Role of the police in domestic 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. 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. 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. 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. 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’. 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’. Some women felt that awareness of domestic abuse was changing, but they remained unsure how effective the police were in abuse situations. Fear for safety puts women off calling the police
Shaina’s partner smashed up the family home in a violent rage on several occasion. Although police attended, there was little follow-up and no understanding of the need to protect Shaina’s safety. Women’s partners frequently made threats to stop them 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.’