Role of the police in domestic violence and abuse

The role of the police in cases of domestic violence and abuse is crucial, although research has been critical of the response of frontline officers. Victims might not always get the police response they require and there are still gaps in whether some victims get ‘justice’ or not. Despite criticisms, the police remain one of the key frontline services which victims can use to prevent and stop incidents of violence and abuse.

The most recent legal change was the introduction, in 2015, of the crime of ‘Coercive Control’. This, for the first time, recognises that domestic violence, rather than being a series of incidents, is a pattern of controlling behaviours. What role the police are able to take in terms of the new legal provision of coercive control remains to be seen. Several women we interviewed were encouraged by police to keep a secret diary of their partners’ abusive behaviour, to use as evidence.

Tina described gathering evidence for the police but she was terrified’s of the repercussions of her partner finding out.

Age at interview 50

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Women contacted the police following a physical assault or rape, or after their partner had ‘kicked them out’ of their home, or to get help with harassment and threats from their ex after leaving, or to protect their children. In a few cases, other professionals or family members made the call.

While some women found the police helpful, others felt officers did not understand or take them seriously. Women were desperate for an immediate response and found it hard to manage the delays in the process of getting a court injunction or having their injuries assessed. Many women were too afraid to call the police for fear of retaliation from their partner.

Helpful responses from police

Police offered practical support like setting up a rapid response system, providing mobile phones, personal attack alarms, security locks on doors as well as helping women to get an injunction such as a non-molestation order, and putting a ‘marker’ on the house so an officer can get there as quickly as possible, when called out. In a few cases, women were supported by police specialist domestic abuse liaison workers. Philippa felt part of a network of support from her local police.

Philippa had support from police to leave an abusive relationship and to find temporary accommodation

Age at interview 54

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Police also acted as referral agents to other professionals, such as a domestic violence and abuse agency, housing department, a women’s refuge, a sexual assault unit, family justice centre, mediation or counselling.

Police also provided transport in a police car for particularly vulnerable women, like Ana and Yasmin, both migrant women, to leave their abusive relationships. Yasmin, who had barely left the house for 13 years, managed to call the police from her children’s school. The police officer took her home to check out her story then drove her to the family justice centre and to the Housing Department.

Yasmin was escorted away by a police officer and had to trust that the officer would later bring her children, who were her only wealth’s.

Age at interview 32

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For some women, a police officer was the first person to identify and name ‘domestic abuse’. Both Alonya and Sophie encountered officers who were sympathetic and talked to them at length. In both cases, this was the first person they had spoken to, which was an important turning point.

Sophie said it was wonderful’s when the police officer identified domestic abuse using a questionnaire, reassured her that it was not her fault and offered specialist support.

Age at interview 49

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Alonya’s partner usually dominated and twisted communication with police officers, until she encountered an officer who could see what was happening.

Age at interview 31

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Unhelpful responses from police

The majority of women who had contact with the police felt that police officers’ understanding of domestic violence and abuse was poor, limited to an emphasis on physical abuse and a need for ‘hard evidence’, which was usually difficult to establish. Penny, experiencing stalking and harassment after leaving her abusive partner, made an emotional statement to police who responded as if it were ‘insignificant’. Many women lived in fear of a partner who made serious threats to harm them and the children, backed up by previous assaults that had left no visible evidence or that women had been too fearful to report. Women like Victoria and Liz were upset and angry that threats were not taken seriously by police. They felt that police did not recognise the danger they were in, unless they were at the point of ‘about to be murdered’.

Liz felt that police lacked training and did not recognise controlling and threatening behaviour or even sexual abuse of her daughter.

Age at interview 46

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Tanya phoned the police following serious threats to harm her and the children but the police took no action as a physical assault had not taken place that day despite a previous reported attack on their daughter. She was then questioned why she was ‘still with him’.

Tanya’s partner was charming’s to the police officer and manipulated the children to take his side, using fear.

Age at interview 45

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Some women felt that awareness of domestic abuse was changing, but they remained unsure how effective the police were in abuse situations.

Tasha felt that police are a lot more clued up now about domestic violence’s but she was frustrated by their limited ability to prevent unwanted contact from her ex.

Age at interview 40

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Anna received no support for herself or her children and felt the police could have provided information about women’s refuges.

Age at interview 47

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Fear for safety puts women off calling the police

Shaina’s partner smashed up the family home in a violent rage on several occasions. Although police attended, there was little follow-up and no understanding of the need to protect Shaina’s safety.

Shaina felt her partner’s conditional sentence was just like a slap on the wrist’s after her terrifying ordeal.

Age at interview 32

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Women’s partners frequently made threats to stop them from calling the police. Linda described a violent attack by her partner followed by threats to burn down their house and harm the children and grandchildren if she contacted the police:

‘I thought I need to phone the police, I need to phone the police and I couldn’t. And then I said I’m going to call the police and he went if you effing do that, you effing so and so, I’ll kill the children, I’ll kill the grandchildren you don’t know what I’m capable of, he said you think you’ve seen what hell is but you don’t know what hell is. So I didn’t.’