The latest report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary makes very grim reading for women being subjected to domestic violence.
For all the progress that has been made in other areas, and despite an abundance of good intentions and training initiatives, it’s clear that the police response to domestic violence cases is still inadequate and putting women and children at risk.
Refuge supports more than six thousand women and children every single day. Like the police, we faced the same squeeze on our budgets during the years of austerity, but despite that, demands on our services are still increasing.
Yet given this clear rise in need, and greater awareness of violence against women and girls, HMIC reports a fall in the number of arrests made, and in the number of referrals made to the Crown Prosecution Service.
The only explanation is that negative, judgemental, and sexist attitudes towards abused women remain deep-seated in police culture. Many police officers are not taking survivors seriously, and their disbelief is creating yet more barriers to women trying to get themselves and their children out of the control of very dangerous men.
At Refuge, we frequently meet women who feel that the police and prosecutors have let them down time and again. One client was subjected to physical abuse by her husband for three years before she was finally referred to Refuge. She told us that when she first went to the police, they were immediately dismissive and even sarcastic when she said she wasn’t prepared to leave – because she was breastfeeding her new-born child at the time.
The idea that it is easy to flee a violent partner is one of the most persistent myths that I have encountered in my many years at Refuge. We still have a long way to go to educate the public about how complicated and difficult such situations can be – but it is long past time that the professionals knew better than to base their judgements on these outdated and damaging myths.
But at least our client lived to tell her tale. Other women are not so fortunate. Remember Shana Grice, the 19-year-old girl murdered last year by her stalker ex-boyfriend. She had been to the police several times, but instead of desperately-needed help all she got was a fixed-penalty notice for ‘wasting police time’.
Every survivor of domestic abuse deserves police protection. It should not be discretionary. That’s why I urge the Government to follow Canada’s example and introduce a policy of mandatory arrest and charge in cases where there are reasonable grounds to suspect domestic abuse.
Discretion is an important part of the British policing tradition, but that should not prevent us from trying new approaches when the status quo is putting women and children in sometimes mortal danger. Nor would this policy in any way violate the rights of the accused, who would have the opportunity to defend themselves in court.
Officers should also receive proper training in how to handle such situations on the ground. Basic precautions, such as removing the perpetrator from the scene and interviewing the victim separately, must become the norm.
The Government’s new Domestic Violence Bill provides Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, with the perfect opportunity to act on this hugely disturbing report, which was already buried on page five of HMIC’s website only two days after publication. The Bill must be amended to explicitly recognise the gendered nature of violence against women and girls, and contain provisions for a much tougher police response to domestic violence cases than we have seen to date.
The statistics from HMIC are horrifying. But they will never be just statistics to Refuge. Every missed opportunity to arrest and prosecute a perpetrator is another woman abandoned to the control of an abusive and dangerous man. That has to change, now.