women seriously enough, and a police force that isn’t as efficiently and effectively trained as it could be.

Days after IWD, Phillips put these questions to the home secretary, Priti Patel, in Parliament. Patel’s response was vague on the training, but the minister was far clearer on her accusation of Phillips playing party politics.

I've heard story after story about poor handling of cases of coercion and domestic abuse. Why on earth has the home secretary not insisted on [training]?

For the most marginalised, there are further barriers to receiving adequate policing. A history of brutalisation, racism and fear of deportation continues (police sharing victim data with the Home Office for immigration enforcement was subject of a super-complaint brought against the police by Liberty and Southall Black Sisters and a proposed amendment to the bill).

Last summer, two Met police officers were alleged to have taken selfies with the bodies of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. Their mother told the BBC that police failed to start the search for her missing daughters because they were Black women. In a statement, the Met said “As part of a wider investigation into various matters pertaining to this case, the Independent Office for Police Conduct [IOPC] is considering the actions of police when Bibaa and Nicole were reported missing. This follows a referral from the MPS’s Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS)." The statement adds that one officer is under investigation but is not suspended or on restricted duties.

Campaigners believe the problem is systemic. DA Matters itself was born from a highly critical 2014 report, ‘Everyone's business: Improving the police response to domestic abuse’, by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. The report found only eight out of 43 forces performing well on the issue. In 2019, the Centre of Women’s Justice (CWJ) submitted a super-complaint accusing the police of a “systemic failure” to protect “a highly vulnerable section of society” including domestic abuse victims. Just months later, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found “Police officers and staff across the UK were reported for alleged domestic abuse almost 700 times in the three years up to April 2018[…] more than four times a week on average”. The Bureau added that “The real figure is likely to be much higher”, as not all police forces had provided data. These findings would form the basis of CWJ's second super-complaint against the police in 12 months, as police failed to prosecute perpetrators in their ranks. Despite all of this, in 2020, chief constable David Thompson of West Midlands Police, the second largest force in the country, said too much time was spent “policing relationships”.

Trying to tackle the root problem is one of the reasons DA Matters is so effective. “It’s much more than a piece of training or a box-ticking exercise, it’s a cultural and attitudinal change programme”, says Melani Morgan, a former police officer of 30 years and a survivor of domestic abuse. Morgan is the lead on the programme, created by the National College of Policing and charity SafeLives, and the goal is to reset how the entire institution of policing understands and responds to coercive and controlling behaviour, internally and externally. In 12 weeks, the programme redesigns multiple processes in a force, across all levels and responsibilities, with the aim of transforming individual attitudes. It attempts to build domestic abuse awareness into the force’s infrastructure, from performance reviews to inserting DA Champions to sustain change.

'I had two police officers in my front room and one said, ‘Well, he didn’t bring a baseball bat’

Nadine* lobbied South Yorkshire Police to adopt DA Matters and now works with the programme. After years of being coercively controlled, her ex took their children, threatening she’d never see them again. When she called the police, she was told it was a matter for the family courts. “It felt like they’d put a barrier up straight away. No one had asked me what had gone on,” she said. Over the years, Nadine had a lot of police involvement. “I had 999 on speed dial and they always came, but the understanding wasn't there. In 2017, my ex was standing on my drive, screaming. I called the police but he’d gone before they came. When they came later to take a statement, I had two police officers in my front room and one said, ‘Well, he didn’t bring a baseball bat’.”

An understanding of coercive control – “the nuances, the cleverness of perpetrators, the need to see patterns”, as Morgan puts it – is arguably more critical than ever. With the arrival of national lockdowns, calls to helplines are skyrocketing and the number of women killed by a current or former partner has crept up. Furthermore, this problem won’t dissipate when lockdown lifts, warns Dr Katrin Hohl, senior lecturer in criminology at City, University of London: “Our data shows strong evidence that lockdowns keep victim-survivors in abusive relationships.” But, she says, “Separations are being delayed, not cancelled. This is really significant because separations are a known trigger for escalation in domestic violence, and linked to homicide, particularly in the context of coercive control”. Hohl stresses the role of the police: “forces must prepare to identify and safeguard those at risk”.

National Police Chief’s council lead for domestic abuse, assistant commissioner Louisa Rolfe, told openDemocracy that officers have received extensive training on dealing with victims of domestic abuse. She said that all forces received training on coercive control when it was made a specific offence in 2015 and that 24 forces have undertaken additional Domestic Abuse Matters training, with plans in place to roll it out to others in “the coming months”.

The minister for safeguarding, Victoria Atkins, told openDemocracy she was “pleased to see the positive impact” the training was having, adding that the government would “continue to work closely with police forces to ensure domestic abuse is understood. She added that the government had given more than £27m to domestic abuse organisations during the pandemic and that £25m had been committed towards targeted perpetrator programmes in the next financial year.

After years of cuts to policing, including under Boris Johnson’s London mayoral stint, money is the chief barrier to forces signing up to DA Matters, says Melani Morgan, with many believing the training should be centrally funded. There is another cost issue: the programme is demanding. Morgan won’t commit to delivering the training unless it is in person (even during COVID) and 75% of frontline staff will take part. There is an “abstraction issue”, she says, unless forces have training days built into staffing rosters, which, with the current police shortage, is a big ask. Of course, it is worth pointing out that 24 forces have managed it.

Susannah Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire Police, recently made headlines for telling BBC Radio 4’s Woman's Hour that she wouldn’t report a crime against her person to the police because of the institution’s sexism. “All the training in the world won’t fix that,” she says. On the subject of budgets she is more forgiving. “Often you're caught between a rock and hard place and it can be very difficult to do the right thing”.

A fully trained police force, without insidious sexism or the routine undermining of domestic abuse allegations, many suggest, depends on leadership insisting this issue is a priority. Does Nicole Jacobs think the government sees domestic abuse as a priority? There is “ambition”, she says. “And I really believe the government recognises the work is still to be done.”

In recent weeks, the government voted for a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that gave more protection to statues than to most rape victims, and that in 296 pages does not mention the word “woman” once.

Domestic abuse victims being failed by police is an old story. But effective cultural change programmes, producing real results, is not. As women continue to be abused, controlled and killed, which at times is in part due to the failures of the police, new legislation can only go so far without a fully trained police and criminal justice system. In the meantime, victims are still left waiting for the right person to make domestic abuse a priority.

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