27 Mar 2014

Police response to domestic violence often ‘left to chance’

Inspectors find “alarming and unacceptable weaknesses” in the investigation of domestic abuse cases in England and Wales and say only eight out of 43 forces respond well.

Graphic image of a woman held in a man's hand (Getty)

The report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found that the most vulnerable victims of abuse faced a “lottery” in the way their complaints were handled.

It found poor attitudes, ineffective training and inadequate evidence gathering, and called for an urgent overhaul of the response throughout the ranks from frontline officers up to police chiefs.

Home Secretary Theresa May, said the report, which she commissioned, was “depressing reading”. She said a new national oversight body will be established, which she will chair and called on police forces to have an action plan in place by September 2014.

“I expect chief constables to respond to this report by changing radically their response to domestic violence” said Ms May, adding: “They owe it to victims of these appalling crimes to do so.”

Domestic abuse is not only about violence, it is about fear, control and secrecy HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor

Between 2012-2013 there were 269,700 domestic abuse-related crimes in England and Wales, and 77 women were killed by their partners or ex-partners.

Inspectors singled out for particular serious concern Greater Manchester, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Gloucestershire Police forces. Lancashire Police was found to have the best response to domestic abuse.

Inspectors were told by victims that they were “frequently not taken seriously, that they felt judged and that some officer demonstrated a considerable lack of empathy and understanding.”

Inadequately trained

The report found that the response of an officer attending a domestic abuse incident was entirely dependent on the individual concerned and was left “almost entirely to chance”.

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor said “Domestic abuse is not only about violence, it is about fear, control and secrecy.

“It is essential that the police make substantial reforms to their handling of domestic abuse, including their understanding of the coercive and psychological nature of the crime as well as its physical manifestations.”

I expect chief constables to respond to this report by changing radically their response to domestic violence Home Secretary Theresa May

Training for officers is currently largely reliant on police officers reading information on a computer and then answering a short multiple choice test.

Ian Pointon, Chairman of Kent Police Federation agreed with the HMIC call for better training. But he added:

“We should not forget the police response to domestic abuse has improved greatly over the last 25 to 30 years with officers taking positive action to arrest offenders. This is a long way from when I joined; then the accepted, yet unacceptable, practice was don’t get involved in domestics.”

And Mr Pointon drew attention to the effect of cuts in police budgets on the numbers of specialist officers dealing with domestic abuse.

‘Poor relation’ to other policing

Inspectors described “alarming and unacceptable weaknesses” in the way evidence was gathered.

In a review of 600 domestic abuse cases of actual bodily harm, ie where the victim would have a visible injury, inspectors found that photographs of injuries had only been taken in half the cases. In almost a third of cases officers’ statements lacked important details such as a description of the scene or injuries.

HMIC Inspector Zoe Billingham said “we believe the findings of the report should be a wake-up call for the police.”

“Domestic abuse must no longer be the poor relation to other policing activity.”

Her words were echoed by Diana Barran, chief executive of Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (CAADA), who called on chief constables and police commissioners to take the lead in improving the situation: “We look forward to seeing the leadership, accountability and transparency that can move domestic violence from being treated as a second class crime by the police to one where victims get the response that they deserve.”