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The police and domestic abuse – damned if they do, damned if they don’t

Penelope Gibbs
21 Sep 2018

“There are a lot of people who get very nervous around domestics because historically it’s been driven into the police that domestics lead to murders. I appreciate that some do but, with that in mind, people err on the side of extreme caution. They think ‘well, we have to arrest somebody, because that’s positive action’…There’s a lot of fear out there”. (police officer)

Is our approach to domestic abuse based on false premises? That suggestion is floated by Dr Peter Neyroud in a new report looking at the role of the criminal justice system in reducing abuse.

For twenty years there’s been a push to get police to take domestic abuse more seriously. There is no doubt that abuse used too often to be dismissed as a “domestic”. Police officers would sometimes ignore calls or refuse to do anything if they did turn up. But this is seldom the case now. All crimes committed in a domestic context are now considered more serious than the equivalent crimes committed on the street. There is huge pressure to charge and prosecute. Sentencing guidelines have recently introduced tougher penalties for abusers and the government is proposing to make them tougher still.

But policy has not kept up with evidence and practice. A review of international research by the College of Policing said that there was no evidence that criminal sanctions reduced abuse, and more punitive sentences are associated with higher rates of reoffending. So criminal sanctions punish, but don’t help victims long term. In addition, recent research by senior police officers for Cambridge University has shown that those victims who call the police out for the first time often haven’t suffered in silence for a long time, that domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily escalate, and that domestic murders are atypical domestic abuse incidents. As Dr Neyroud says in relation to the “myth of 35” (the claim that women reporting domestic abuse for the first time will have been the victim of at least 35 prior instances): “The consequences of its use are serious. No case of domestic abuse can be treated as a ‘first time’ incident and, therefore, many of the low harm interventions such as out of court disposals, family group conferencing and restorative justice have been firmly removed from the list of approved procedures. Instead, there has been a heavy reliance on the formal processes of prosecution and court based orders and interventions”.

If cases get to court (and police and prosecution struggle to get them there) most perpetrators get a fine or a generic community sentence, neither of which is likely to lead to any behaviour change. Only 3% of those convicted of domestic abuse complete a specially designed course as part of their sentence.

All out of court approaches are frowned on. Some brave Chief Constables have nevertheless piloted new models. The Hampshire force got special dispensation to use the conditional caution for some cases of domestic abuse. Project Cara provides two workshops for these perpetrators. These aim to increase awareness of the harm of domestic abuse and they’ve  been very successful. A year post-caution, CARA demonstrated a 65% reduction in the number of individuals re-arrested, and a 49% drop in the number of further offences committed. 94% of those attending the workshop reported a change in attitude towards their partner and 91% said it assisted with issues in their relationship. Deferred prosecution also offers huge potential for domestic abuse, but has only recently been tried. In Durham the Checkpoint programme started working with domestic abusers last year and they are currently evaluating results.

All the police officers we spoke to for our report privately think the system is broken and that the current emphasis on prosecuting all incidents is ineffective. But its not clear why senior police don’t articulate such views. A police spokesperson has recently said “we have a core responsibility to protect victims, to prosecute offenders, but also to take action to prevent offending”, but no one articulates why prosecution is not always the best course, nor cites the College of Policing’s evidence that criminal sanctions have no discernible effect on reducing abuse.

An over-riding reason why we should follow the evidence on domestic abuse is that the current system eats up resources, often to no good end. Taking any case through the court process costs a huge amount of money, both for the police and other agencies. If that case could be better dealt with via a specialist out of court disposal, a properly implemented community resolution, or by deferred prosecution, more resources would be freed up both for the police, but also for cash strapped refuges, for support services for victims and for perpetrator programmes.