The police aren’t the only ones failing DV victims

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) have just published their investigation into the response of the police forces across England and Wales to domestic violence.

There are no surprises – the report is a damning summary of police failings which, in part, are responsible for the shockingly high rate of domestic violence murders in this country (more than 2 women per week). I strongly believe that many of these murders are preventable and that a poor police response contributes to the high rate of women being murdered by their partners.

The report is highly critical of negative police attitudes toward domestic violence which I hear about from clients on a daily basis (and we saw in the West Midlands when officers referred to a victim as a “slag”) and also poor quality investigations often with little attempt to gather evidence particularly if it is thought the victim will not support the prosecution. The official policy of arresting and charging regardless of the victim’s support where possible seems only to exist in a ring-binder rather than on the beat.

It is exactly these type of cases which require a more rigorous investigation so that there can be more evidence-led (and possibly victim-less) prosecutions. If the police have taken pictures of the scene and injuries, prepared a detailed statement of what was said, the appearance and demeanour of the victim, the scene; taken statements from neighbours, used body cameras and made real efforts to apprehend the perpetrator whilst he may still have bruising to his knuckles or forensic evidence on his clothes etc then there is a much higher chance of either an evidence-led prosecution or more likely an early guilty plea which would not necessitate the victims live testimony.

The reality of the matter however is that often very little of the above is carried out by the police leaving it instead to the “your word against his” scenario which many victims have been brainwashed into believing by the perpetrator will never be believed. It’s little wonder then that many victims decide not to support a prosecution and avoid the stress of a trial and increased risk of retaliatory violence by the perpetrator.

The report documented the failure to even attempt to obtain other evidence – a situation described as “alarming and unacceptable”; for example, in only:

16% of cases was the 999 call listened to (this often contains audio of the perpetrator shouting/ children screaming in the background)
23% of cases were neighbours spoken to
4% of cases were body cameras used
46% of cases were photographs taken of the injuries present

The report went on to state that whilst all forces presented as treating domestic violence as a priority on paper this did not translate into reality and that domestic violence-linked offences were treated as the poor relative of criminal offences.

Risk assessments were not used properly or at all by many forces sometimes leaving it to the discretion of the officer as to whether the case needed one. One of the main reasons for having risk assessments is that countless Domestic Homicide Reviews have shown that without them many officers have proved to be lacking in identifying high risk victims or looking beyond the most recent complaint so a discretion as to whether to use one is just a recipe for more Homicide Murder Reviews.

Despite guidance stating that cautions are very rarely appropriate in domestic violence cases some forces exhibited high levels of use of cautions. Most concerning was the revelation that some forces are favouring “restorative justice” approaches to domestic violence – something that made me nearly spit out my coffee when I read it.

This type of “remedy” is very likely to put the victim at a high risk of further and more serious violence and something I thought everyone knew was dangerous. Clearly not – in January 2014 the national policing lead on domestic violence felt compelled to write to all forces reiterating the dangerousness and inappropriateness of such schemes for domestic violence.

The practise where some MARACs limit the number of referrals they will deal with was also rightly criticised and the report advised that this should stop immediately – if a victim is deemed to be high risk the risk cannot be downgraded due to staffing levels.

The report made it clear that whilst there are male victims domestic violence disproportionately affects women and that 96% of referrals to MARAC (high risk victims) were women; that male perpetrators were more likely to be repeat perpetrators, use physical violence, threats and violence and that woman were more likely to use a weapon in self-defence. Notwithstanding this women were 3 times more likely to be arrested for a domestic violence related offence than men.

More needs to be done to ensure that the police identify the correct victim where counter-allegations are made and that this should entail having access to the police/Civil history of domestic violence between them or to others yet often this information isn’t available to the front-line officers.

The report did highlight that there were areas of good practise particularly in the specialist units (which are being hit by funding cuts) however overall the report painted a shameful picture.

I do however have some issues with the report

1. I think that the report was far too narrow and that we are missing an opportunity if we concentrate solely on the response of the police to domestic violence. Domestic violence requires the cooperation and skills of many different agencies – statutory and voluntary and too many of these agencies are also regularly failing domestic violence victims – social services, the CPS, judiciary, Cafcass, family courts, housing, health, the voluntary sector etc When the HMIC report was announced in September 2013 myself and others called for there to be a Public Enquiry looking at all agencies rather than just the police – see my article Are 2500 murdered UK women not enough for a public enquiry?

I am pleased to see that at recommendation number 11 the HMIC report recommends a further inspection of other agencies – this is essential in my view but it would have made more sense for all agencies to be part of an overall review (Public Enquiry) so that a more joined up policy could be devised.

2. The need for high quality face to face training is the thread that runs throughout this report and is clearly vital. In addition to this it also recommends better technology systems and equipment such as body cameras. This can mean only one thing – money. Funding for the police has been slashed over the last few years and it will be impossible to fulfil the recommendations of the report unless more funding is made available to the police and the IDVA service. I am confident that reports into other agencies will also come down to the same thing but will it materialise?

3. Finally the report makes reference to the police needing to recognise and deal with dangerous psychological abuse and coercive control however I believe that this is unfair whilst there is no proper legislation to enable the police to arrest and pass to the CPS to charge for this behaviour. Domestic violence is not a one-off incident but a pattern of controlling behaviour. There is no criminal offence of domestic violence and coercive control is not a crime – yet. Charities such as Paladin, Women’s Aid and Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation are campaigning for this. I would have liked HMIC to have taken the opportunity to make this recommendation as it is vital if we want the police to be able to take action for this type of very damaging abuse before there is serious violence. Being told “come back when he hits you” simply isn’t good enough and it is the government that need to help the police on this one.

Watch Rachel Horman discuss the HMIC report on Sky News here

Rachel Horman Sky News 270314 from Rachel Horman on Vimeo.

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