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Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Role of the police in domestic violence and abuse

The role of the police in cases of domestic violence and abuse is crucial, although research has been critical of the response of frontline officers. Victims might not always get the police response they require and there are still gaps in whether some victims get ‘justice’ or not. Despite criticisms, the police remain one of the key frontline services which victims can use to prevent and stop incidents of violence and abuse. 

The most recent legal change was the introduction, in 2015, of the crime of ‘Coercive Control’. This, for the first time, recognises that domestic violence, rather than being a series of incidents, is a pattern of controlling behaviours. What role the police are able to take in terms of the new legal provision of coercive control remains to be seen. Several women we interviewed were encouraged by police to keep a secret diary of their partners’ abusive behaviour, to use as evidence.

 

Tina described gathering evidence for the police but she was ‘terrified’ of the repercussions of her partner finding out.

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Age at interview: 50
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Because I want to get out of [city] because when he finds out he’s going to absolutely go schizo. 

When he finds out?

About the police and that lot and when they go to arrest him that’s it he’s going to go crazy.

So he’s going to be arrested?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. They’re going to arrest him. Yeah, they’ve hoping to take him to court over it. Yeah. So because he’s what is it they’re saying it is, it’s sexual, oh god, sexual assault. Even though I was with him he’s still making me have sex with him for money.

Right.

And because he didn’t seem to realise I used to write it in my diary when he used to come and how much he used to give me. 

Ahhh.

See I wasn’t stupid I wrote everything in the diary…

Yeah, yeah.

…how much he used to give me to get food and how much… 

Yeah.

…and then when he stopped and he wanted sex and that.

Yeah.

I could even tell you what he used to wear everything. I d’ye know what I mean.

Right, yeah.

Yeah, I was very quick.

Yeah. 

And there’s no way he could do me over.
Women contacted the police following a physical assault or rape, or after their partner had ‘kicked them out’ of their home, or to get help with harassment and threats from their ex after leaving, or to protect their children. In a few cases, other professionals or family members made the call.

While some women found the police helpful, others felt officers did not understand or take them seriously. Women were desperate for an immediate response and found it hard to manage the delays in the process of getting a court injunction or having their injuries assessed. Many women were too afraid to call the police for fear of retaliation from their partner.

Helpful responses from police

Police offered practical support like setting up a rapid response system, providing mobile phones, personal attack alarms, security locks on doors as well as helping women to get an injunction such as a non-molestation order, and putting a ‘marker’ on the house so an officer can get there as quickly as possible, when called out. In a few cases, women were supported by police specialist domestic abuse liaison workers. Philippa felt part of a network of support from her local police.
 

Philippa had support from police to leave an abusive relationship and to find temporary accommodation

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Age at interview: 54
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Went to the police station and are you able to describe to me what happened there?

Well we went in and I said I want to talk to a female officer and they didn't have any so I had to go out and come back an hour later when the female officer had started. And they took the children away and I sat down and I explained exactly what had happened and I still had bruises on me from the previous fight. So they obviously took details and they contacted the council, they found me somewhere to stay, so we went to stay in a hotel for nearly a week.

So that was from that evening. 

Yeah, yeah. I phoned him the following day, not from the town we were staying but from another town, so I drove and I phoned him. And I think he'd been up all night and he was just in bits, and I said I'm not coming back. And he said, "Well you know can you come back, can you do the books?" Because I was doing the books for the business and I said, "No this is it, I'm not coming back." And we had nothing, we literally had nothing. You know they say when people walk out they've got nothing, I had what I was wearing, my older daughter was in her school uniform and the younger was in her PE kit and they had nothing either because I couldn’t carry anything out I just had to leave. So we went to a charity shop and bought a load of stuff so they could wear something that day. And then, so that was the Saturday and then on the Sunday I went back to the police station, because they wanted a photograph of my bruises for their records just in case I wanted to prosecute him. And I asked for a police officer to come with me to the house so I could get some stuff and he came with me and he went in before me and my husband wasn’t there.

