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Should we defund the police response to domestic abuse?

Penelope Gibbs
25 Jun 2020

Its easy to dismiss the #defund the police movement. But the more I think about the police, and what they end up doing, the more I think there is some wisdom in the idea. Some senior police admit there has been mission creep due to pressure on the police to step in where other services are absent. Police don’t want to lose any funding, but acknowledge that other agencies need more if the police are to stop doing things. Last week Fionnuala Ratcliffe, our researcher, asked whether police custody should be defunded. I’ve recently seen police officers and staff take the place of court staff and lawyers – police currently manage video court-rooms within police custody and end up interpreting court proceedings to defendants. And only this week a mother complained on twitter that the police turned up at her house when her child did not attend school. She wondered why the school had not communicated directly (and allow to explain that the child was not meant to be at school anyway).

Police estimate that response officers spend most of their time looking for missing children, dealing with mentally ill people and with domestic abuse incidents. In the case of mentally ill people and domestic abuse, of course, the police may be dealing with crime, but they often aren’t. Of the 1,316,800 domestic abuse incidents recorded by the police y/e March 2019, 43% were not deemed to be crimes. We know that domestic abuse incidents have risen 8% in the pandemic but, until we have the data, we don’t know whether there has also been an 8% rise in domestic abuse crimes.

To suggest that we defund the police response to domestic abuse is heresy to some. They say that the police don’t take domestic abuse seriously enough, and don’t prosecute enough perpetrators. But they also (rightly) want greater funding for domestic abuse services for victims and perpetrators.

In the USA, the defund the police movement has identified domestic abuse as an area where police enforcement is not always helpful. They argue that victims do not get satisfaction or resolution from criminal processes, that prison is a dead end and that the criminal justice response can entrench racial inequalities. “There is a feeling in Black communities that the only time violence against Black women is taken seriously is when it can be used to feed the arrest and detention of a Black man,” Beth Richie, professor of African American studies and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told HuffPost in 2018.

There is no similar debate in this country. And the concept of defunding the police itself is little known. In fact, the new Domestic Abuse Bill, which has been hailed by campaigners as ground-breaking, focuses on the police response to abuse, supports the idea that greater restrictions on the liberty of those who are accused of abuse will reduce abuse and the Bill will probably result in more police resources being devoted to domestic abuse.

Our criminal justice system entrenches racial inequality and is often discriminatory. Some victims of domestic abuse from ethnic minorities complain that they are taken less seriously than white victims. This is undoubtedly sometimes the case, but overall 16% of all defendants accused of domestic abuse are from BAME communities – higher than the overall population. What we don’t know is if such BAME defendants are more likely to be convicted and whether sentencing differs.

Research suggests that criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse, and that those subject to very punitive sentences are more likely to re-offend. As defund the police campaigners point out, it may be that heavy police enforcement is just not the right remedy for abuse. A US journalist writes: “domestic violence is a complicated social issue and does not always lend itself to a police response. Many women who call the police or seek help for abuse do not want their partner to be arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated. They may not even want to leave their partner. They simply want the violence to stop. Police, often working under strict mandatory arrest policies, lack the necessary flexibility and skill set to handle such cases”. Police are under huge pressure to arrest in England and Wales. But here too victims vote with their feet. Alleged victims refuse to engage with prosecution in over half of all domestic abuse crimes. Many more refuse to go to court. Some may be subject to coercion, but others may have actively chosen to resolve their abuse in a different way. Given that criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse, that choice not to cooperate with law enforcement is not necessarily wrong.

Of course we do need the police to protect vulnerable victims and, sometimes, to take the prosecution choice out of their hands. But the vast majority of police time on domestic abuse is spent on incidents that lead nowhere. When Boris Johnson’s neighbour called the police about a row Boris appeared to be having with his girlfriend Carrie, two police cars and a van arrived within minutes. Yes there are risks in sending fewer police cars. But are those risks sufficiently well calculated?

In the USA, a number of victims’ organisations, some allied with the Black Lives Matter movement, have initiated programmes to address domestic abuse outside the criminal justice system. They are championing restorative justice as an alternative to criminal justice. “BYP100, a youth-centered group, has launched a national campaign to increase interventions for Black women and girls facing domestic violence that do not rely on contact with the police. In some instances, traditional domestic violence organisations are also getting on board. The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, for example, is supporting a bill in its state that would offer victims an alternative to calling 911. The CRISES Act, authored by Assembly member Sydney Kamlager, would create a pilot grant program allowing community-based organizations to take on more emergency response duties involving vulnerable populations, including those experiencing domestic violence”.

We are not making any such moves in this country, but some police would I think like to. They know in their heart of hearts that the criminal justice system is a blunt instrument to deal with a complex societal issue. And that some of their time would be more effectively spent investigating burglaries. Campaigners cry out for greater funding for support services. But will any campaign groups in England and Wales embrace defunding the police response to domestic abuse? Maybe we should organise some cross sector and even trans-Atlantic conversations?