Some thoughts on the College of Policing’s new APP on Domestic Abuse… by Sofia Graca

he new College of Policing Authorised Police Practice (APP) on domestic violence was published on the 21st of September 2015, seven years after its predecessor, the ACPO’s ‘Guidance on Investigating Domestic Abuse’, was published by NPIA in 2008. One of the first impressions one gets when reading the APP guidance is how long it is. It has 13 different sections, ranging from the context of what domestic abuse is, to a series of checklists to be used at various stages when responding to a domestic violence incident. If the 2008 edition was a mammoth of a document, with 130 pages, this is definitely not a lighter edition.

In terms of content, the new APP is very comprehensive. It provides a wealth of detail, particularly in terms of victim safety, investigation and prosecution. This is hopefully a good indicator that gone are the days when domestic violence was considered ‘rubbish work’. However, the 2008 ACPO guidance on domestic violence was also a comprehensive document, containing many aspects that are covered in the newer APP. Indeed, the overlap between the two is significant. Examples of this are: the need to gather extensive evidence from an early stage in the investigation, the importance of multi-agency work in addressing domestic violence, protecting human rights and a duty of positive action.

So what’s new in the 2015 APP? The most obvious features are the introduction of the Home Office’s definition of domestic violence (now including violence between those aged 16 and above, and controlling and coercive behaviour as forms of violence), and an explicit response to HMIC’s 2014 damning report ‘Everyone’s Business: Improving Police Response to Domestic Abuse’.

The HMIC report found numerous shortcoming and inconsistencies in the way the 43 police forces address domestic violence (HMIC, 2014). These can be grouped into four broad areas of criticism, namely poor investigative practice, issues with risk assessment, problems with targeting offenders, and management and leadership considerations. I will consider two in this post, risk assessment and tackling domestic violence from a management and leadership perspective.

Risk assessment was considered by the HMIC to be inconsistent across the forces, with confusion in the use of arrest and the meaning of positive action (HMIC, 2014: 13, 14). The sections on ‘Arrest and positive action’ and ‘Post-arrest management of suspect and casefile’ focus on the circumstances in which the power of arrest should be used and what positive action means. Both arrest and positive action were already covered in the 2008 guidance; the renewed and detailed focus in these areas seems to try to address the criticism from the HMIC.

Risk assessment is given ample space in the new APP guidance. Rather than being addressed as part of different chapters, as in ACPO’s 2008 guidance, the new APP dedicates a whole section solely to risk assessment. It covers not only primary and secondary risk assessments and associated procedures, but also issues affecting particular groups of victims of domestic violence, such as male victims, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims, victims with disabilities, victims from armed services families and emergency and public service personnel, as well as teenagers and young victims. This is a welcome addition to the new APP in that it acknowledges the existence of different family formations and the difficulties that some groups of society face when victimised by domestic violence.

However, despite the addition of a breadth of specific types of victimisation covered, the 2008 NPIA section on police officers who commit and suffer domestic violence has been replaced by a more generic section on offenders and victims who belong to the police and other law enforcement agencies in the new APP. There is still a section in the APP dedicated to police officers who commit domestic violence, but it is now under ‘Management’ in the ‘Leadership, strategic oversight and management’ section. The relocation of the section on police officers and victims and offenders is an odd choice, as by making it a management issue, it arguably detracts from the centrality of the particular vulnerabilities and offending patterns that may exist amongst police officers.

Although the section on risk assessment is comprehensive, it does not really fully address the issues that were identified by the HMIC in its report (2014: 13). The APP encourages the use of existing tools and agreements within forces to be followed. It does nor discuss whether the tools are fit for purpose (are they all on par to start with?), whether officers are sufficiently trained to make the best use of them, and whether they are aware of the implications of not classifying victims’ level of risk adequately.

The HMIC report also criticises police forces for prioritising domestic violence in their policies but not translating this rhetoric into operational changes. The role of the police in addressing domestic violence can be wide. This calls for a force level oversight of domestic violence, rather than just dealing with the cases independently, particularly as domestic violence often involves a high level of repeat victimisation and is connected to other types of crime, such as child and sexual abuse (NPIA, 2008: 10; College of Policing, 2015: np). Other demands such as engaging with local authorities and the voluntary sector under multi-agency agreements, and liaising with the CPS are also important and need to be secured (College of Policing, 2015: np).

Secondment to DVUs is mentioned in the APP as a way of providing a variety of staff with the experience and knowledge required to deal with domestic violence in their day-to-day work. This is of course not a solution, as it does not replace the need to experienced and dedicated staff for these units, something that the guidance acknowledges. The APP states that domestic violence should be treated as a priority within forces and incorporated in the forces’ wider policy to address crime, as any other form of high-risk crime. This includes staffing, training units to address domestic, and auditing forces in their performance. Particular focus should be placed in three areas: ‘managing risk, victim safety and adopting an evidence-led approach to investigation and prosecution’ (College of Policing, 2015: np). The role of neighbourhood policing teams in addressing domestic violence as a force should not be forgotten and an effective communication system should be in place so that officers can respond adequately when responding to situations or when managing offenders.

The APP recommends that police leadership and management take effective steps to transform the policy goals that they subscribe to into operational reality. It does not however mention how to overcome the obstacle of funding cuts and tightening of budgets. I don’t think anyone will agree that the solution is having a narrower policy, downgrading domestic violence as a priority, or lessening the protection for victims of crime. Domestic violence has a huge negative impact in the lives of those who suffer it and it is essential that it is addressed, not only for the victims but for society as a whole. It is important that police culture changes and that domestic violence is not seen as a lesser crime both by the leaders and those who deal with domestic incidents regularly in the course of their duty. The problem is that by placing such high expectations on forces and then not providing them with the means to address what is rightly classified as a high risk crime, we are most likely setting the police up to fail again. I wonder how long we’ll have to go wondering how best to keep our shoulders and feet warm before we realise that the problem is that the blanket is too small.

The APP guidance is undoubtedly an excellent source of information for police officers to use when addressing domestic violence. It fails however to fully address two major aspects that came out of the HMIC review, namely the lack of consistency in assessing risk and the problems resulting from the lack of transference from domestic violence as a policy priority to effective on the ground action. Although the APP covers both areas, it does not really provide a solution for either.

References:

College of Policing (2015) Identification, reporting and associated investigations available at: https://www.app.college.police.uk/app-content/major-investigation-and-public-protection/domestic-abuse/identification-reporting-and-associated-investigations/ [Accessed 03 October 2015]

HMIC (2014) ‘Everyone’s Business: Improving Police Response to Domestic Abuse’ available at: http://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/improving-the-police-response-to-domestic-abuse.pdf (accessed on 03 October 2015)

NPIA (2008) ‘Guidance on Investigating Domestic Abuse’ available at: http://library.college.police.uk/docs/npia/Domestic_Abuse_2008.pdf (accessed on 03 October 2015)

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