openDemocracyUK: Opinion

I survived abuse by a serving police officer, and I know where impunity leads

My stepfather used the closed-ranks culture of the Metropolitan Police as cover to terrorise our family. If that culture persists, more lives will be ruined.

Note: includes references to domestic violence.

12 January 2022, 12.01am
Illustration by Inge Snip

Lily! Call the police! He’s got a knife.

This memory rings in my head, over 20 years later, as sharp and present and piercing as the morning alarm. “He” is my stepfather. Lily* is my 13-year-old big sister. My mother is out of view, behind the kitchen door. Lily hovers. I stand behind her, frozen, in my nightgown, with bare feet. I am nine years old.

No one called the police that day. Or the next day. Or the day after that. And over the next 20 years the police were called only a handful of times. But the domestic abuse – the physical, emotional, psychological abuse – was constant.

There are many reasons why victims of domestic abuse don’t call the police: the fear of retaliation; the fear of what will happen to their children; the fear that no one will believe them.

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But we didn’t call the police for another reason. We didn’t call the police because he was the police.

A senior detective in the Metropolitan Police, he’d spent time investigating sexual assult. His vile hypocrisy, which rubbed stinging salt into a traumatic wound, is nothing compared to the way he exploited his power and the knowledge that came with it.

When we fled, a bag bundled in the back of the car, hidden away in a 24-hour McDonalds, he’d always know how to find us, of course, being a trained detective. As a police officer, he had learned how to bruise my mother in places that wouldn’t show to others – under her hair on the back of neck, on the inside of her upper arms. After a lifetime working in the institution, he believed he could do whatever he wanted, and get away with it. And he did.

As a police officer, he knew the right language. If there were secret handshakes, he knew those too. And we knew, through him, that the police have a culture built on closing ranks, protecting their own, their loyalty to one another like iron gates locking us out. How exactly, then, do you call the police on one of their own? How can you possibly prise open those gates – especially with bruised and broken hands?

He was very proud. Awards and certificates hung on the walls. He liked to tell stories. Stories that involved a despicable act of one human being to another, and how he then swooped in, solved the case and caught the bad guy. My mother, sister and I didn’t flinch. Survival often depends on complete surrender. As humans, we’ve evolved to feel safest when we are silent and still, hiding from predators. I’d listen along to the stories with everyone else, swallow it all down, a prisoner of war resigned to my fate.

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Abusers don’t abuse because they’ve had a bad day, although sometimes they do. The outbursts were entirely unpredictable; a deliberate tactic, which is why domestic abuse is the cousin of terrorism, not of a family row. This meant that every day from the age of nine, until I left home at 18, I held my breath. I dug my nails into my palms. I stood at the top of the stairs at night and waited for the storm, the steam train coming down the track, the fin in the waves getting closer.

When danger can come at any minute, the brain splits in two. On one level it is entirely aware of every last thing: did I leave the window open? Was I too loud on the phone? Has he had two glasses of wine, or three?

On another level, the brain shuts down. We’d laugh and chat together. Sometimes he’d give me a lift to the station. I led a completely successful school life. I did this because my brain learned to block out the parts that I didn’t want to think about until I had to. I did this so no one would know there was anything wrong.

When the Domestic Abuse Act was passed in 2021, it recognised, for the first time, that children were victims of domestic abuse too, even if they were not physically attacked. I’d often thought that because the violence was never directed at me, I didn’t really have a part in the abuse. Later on, I’d tell my boyfriend that nothing happened to me because the worst he’d ever done to me was to throw a phone in my direction. As a child and a young woman, I believed I was a witness, watching from the sidelines.

But I wasn’t really. Not when I’d wake up and see my mother sleeping on my bedroom floor. Or when I’d hear her screams through walls. Or when I’d see him pull her by the neck, dragging her into a room and locking the door. Or when I’d hear him mutter some vile obscenity as he left the room, just loud enough for us but not our guests. Or when I'd watch him make her have dinner at 9.30 every night, make her eat and drink more than she wanted to, even when she had to be up at 6am, a sly form of control. And then, when she put on weight because of it, I’d hear him call her a fat cunt; the full spectrum of his cruelty was on display.

