4 Things Police Should Be Doing To Protect Women (And Aren't)

Violence against women should be taken as seriously as terrorism, says police watchdog
Photo taken in Moscow, Russia
Elena Karetnikova / EyeEm via Getty Images
Photo taken in Moscow, Russia

Two women are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales every week. Almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Behind these shocking figures are real women and girls who are often suffering terrible abuse and violence.

Now the police watchdog, the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), who previously launched a major investigation into this, have said violence against women should be taken as seriously as terrorism.

The watchdog’s report said three-quarters of domestic abuse cases are closed early without a suspect being charged.

In the year ending March 2020, there were an estimated 1.6 million victims of domestic violence who were women in England and Wales, while 618,000 were victims of sexual assault and 892,000 of stalking.

Around three million crimes have been committed against women and girls since 2018, when the government promised a review into making misogyny a hate crime, data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales also reveals.

HMICFRS said while the police have made “vast improvements” in safeguarding, there were staggering variations between police forces.

Inspectors said police officers weren’t giving the threat of violence the resource it needs nor liaising with other stations to give it due attention.

It also said that enough forces weren’t utilising Claire’s Law, which allows officers to tell people if their partner has a history of abuse, amounting almost to a postcode lottery in who gets to use it.

The report said police response sharply contrasted to how they deal with terrorism and, more recently, county lines drug gangs.

Such findings are surprising to the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) who in 2019 lodged a super-complaint against the police for its handling of domestic violence.

This is a measure designed to raise issues on behalf of the public about harmful patterns or trends in policing by one or more forces in England and Wales – only certain organisations, rather than individuals, can launch a super-complaint.

This then led to HMICFRS launching a major investigation and the findings were released in August in a report entitled A Duty To Protect.

The report corroborated the CWJ claim that the criminal justice system is not responding adequately to domestic abuse cases, which is further alienating victims and making them less likely to come forward.

It also responded to four key ways the CWJ says police are failing victims. Here’s what they could be doing better – and how the police responded to it.

Are the police doing enough to keep women safe?
Ian Forsyth via Getty Images
Are the police doing enough to keep women safe?

1. Bail

There’s been a dramatic fall in the use of bail in rape, domestic abuse and harassment and stalking cases, and a corresponding increase in use of ‘released under investigation’, following the introductions of changes to pre-charge bail legislation in April 2017.

The CWJ’s super-complaint raises the concern that fewer bail conditions are being imposed on released suspects – even basic conditions such as not contacting the victim – and that this is putting vulnerable women at risk.

What the police say:

“We agree with the Centre for Women’s Justice that the absence of bail conditions (in circumstances in which pre-charge bail can be used lawfully) can cause significant harm to victims. For instance, we found evidence that a lack of bail conditions can cause victims to feel unsafe, and prevent them from receiving support from some third-party organisations. We also found a notable lack of research evidence on how well bail conditions protect victims by reducing reoffending (and so preventing further harm). We have made a recommendation to the Home Office to commission research on this.”

2. Non-molestation orders

Non-molestation orders (NMOs) are designed to protect victims and are issued by the courts. They prohibit an abuser from certain types of activity, such as threatening or being violent towards one or more individuals in their family, including children, or going within a certain distance of an individual’s home.

The CWJ’s complaint raises the concern that the police often fail to arrest people who breach their NMO. It also raises concerns that some officers suggest that victims obtain NMOs as an alternative to other police action such as making an arrest.

What the police said:

“We agree with the Centre for Women’s Justice that failure to arrest for breach of an NMO has the potential to cause significant harm. Ministry of Justice data shows that the number of NMOs granted has been increasing since 2012 and Home Office data shows that while reports of breaches of non-molestation orders recorded by the police have increased, the number of NMO breach cases which are not proceeding has increased significantly. Additionally, Ministry of Justice data shows that the number of offenders sentenced for breaching NMOs has been going down since 2014.

“Officers sometimes have trouble gaining access to NMOs as a result of inconsistent or slow recording in records systems. And when they can gain access to them, many officers found that NMOs issued by the civil courts were not clear enough in their wording, making a decision about arrest difficult.”

3. Domestic violence protection notices and orders

Domestic Violence Protection Notices (DVPNs) and Domestic Violence Protection Orders (DVPOs) are designed to give short-term protection to a victim in the immediate aftermath of domestic abuse by preventing the suspected perpetrator from contacting the victim or returning to a residence for up to 28 days.

They can be issued by the police without the co-operation of the victim. While DVPNs and DVPOs are currently in use, they will be repealed and replaced by new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices (DAPNs) and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPOs), when the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 enters into force.

What the police said:

“The fact that different forces are using these at substantially different rates suggests at the very least that they aren’t being used consistently and may mean that forces issuing fewer notices and orders aren’t using them in cases when they should be. This has the potential to cause harm.”

4. Restraining orders

Restraining orders are issued by a judge in criminal proceedings to protect the victim, for example in cases of domestic abuse or stalking. They put restrictions on the offender, for example to stop them from contacting the victim or to prevent them from going to certain areas. Data from the Ministry of Justice shows a reduction in the number of restraining orders granted from 2016 to 2018, which mirrors a fall in prosecutions for domestic abuse cases.

The super-complaint suggests restraining orders could be used more effectively, and raises many concerns, including that applications are being overlooked.

What the police said:

“When conducting our fieldwork, we did not find clear evidence that the police are consistently underutilising restraining orders. For example, 32 out of the 37 forces we assessed told us that they routinely considered and asked the CPS to apply for restraining orders in domestic abuse cases. The super-complaint argues that, when a restraining order has not been made by the time the sentencing hearing is over, the magistrates’ court should be able to grant one later under the slip rule, which allows mistakes to be corrected. However, the CPS does not view the failure to request a restraining order as the kind of error that the slip rule is able to correct.”

“Effective police work to protect women and girls can make material change beyond the individual case, including preventing further offences from being committed,” the report said in its conclusion.

The investigation found examples of dedicated officers working well, it said – both with victims and potential victims and with the Crown Prosecution Service – to put in place the best possible protection for vulnerable women and girls.

“However, we also found instances where this didn’t happen,” it concluded. “And when victims don’t feel well supported by the police, this can have significant and long-lasting consequences. The emotional effects can be devastating, and victims – and the people around them – who feel that the police didn’t take the case seriously may be less likely to report crime in future.”