The police. So what was helpful or not helpful about what the police did for you?

Well there was an earlier involvement with the police which I didn't mention which was that I had to call them to our house, because he was being abusive and they came and they kept him in one room while I packed in another so that I could take me and the children away. And as a result of that the local community policeman used to come into the shop occasionally and you know he'd buy something and we'd have a chat. But I found out later that he was checking up on me but I didn't know it at the time. 

So very subtle. 

So that was good. It was nice to find out afterwards, I just assumed that it was part of his beat and he was coming in because he's a community policeman and he goes to meet people. So it's nice to know that actually there was a network, that, you know, people were talking about things that were important. 
Police also acted as referral agents to other professionals, such as a domestic violence and abuse agency, housing department, a women’s refuge, a sexual assault unit, family justice centre, mediation or counselling. 

Police also provided transport in a police car for particularly vulnerable women, like Ana and Yasmin, both migrant women, to leave their abusive relationships. Yasmin, who had barely left the house for 13 years, managed to call the police from her children’s school. The police officer took her home to check out her story then drove her to the family justice centre and to the Housing Department.
 

Yasmin was escorted away by a police officer and had to trust that the officer would later bring her children, who were her ‘only wealth’.

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Age at interview: 32
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I called the police, they came there, I give the statement, come back home. The statement was so strong and so … I even didn’t realise what I am telling, what … really that can affect somebody. The officer called me within a few … hours. She was a high command officer.

Right.

She read statement, and I said, ‘That statement, whatever I said that’s … tell the truth.’

Yes.

And she said she wanted to see me in home. I said, ‘You can’t see me home, my partner is just sat outside the house, he can be any time there.’ And she said, ‘I won’t come in police dress, I won’t come in police car …’

Right.

‘… I just wanted to see you.’

Yes.

I said, ‘Okay.’ I don’t know if she wanted to check my … mind level, because the …

Right.

… statement quite, he put the knives on my neck, he …

Yes, yeah.

… had, was, was physically , it was too much, there was too … too many things.

Yes.

She just wanted to see I made all these stories. Or I really am, I’m suffering with these all problems. She came home and she asked me many things and I replied this and that, my son is in this school, my daughter is in this school, one child is here with me.

She didn’t let me waste any second. She said, ‘Where is your passport?’ She said … ‘Do you have any?’ I said, ‘Yes somewhere here in the drawers.’

She emptied the whole drawer on the floor and she said, ‘Pick up your things, you’re going with me [laughs].’

Wow.

And I said, ‘I can’t leave house without my children.’ ‘This is the only wealth I’ve got.’

She help me to grab my phone, charger, make sure I get the charger, make sure I get some travel documents.

She asked me to look if I have any money at … in the home there was like a few moneyboxes of my children, I grabbed that money. She said, ‘I promise … I bring you your children, but you come with me.’ I just wanted to leave that man so much.

Yes.

I even didn’t make sure my children come. She promised and she looked really convincing, I just … left my house without them [crying].

Yes.

Having that fear, oh God my children are going to come or not.
For some women, a police officer was the first person to identify and name ‘domestic abuse’. Both Alonya and Sophie encountered officers who were sympathetic and talked to them at length. In both cases, this was the first person they had spoken to, which was an important turning point.
 

Sophie said it was ‘wonderful’ when the police officer identified domestic abuse using a questionnaire, reassured her that it was not her fault and offered specialist support.

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Age at interview: 49
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And what about the police, you mentioned they referred you?

Yeah.

They referred you on. I mean when they actually turned up at the door, instantly what support did they offer you that was helpful or not helpful?

They were hilarious. They were wonderful. I had this great big policeman turned up and he was so lovely I nearly cried [laughs]. And he was actually the first person I’d spoken to, which seems really weird that it would be a bloke. But he was actually just so nice.

Yeah.

