Millions of people in England and Wales are living in areas where police have received no specialist training in responding to domestic violence.
Data released under freedom of information laws reveals that nine police forces had not given any officers specialist domestic abuse training by the end of 2021, and that those which had, in most cases, had only trained small numbers.
Only one – Lancashire police – said 100% of officers had received the accredited training recommended by the College of Policing, which has been shown to lead to a dramatic improvement in outcomes for domestic abuse cases.
The findings come eight years after a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which exposed a “startling lack of awareness of domestic abuse and inconsistent or poor practice” at most forces.
Intended to be a “wake-up call”, the 2014 report said a “fundamental overhaul” of training was needed, and that the existing provision – largely reliant on online learning – was of “little value”. A programme aimed at creating “cultural change” was subsequently launched by the charity SafeLives to “transform the police response to domestic abuse” by challenging officers’ attitudes and behaviour.
Forces that have used the face-to-face course, which involves discussion with survivors, report a 41% increase in domestic abuse-related arrests, according to Portsmouth University research.
But almost a decade after the landmark report, uptake has been patchy. Of 38 forces that provided data, only 23 had adopted the DA Matters training by the end of 2021. Of those, 70% had trained less than half their officers, an Observer analysis of police training data and workforce figures shows.
Just over 10 million people were living in areas where no officers had received the DA Matters training or an alternative by the end of 2021, the data suggest.
The findings have led to concerns about varying standards and questions over delays in implementing the recommendations of the watchdog’s report, which was commissioned by the Home Office.
While all new officers receive classes on dealing with domestic abuse, campaigners say specialised training is necessary to ensure officers are properly equipped – and the DA Matters programme is the national benchmark, recommended by the Home Office and College of Policing.
Zoë Billingham, the former inspector of police, who was in post when the report was published, said it was “disappointing” that forces were “not routinely training all their officers on the complexity of domestic abuse, understanding coercive behaviour and understanding how risk is escalating”. “Frankly, that’s what saves lives,” she said.
The Home Office said it had provided funding to support the rollout of the DA Matters programme, which is designed for all officers, detectives and frontline staff. But “significant barriers” including “cost and the necessary abstraction of officers to attend” remain in place, according to Pete Williams, DA Matters programme lead.
One force that has not rolled out DA Matters training, Norfolk, cited the “cost consideration” in its freedom of information response. Another, Essex, said it provided training internally, claiming it was “equally if not more beneficial to officers” than an external programme.
The police response to domestic abuse has been heavily criticised by charities and campaigners, with high-profile cases including that of Michaela Hall, who was killed by her partner last May, leading to calls for urgent change.
Police attended the mother-of-three’s home in Cornwall but did not enter, with one officer remarking to their colleague, “What can you do if she don’t help herself?”, according to a report seen by the Observer. Devon and Cornwall police’s freedom of information response shows that, as of October 2021, 78% of its officers had received DA Matters training.
Nationally, police-recorded domestic abuse-related incidents have doubled in the last five years, official statistics show. Prosecutions have fallen year-on-year over the same period.
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said “rigorous, trauma informed training” should be the “bare minimum” for officers, and urged the Home Office to ensure all forces undertook “the full training needed to tackle domestic abuse and support survivors”.
“For so few officers per force to have received this training is not good enough, and shows just how much work is still left to do,” she said.
The Home Office said it was “pleased” that “many forces” had rolled out DA Matters training, which it said was “shaped by survivor testimony”. It said it had provided £3.3m to fund its “further rollout” and “help ensure the police deal with every victim of domestic abuse with compassion, empathy and understanding”.