There is an “unrelenting and increasing demand” for the police to respond to incidents of domestic violence, the chief inspector of Constabulary has warned.
A progress report on the police response to domestic abuse by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services found that the total number of reported domestic abuse crimes has increased from 353,063 in the 12 months to March 2015, to 434,095 in the 12 months to June 2016, representing a 23% rise.
For the 12 months to 30 June 2016, domestic abuse-related crime made up just over 11% of all recorded crime and represented 33 percent of all recorded crimes that involved assault with injury.
“Since the publication of ‘Everyone’s business,’ there have been considerable improvements in the overall police response to victims of domestic abuse,” said the report. “Police leaders prioritise tackling domestic abuse within the wider context of supporting vulnerable people and keeping them safe.”
Cause for concern
However, the report warns that there are still areas where improvements are required in some forces to ensure that victims of domestic abuse are better protected and supported, and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for the harm they are causing.
Some police forces are still failing to assess the risk and respond appropriately at the first point of contact. Others are inconsistent in the way they use their powers to keep people safe. Some forces are still not doing enough to pursue positive outcomes, where perpetrators are charged with an offence and brought before a court.
Of the 43 forces in England and Wales, seven gave inspectors a ‘cause for concern’ in relation to their response to domestic abuse, while 33 had ‘areas for improvement’.
However, the report highlights:
- Staff numbers have increased in many of the safeguarding units.
- Forces are continuing to invest in public protection, with more officers allocated to undertake investigations into domestic abuse.
- Forces are continuing to work in partnership with other public services, such as children’s social services, health, education and probation.
- Multi-agency safeguarding hubs (MASHs) are well established in the majority of force areas.
- Some forces are, in many cases, ensuring that staff are receiving training in relation to domestic abuse, particularly to improve frontline officers’ understanding of coercive control.
However, the report warns: “HMICFRS understands that continuing to improve the response to victims of domestic abuse will require a change in the culture of many forces, and this will take time. Although many officers have positive, caring and empathetic attitudes towards victims, some still have a negative approach to those who are most vulnerable.
“Despite the investment in training, some officers still do not understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control, and underestimate how manipulative perpetrators can be,” it adds.
Wide variation in powers used
The HMCFRS highlights a number of areas of concern. In 2014, they found that the initial stages of answering the telephone and sending a police officer to a victim were positive aspects of the victims’ relationship with the police, and an area that HMICFRS recognised as generally working well. However, HMICFRS is concerned that some forces may be suppressing demand because they have insufficient officers available to respond to calls resulting in unnecessary delays and risk.
The report also highlights a wide variation in how forces use their powers to keep victims safe. There is an overall reduction in the proportion of domestic abuse crimes leading to arrest, and forces using powers such as Domestic Violence Protection Orders (DVPOs) and the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (also known as Clare’s Law) to different extents when in some cases their use has decreased.
Poor-quality data on domestic abuse has been a continuing cause for concern for HMICFRS. The inspectorate also continues to have concerns about the falling levels of arrest in domestic abuse cases and the variation in the arrest rates from force to force.
“It is vital that police leaders take steps to understand the actions and activities of their frontline officers in these cases. Better data and more consistent supervision of officers will allow leaders to ensure that their stated intentions, policies and investment in training for staff are translating into a robust response to crimes and a high-quality service for all victims of domestic abuse,” says the report.
There is wide variation in the number of cases which police forces refer to the CPS and to reverse the current trend, forces need to work closely with the CPS to understand when cases should be referred.
The overall response to domestic abuse has improved over the last three years, but the service provided for domestic abuse victims is not consistent across all 43 forces. Early and accurate identification of risk, followed by timely deployment, frontline officers who understand the dynamics of domestic abuse, early arrest and effective evidence-gathering at the scene are highly likely to provide the best chance of securing a conviction.
The report recommends that by April 2018, every police force in England and Wales should update its domestic abuse action plan, determine what more it can do to address the areas for further improvement highlighted in this report, and publish its revised action plan accordingly. This should incorporate recording, assessing and responding to risk, positive and preventative action, building the investigative case and CPS referrals and prosecutions.
“Chief officers in each police force should continue to oversee and ensure full implementation of these action plans and offer regular feedback on progress to their police and crime commissioners,” the report concludes.
Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “It is vital that survivors are listened to, believed and supported when they report domestic abuse to the police. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report shows that police leaders have prioritised transforming the response to domestic abuse, but there is still work to be done.
“It takes a lot of strength and resolve for a woman to build up the courage to report domestic abuse to the police. It is therefore vital that she gets an effective response the first time she calls out for help. Training and investment in some police force areas has transformed their response, but today’s report shows that many still need improvement. There are huge variations between forces in how the police use their powers to hold perpetrators to account and keep victims safe, including a postcode lottery when it comes to arresting perpetrators of domestic abuse.
“The level of domestic abuse recorded by the police has increased by 60% in less than three years, according to today’s report, and this is only set to rise as more survivors have to courage to speak out. It is clear that forces are struggling to cope and it is devastating to see dangerous responses when survivors have called out for help, such as assessing risk over the phone and downgrading the severity of cases to justify a slower response time. This is unacceptable. Such practices threaten to put more women and children’s lives at risk.
“The government’s landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill promises to transform our national response to domestic abuse and ensure more victims have the courage to speak out. This new law must be underpinned by sufficient resources both for statutory agencies, such as the police, and specialist domestic abuse services, including refuges which are currently under threat by proposed funding reforms. Without a sustainable long-term funding solution for these life-saving services, the lives of women and children trying to escape domestic abuse will be put at risk. A successful police and criminal justice response to domestic abuse must both hold perpetrators accountable and keep women and children safe.”