An independent watchdog has found that police forces are failing to properly support and safeguard victims of domestic violence.
The murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021 spurred a public debate about violence, the safety of women and the police’s role in it. Now, a watchdog commissioned by Priti Patel following Everard’s death has called for “fundamental cross-system change”, including a “radical refocus” on the police response to violence against women and girls in the UK.
The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s initial report found that police forces have been failing to properly safeguard domestic abuse victims, with prosecutions falling by 50% in the last three years.
The Centre for Women’s Justice lodged a super-complaint against the police back in 2019, highlighting ‘serious failures’ by the service to use powers in order to protect domestic abuse victims. It warned that the police are putting women and girls at risk by not using protective mechanisms, such as pre-charge bail with conditions and restraining orders, when violence is perpetrated.
This resulted in the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) launching an investigation, the findings of which have now been released.
“As a society, we have a moral imperative to support and protect victims of these appalling crimes,” their final inspection report explained. “Our evidence shows better support also means victims are more likely to feel able to support prosecution of their perpetrator.”
While the HMICFRS recognised that the police have made “vast improvements” over a decade in dealing with this “epidemic” of domestic violence, it noted that there were still staggering variations between police forces.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Zoë Billingham identified that despite the number of sexual offences recorded by the police tripling in recent years, there are “structural, strategic and tactical inconsistencies” in how the police handle crimes that disproportionately affect female victims including domestic abuse, rape, sexual grooming and stalking.
As such, Billingham called for “an immediate and unequivocal commitment” to violence against women and girls that should be treated as “an absolute priority” for the government, on the same level as terrorism.
The report implored the government to use “every lever at its disposal to shift the policing priority around violence against women and girls upward,” as violence against women and girls is currently not included on a list of priorities in the government’s Strategic Policing Requirement, which includes terrorism, serious and organised crime, large protests, civil emergencies and child sexual abuse.
“[Women and girls] should be afforded a priority that is equivalent to those types of crime,” the report’s inspectors said.
“These are generally marked by a clearer focus, better funding, a relentless pursuit of perpetrators and a clear sense that these are urgent national policing priorities. VAWG needs to be addressed in the same way.”
However, inspectors noted in the report that “police alone cannot ‘solve’ violence against women and girls.” “We can’t just police our way out of this, these offences are deep rooted, pervasive and prevalent across our society and if that is to change a whole-system approach is needed,” inspector Zoë Billingham told a press conference.
“There will need to be more resources … this is not going to happen if there is not an increase in funding to enable it to happen.”
As reported on 26 August 2021: Two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or ex-partner, while one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives.
And yet the report corroborated the super-complaint’s conclusion the criminal justice system is not properly responding to domestic abuse cases in spite of the government purporting to be tackling the issue via its long-awaited Domestic Abuse Act, which was signed into law earlier this year.
Perhaps more worryingly, the watchdog found that these failures permeated the criminal justice system, rather than solely being the fault of the police. Inspectors warned that the shortcomings make domestic abuse survivors less likely to come forward to report future instances of violence and mistreatment.
Responding to the report’s findings, Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said in a statement: “This report confirms what survivors have long been telling us – that there remains a postcode lottery in how police forces are protecting women who are experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of male violence.”
“Far too often women tell us that the response they get from the police is inconsistent and fails to keep them safe. This is not good enough – survivors deserve much better.
The report shows yet again that the dramatic drop in the use of bail by police forces is having a serious impact on survivor safety. We are still awaiting the reforms that are urgently needed to protect survivors whilst investigations are ongoing.”
It’s clear from the reactions from leading domestic violence charities and on social media that women feel like much more needs to be done by the police to ensure the safety of women and girls.
“Survivors of domestic abuse are regularly left unsafe due to the police’s poor use of protective measures,” Rebecca Goshawk, head of public affairs at Solace, a London-based women’s charity tells Stylist. “This report highlights the urgent need for police to consistently use and enforce bail conditions and punish breaches of safety orders – this is vital to stop perpetrators being able to exert control, threaten and intimidate survivors and sabotage police investigations.”
“We believe training and increased funding is critical to ensure that police are using protective measures effectively to help keep women and girls safe.”
Leading charity Refuge echoes this call, highlighting “the clear and urgent need for improved gender and trauma-informed training for police officers to ensure they are putting the safety of women and girls first.”
“As Refuge knows too well, police officers not taking the safety of survivors seriously and leaving them at risk of further harm from their perpetrators, leads to women feeling deeply let down by the criminal justice system and contributes to underreporting of these crimes and to women withdrawing their support for prosecutions. We know that only around a fifth of women experiencing domestic abuse report to the police and we need to ensure there are better outcomes for those that do, as well as improving women’s confidence in how they will be treated by the police when coming forward.”
The 24-hour National Domestic Abuse helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247 and further support can be accessed online via their website.