Police response to domestic abuse needs much more work, charities say

Warning comes as IPCC report criticises police officers involved in case of Anne-Marie Birch, who was killed by her estranged husband

Much more must still be done to improve the response of police to domestic abuse, charities and police have warned following the case of Anne-Marie Birch, a woman who contacted officers nine times before she was stalked and strangled by her estranged husband.

A report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) this week criticised the response of some Kent officers on issues such as the non-molestation order imposed on Lee Birch that he flouted repeatedly before committing the murder in late 2013, for which he was later jailed for life.

A major report in 2014 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary condemned the overall police response on domestic abuse as “not good enough”, with a follow-up last December finding some progress, but with much more still to be done.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of the domestic abuse charity Refuge, said on Friday cases like that of Birch, who repeatedly told police her estranged husband was following her, showed the police response was “still woefully inadequate” to an issue that sees an average of two women killed every week by a partner or ex-partner.

“There are countless incidents where police fail to investigate, fail to risk-assess, fail to arrest the perpetrator and fail to capture evidence to enable the Crown Prosecution Service to charge,” Horley said. “A canteen culture of negative attitudes towards women still exists in forces where domestic violence is not taken seriously. ‘It’s just a domestic’ is still a refrain I hear today.”

The Birch case showed how too often police do not properly understand civil remedies like non-molestation orders, Horley added.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said one issue was both a lack of enforcement of such orders, and the fact that there was often insufficient penalty if they were breached: “A really key issue is police not monitoring and enforcing whether those orders are then being adhered to. And there have to be consequences for breaking an order.”

Things had improved to an extent following the HMIC report, Neate said, but this was from a very low starting point: “If you take that as a baseline it isn’t surprising that you’re still getting cases like this. You still have a large number of officers who simply don’t have an adequate understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse.”

Some police forces had responded notably better than others in putting together action plans in response to the HMIC report, Neate said. “Some of those action plans, you can really see it’s a bit of a paper exercise. With some you can see they have significantly thought about what culture change within a large institution actually requires, and how to go about achieving it.”

Another issue, Neate added, was the failure of some forces to take account of violence once relationships had finished, as with Birch: “There’s a lot of assumptions still made that once the relationship has ended she’s not in danger any more. And of course we know that’s very, very far from being the case. Actually, we need to see post-relationship abuse as routine. We need to expect it.”

One change is the new offence of coercive control, which came into force in December. This criminalises repeated fear and distress, even if it does not involve violence. In parallel are initiatives by some forces, for example Northumbria, which sends specialist domestic abuse workers out with officers on callouts.

According to David Tucker, the lead on crime for the College of Policing, progress is happening – but gradually and patchily. “The tanker is turning,” he said. “The thing that has struck me about most inspections is the level of inconsistency. The level of inconsistency is unacceptable at the moment.”

New offences like coercive control would take time to be properly absorbed, he said: “What coercive control does is that it’s now saying that incident you’ve dealt with, which may not in itself be a crime, could be the latest in a series of things which, taken together, do mean a crime.

“It’s new and it’s a change in culture for officers. Whereas senior investigating officers dealing with a murder would automatically think, this is the latest incident and work backwards from there, frontline officers aren’t always that good at doing that, because it’s not what is required of them.”

Another and yet more intractable element of the problem, argues Neate, is the prevalence of domestic abuse, which is the reason for an average of two calls a minute to police.

“It’s unfair to say that there aren’t improvements in the police response, but we are still seeing the same things coming up,” she said. “That partly is a function of the sheer scale of the problem. We need to almost recognise as a society how massive domestic abuse is.”


Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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