Since the Covid-19 lockdown this March, cases of domestic abuse, including deaths as a consequence, have risen. Campaigners, including myself, have demanded that criminal justice agencies improve their response to domestic abuse, as we have been doing since before beating your wife was a criminal offence in the UK.
This is why I am disheartened at the remarks of David Thompson, Chief Constable of West Midlands police, who appears to be arguing that some domestic incidents should be dealt with by other agencies.
Thompson, in charge of the second largest police force in England, made these remarks in a newspaper interview. He said that a number of call-outs to those logged as potential incidents of domestic abuse amount to officers effectively “policing relationships” and that it is “debatable whether or not that’s actually something best discharged by the police in all cases”.
Clearly, Thompson was not suggesting that domestic violence should not be policed. Rather, he meant that in order to free up more time to fight ‘crime’, some non-violent cases — an argument between a couple, for instance —should be left to other agencies.
Thompson pointed out that a “very high proportion of domestic abuse referrals” were unlikely to end up in the criminal justice system, and many were made by “people seeking help but not prosecutions”.
While Thompson is right that many reported cases of domestic abuse never get anywhere near court, this is no reason not to police them. Many women are reluctant to press charges against an abusive male partner and say to police that they ‘just want him to stop’. I have heard this be said on countless occasions, and understand it is often because the victim is scared that she will face retribution for reporting her abuser if he ends up in court.
Many women are reluctant to call the police if she has no visible injuries, because she fears either not being believed or taken seriously. These incidents, in my wealth of experience, are well-founded fears.
Campaigners have spent decades working with police to help them better understand why domestic abuse should be treated as a serious crime. Many incidents do not involve any physical assault, but the escalation of abusive behaviour can be a warning sign of far worse to come.
Take the issue of coercive control, a common feature of domestic abuse relationships which only became a criminal offence in 2015. The case of Sally Challen highlighted the myriad of non-violent ways in which men can ensure their partner is terrified and immobilised, by using tactics that keep their victim in line.
As Katy Bourne, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner said today: “I fear that [Thompson’s] remarks will only serve to disempower victims, erode their confidence in reporting to the police, and empower perpetrators”.
Rather than look for ways to police fewer such incidents, police should rise to the task and ensure that these women have the confidence to turn to them for the protection they deserve.