And they – and basically what it was, it was actually just like form filling in. Because he said, “Right OK, I’m going to go through this questionnaire with you and I just want you to answer these questions.” Like he didn’t ask me loads of questions or anything, he wasn’t sort of remotely touchy-feely, but he was really nice. And he just went through this questionnaire. And he just looked at me at the end of it and he said, “Right, you know, you’ve really got a problem here. This is the questionnaire that we’re given to do. This is, you know, we have had training in this,” and he like just took me all through it in a very practical way.

Yeah.

And he said, you know, “They – to,” he said like, “To me, this is saying to me that you are definitely in an abusive situation and that you’re not safe, da, de, da, de, da,” you know, “I really feel that it’s in your best interest that you are referred to this, this, this and this sort of thing.” You know, like to say, “We’re going to do this and I’m going to go back and talk to the domestic violence officer for the area,” and all this sort of thing. And he was, it was just totally practical.

Yeah.

And it was just, it was just so matter of fact that like, “I’ve done the questionnaire. You’ve got a problem. It’s not your fault. I’m going to do this,” right, and it was like wonderful. Because all the time, quite often when you talk to people about domestic violence, you feel like you’re actually having to justify it.

Hmm, and he was quite clear, “It’s not your fault”?

Yeah, “This is happening. This is our questionnaire. We’ve been trained in this. This is the results. That’s it, it’s decided [laughs].”

So the specialist officer, did they get in touch with you?

Yeah I spoke to them, yeah, yeah.

It sounds like you had, so, a good experience with the police?

Yeah, I mean I think I was really lucky. I mean you know, I know other people haven’t had good experience with the police.

Yeah.

But yeah, you know, but this, this bloke was just like totally straightforward. 
 

Alonya’s partner usually dominated and twisted communication with police officers, until she encountered an officer who could see what was happening.

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Age at interview: 31
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[Name of partner] was making, I’m sorry, sorry, he was making when the police will come, he would just shout, “Is she a liar?” And many times he would push away the police. When, well, he wants to talk to the police, he goes in the corner, they talk, and police would just look at me and it’s just like we keep quiet or something like, and I thought like, he, because he, there was a time I realised that probably, the truthful things he saying, or able to say, is, are very minimal. He twists facts around, he say, lying is a very comfortable very easy thing for him to do. 

And he was just he was just spreading all of these kind of rumours about me being horrible. And, what he was trying, the police kind of, he would say that I’m the one who’s the abuser. I’m the one who’s hurting him.

So, were the police helpful to you at all or?

There were times when the police was helpful. 

In what way?

And especially and I remember one police officer he spoke to me and he said, “Just leave, you have to leave” and he talked to me a very long time…

Right.

… for about forty minutes. And I think he did, he did change something in me a little bit, that was the first moment when I started to think that I need to do something…

Right.

…I felt very powerless. 

Yes.

I felt lost, and I felt scared. 

Yes.

And sometimes I would want to do something, but then I would change my mind and cave in…

Right.

…it was easier sometimes to give up. 

Yes.

And I was getting very tired, mentally. It was just so many things, he would keep me on edge all the time. Like wake up in the morning and he would come around and he would pinch me, and just, or just, or would just say like, “You horrible bitch”, for example, “I’ll kill you”. He would whisper that into my, into my ear. Then he would lock me out in the garden, or he would lock me, us, my daughter and myself out, wouldn’t let us in, into the house.
Unhelpful responses from police

The majority of women who had contact with the police felt that police officers’ understanding of domestic violence and abuse was poor, limited to an emphasis on physical abuse and a need for ‘hard evidence’, which was usually difficult to establish. Penny, experiencing stalking and harassment after leaving her abusive partner, made an emotional statement to police who responded as if it were ‘insignificant’. Many women lived in fear of a partner who made serious threats to harm them and the children, backed up by previous assaults that had left no visible evidence or that women had been too fearful to report. Women like Victoria and Liz were upset and angry that threats were not taken seriously by police. They felt that police did not recognise the danger they were in, unless they were at the point of ‘about to be murdered’.
 

Liz felt that police lacked training and did not recognise controlling and threatening behaviour or even sexual abuse of her daughter.

