04/03/2014 09:45 GMT | Updated 04/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Police Treat Domestic Abuse Victims With 'Apathy And Hostility'

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Police failures over domestic abuse are "breathtaking" and victims are often met with "apathy, disbelief and outright hostility from officers", a charity boss has warned. Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, called for a public inquiry to look at the "huge national problem" of poor practice in protecting victims.

Watchdog Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) is currently investigating how forces in England and Wales deal with the crime, in the wake of a number of cases where women have been killed by their abusers. Assistant Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) national lead for domestic abuse, admitted: "They will report an awful lot that we need to improve."

Acpo is holding a national focus on domestic violence this week. Ms Horley claimed that there is a "canteen culture" among police and that negative attitudes are common. "I remain gravely concerned by the police response to victims of domestic violence," she said. "Mounting evidence shows that far too many women and children are let down by police officers in their moment of need. In the worst instances, police failures have contributed to fatalities.

"The list of ways in which women are failed by the police is alarmingly long. Negative attitudes are rife: all too often, abused women are met with apathy, disbelief and outright hostility from officers. The recent case of two West Midlands officers caught on tape allegedly calling a victim of domestic violence a 'f****** bitch' and 'slag' offered a shocking insight into this 'canteen culture'."

She claimed that officers fail to properly investigate reports, collect evidence or arrest suspects, and that risk assessment is patchy. "Police officers fail to take proactive action to keep women and children safe from violent men - even after they have been assessed as being at high risk," she added.

"The scale of police failure is quite breathtaking. It is a huge national problem - a problem of systemic proportions." Improving the way police deal with these cases is "a priority", Ms Rolfe said. "We know that we still have much to do in ensuring every police officer who responds to an incident understands that abuse can take many forms and knows what to look for. There are examples of where we have clearly let victims and their families down.

"However, it's important that we also acknowledge that we have made improvements, particularly in our specialist response, and that there are many committed officers doing their very best for victims. The good work done by officers to tackle domestic abuse doesn't often make it into the papers.

"There should be no doubt that improving our response to domestic abuse is a priority for the police as we are making clear in this focus week."

Last month two cases were highlighted where women were murdered after apparent failures to protect them.

Jurors at the inquest into the death of Cassandra Hasanovic criticised both Sussex and Kent Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for failing to take the appropriate steps to safeguard the 24-year-old's life.

They said Sussex Police should have escorted her to a women's refuge on the day she was murdered in Bognor in July 2008, and that Kent Police failed to arrest killer Hajrudin Hasanovic for breaching his bail conditions.

The jury also found that the CPS did not take a number of steps to safeguard Mrs Hasanovic's life, including failing to apply for her estranged husband's bail to be withdrawn and failing to inform her of the special measures that might have been available to help her give evidence against him in court.

Failures were also highlighted after the death of Mavis Clift, 75, who was killed in a fire at her home in Northampton on January 1, 2008. The blaze was started by her daughter's estranged husband Paul Barber, who was charged with the murder but died in prison while awaiting trial.

In February this year the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that Ms Clift's daughter Susan Robinson had telephoned police repeatedly reporting harassment, criminal damage and a threat to kill by her former partner, and said that she was ''terrified of what he was going to do''. Other family members had also expressed concerns to the police about his behaviour.

The IPCC found a "significant number of failings and missed opportunities'' in the way Northamptonshire Police dealt with the case. Ms Rolfe said: "It frustrates me that the domestic homicide reviews identify failures and there are still too many tragic examples of women losing their lives."

Refuge has drawn up a petition calling for a public inquiry into how police deal with domestic abuse, as well as claimed failures by other agencies such as the CPS and social services. Polly Neate from Women's Aid said officers are not properly trained.

"The police have excellent guidance on domestic violence, but unfortunately most forces don't provide specialist-led training to their officers which would allow them to implement it. Many people throughout society believe a variety of myths and stereotypes about domestic violence, and without training some police officers hold these views too.

Unfortunately, when police officers don't understand the power dynamics of domestic violence they may be unable to provide appropriate support to women who report it, they may not be able to assess risk adequately, or they may not recognise non-physical forms of violence when a woman reports them, such as coercive and controlling behaviour.

"This lack of understanding has lead to serious failings in the way police have handled some women's cases, and has resulted in preventable murders. That's why we urge all police forces to invest in high-quality, specialist-led domestic violence training for all of their officers."