Domestic Violence: The next big thing?

This year, the Police Foundation dedicated its annual conference to domestic violence. With the title: ‘Innovations in Policing Domestic Abuse’, delegates were treated to a day in which data was analysed, culture questioned and experiences shared in order to better prevent and respond to domestic violence.

As one of the delegates at this conference, what impressed me the most was the clear desire of the organisers to make the prevention and prosecution of domestic violence central to policing. In the wake of the damning HMIC report on police forces’ responses to domestic violence, this was a timely event. The speakers for the conference are experts in different fields that range from sociology and criminology, to practitioners with years of experience dealing with victims of domestic violence, to those in the police hierarchies in a position to instil cultural change.

The fact that a national conference from a major police organisation is dedicated to domestic violence may lead one to think that the days in which domestic violence was seen as ‘rubbish’ police work are over. This is perhaps true, but there is still a lot of work to be done to improve the way in which the police and society more widely address domestic violence. The HMIC report mentioned above clearly states that despite changes to police work in recent years, there is still ample room for improvement in the police’s response to domestic violence. According to the HMIC, although domestic violence is defined as a priority for all police forces, the operational reality is very different. There is still a sense in some areas of the police that domestic violence is not ‘real’ police work, that it is not as ‘serious’ as organised or property crime.

This is remarkable if we consider that the rates of domestic violence have not been accompanying the downward trend of overall crime rates, and that on average two women die in a domestic violence-related incident per week. As Roger Graef emphatically put it during the conference, if we knew that two individuals were dying per week of a certain disease or other crime, we would be extremely vocal against it and would be devising new ways of cutting down the number of deaths with urgency. In the case of domestic violence though, we are much more reluctant to act.

A cultural change is likely to be needed in order to properly address domestic violence. The impunity and a sense of entitlement that accompanies many situations of domestic violence arguably makes it more difficult to send the message to abusers and victims that domestic violence is not acceptable in our society. Whether this change will result from improved services for victims, working with offenders or reorganising police forces is difficult to say; most likely a mixture of all will be required. In addition, a change in the way police forces deal with domestic violence is also required, as became clear from the HMIC report mentioned above. This change will probably need to be done as much from the top-down, as from the bottom-up.

Recognising and supporting the importance of the work of police officers who are especially tasked to deal with domestic violence is an important step in changing the police’s responses to domestic violence. This implies rethinking how the police forces prioritise their operational roles. One aspect that may be particularly difficult in the context of domestic violence is victims’ unwillingness to support a prosecution or even the arrest of the abuser. This is particularly problematic in a context where police targets are set against measurable outcomes. Despite the fact that a victim’s willingness to engage with the police may be a positive indicator of social cohesion, the lack of support form the victim for a prosecution can be frustrating for the officers involved.

Moreover, how does a force justify staffing, funding or promoting officers who deal with cases of domestic violence if it cannot measure their results like it does for any other type of crime? The situation surrounding domestic violence can become even more complicated as it often involves a series of incidents, but officers often are called to a scene to deal with an individual incident. It is therefore important to acknowledge the complexity of dealing with domestic violence when trying to measure the number of incidents and police responses, and to ensure that information is kept in a consistent way across forces (an aspect brought up by Professor Walby at the conference, albeit in a different context).

Another important aspect in this proposed cultural change is recognising that domestic violence is not the preserve of some ‘problem families’, but cuts across all sections of society, including police officers. Police officers, like any other individuals can be (and no doubt many are) both victims and abusers. Acknowledging this fact is also an important step in this cultural change, as it makes the subject more open to discussion and hopefully prompts each individual officer to start thinking about domestic violence not just as another aspect of the job, something that happens to ‘others’, but as something that colleagues, civilians, family members may also be experiencing. This will also hopefully help challenge established prejudices about domestic violence victimisation at all levels in the force.

There is no simple solution for the problem of domestic violence, and the ideas put forward in this short post are intended to further the discussion in this area. What event like the Police Foundation’s annual conference do so well is to bring together different experiences and perspectives on how we as a society can address domestic violence and how the police can help us do it. Questioning the status quo and challenging current orthodoxies surrounding domestic violence puts us in a better position to start this much-needed cultural shift.

Sofia Graca, Senior Lecturer CCCU

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