The science also suggests it was never about being on the sidelines. According to one study, children witnessing domestic violence are just as likely to experience PTSD as soldiers returning from war.

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Now I'm 36. Now I know I was a victim because I grew up thinking the man that lived in our house would kill my mother. And the legacy of that knowledge, the myriad ways that it has shaped the person I’ve become, is a dark, haunting shadow, a faceless ghoul whose grip I will never fully escape.

Eventually, my mother woke up one morning, drove herself to the police station and reported him. After two decades. She left him that day. She stayed in my London flat. And the police? They took him in for questioning. But they didn’t tell her that they’d released him, without charge. And so he got off. But he also got a head start. After all, this is the most dangerous time for victims: the perpetrator has lost their control and can become extremely dangerous as a result. The aftermath of attempting to flee an abuser is when most domestic homicides take place. And so, after 20 years, the police did exactly what we’d always known they’d do – make her less safe, allow him to walk free, fail us.

Only when she called them, to find out what was happening, did they tell her there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.

But we are the evidence, I remember thinking. Everything about us, and who we were, and how we lived. We were the evidence. But we weren’t enough. And our entire existence, years of profoundly transformative, identity-shaping, violent, sadistically cruel experience was undermined, was simply not compelling enough.

Countless others

Yet my story is nothing remarkable. There are countless others like us. In 2021, Channel 4 News reported that at least 129 women had approached the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) since 2019 with claims of being raped, beaten and coerced by their police officer spouses and partners. A few months later, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism uncovered that there had been nearly 700 reports of domestic abuse by police officers in the three years to 2018 – averaging more than four a week.

I feel torn telling my story. The effort of having to cut out a piece of the darkest corners of your inner life and post it on the internet for others to doubt and judge feels like the opposite of empowerment. The work carried out by victims of abuse; the strife involved in keeping going while also seeking justice is, I think, inconceivable to others.

But here I am. And I am here because I long to shout from the rooftops that there is an exceptionally dangerous culture within the police, a culture that attracts, protects and promotes abuse and violence against women. My stepfather wasn’t a one off, or as Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick has suggested, simply a “bad ’un”.

At least for a moment, the world paid attention to Sarah Everard’s kidnap and murder by a Met Police officer. The new policing bill will now include domestic abuse as a serious crime, and groups like Sisters Uncut have stormed police stations in protest at police violence against women.

But this is not enough. First things first: Cressida Dick must be replaced with someone who prioritises stamping out the insitutional misogyny, someone who makes violence against women unacceptable, even by one of the force’s own. The police are defined by a culture of hierarchy. The only way to change that culture is to enforce change at the top.

More specifically, the onus was always on my mother to leave the house in order to be safe. But that was our home; it was near our school, our lives. We’d done nothing wrong. In the US, perpetrators of abuse are removed from the home immediately, and temporary restraining orders are placed on them. On the few occasions police were called to our house, the violent criminal in our home should have been removed. No questions. No qualifications.

Alongside the details, there must be bigger questions asked too: what is it about the police that attracts violent men, and allows that violence to go unchecked? This is an existential question for policing as an institution: who it recruits, how it recruits and the internal culture it breeds. The answers must come from the Home Office, the College of Policing, even from wider society. I don't know how we bring that about, because even in the aftermath of Sarah Everard, change is not happening fast enough. I just know it is desperately needed. And I know it fits into a far bigger question, one we see across society: how do we police the powerful when they keep avoiding accountability?

Finally, as I, and countless other victims and advocates, ask the government, authorities and the criminal justice system to do better, I also ask them to remember this:

Somewhere in those violent, angry homes, somewhere hidden behind a door, or at the top of the stairs, somewhere in the dark, is a nine year old discovering that the very people who are meant to keep her safe are the very people who will do her the most profound harm of her life.

From that moment on, the nightmares will begin. The haunting will start. The shame and pain will root and start to shoot through her, wrapping itself around her life.

And she won’t have anyone to call for help.

Some names have been changed to protect the author’s family

For help with domestic abuse, you can call:

  • The free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247, or at
  • Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • Northern Ireland’s 24-hour Domestic and Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • Wales’s 24-hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 801 0800
  • The National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
  • The Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
  • The Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 4040

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