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Age at interview: 46
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So looking back at the help that you’ve got from different places, would you say the police, by and large, have been quite helpful for you?

Phew no. Perhaps some of them. I had one team come, and I ended up calling the police, calling the NSPCC. After I’d told them about the hands down inside the leggings the police officers that came round, they said how it’s really rare for a father to ever abuse a child, their child, it’s almost unheard of. And so therefore that it was highly unlikely, and more likely that she was – it – that whatever he was doing was entirely innocent. So I called up the NSPCC the next day and said, “Is this the case?” And they just said, “Absolutely not.”

No.

“You’ve obviously had just officers that are just not trained.” So they got me in touch with the child abuse team and they made a referral to the police. And then those police officers apologised for their colleagues. But other times, the police up in [county] who are dealing with the child abuse thing, they’ve been brilliant, supportive in a very objective, you know, impartial way.

And women don’t realise that unless you can get – you can’t get legal aid unless you’ve called the police. So call the police.

Yeah.

You know, and like, and then also the police need to be educated. I had them out here the other day because he sent me harassing emails, and this time he sent one to work and I told him in writing he was never to write to work. The police came out, said that, “Yeah, but you wrote to him to tell him about this,” which I was told to do by my barrister. He then kept emailing back. And the last one was like, “You, you know, unless you forward these papers by return,” and these are papers the court is supposed to send him, “unless you send them by return I am going to tell the tell the judge that you’ve done this, this and this,” and I fall back into the abuse, and think, “I’m a bad person. I’m not good enough. Maybe I should be doing everything he says I should be doing.” But [local DVA agency], I phoned up [local DVA agency]. They said, “No, no, he’s abusing, he’s abusing this. Call the police.” And I called 101 and they came. It’s like this, the word, “It’s a domestic. This is domestic. The police can’t get involved.” And it’s like, “Unless he threatens to hit you then that’s – it’s – that, that’s nothing.” I said, “But I’m a few days away from a court case. I’ve been told that he’s trying to unsettle me before a court case and frighten me. And he’s got no reason, because he just has to phone up the court for the stuff. It’s not my job to pass court papers to him.” But I was just told, “Well, there’s nothing we can do. It’s just like nothing. You know, unless he threatens to hit you, then that’s it.” And I’m like, “Well, actually there, there are other types of abuse rather than just being hit. He is abusing me through fear and that’s wrong.”

You’re probably aware that coercive control has become a criminal offence?

But the police don’t recognise it.
Tanya phoned the police following serious threats to harm her and the children but the police took no action as a physical assault had not taken place that day despite a previous reported attack on their daughter. She was then questioned why she was ‘still with him’.
 

Tanya’s partner was ‘charming’ to the police officer and manipulated the children to take his side, using fear.

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Age at interview: 45
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I phoned the police, I said, “He’s absolutely psychotic, he’s just told us this, just threatened this, that he’s going to pull us, drag us round the garden by our tongues. Please can you come and take him away?” Anyway, they turned up a good while after. I had to phone them back up again. And it took me a lot of courage to use, to take the phone outside to phone the police, because if he’d have found me talking to the police, oh my God, I think it’s dead time for [Participant]. So I, so I plucked up the courage, phoned, yeah, phoned them. They didn’t turn up, right, and he got more psychotic. And I phoned them again and they were like, “Oh right yeah, we’ll send someone now.” I’m like, “Thanks.” They turned up, they spoke to the children in front of my husband and they said, “Are you OK?” And he’d calmed down. He was being Mr Charming at this point, yeah. My daughter put up this front of, “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m not scared of him.” That’s what she was saying, “I’m not scared of him.”  and he was, he was like, “Who’s phoned you, who’s phoned you?” And he was being Mr Nice Guy. Like the boys were both sitting there, like I could tell they were scared, but somehow the police officers just were like they said to me, “We can’t do anything now because he’s not actually done anything. He’s not physically hurt you so we can’t do anything, we can’t just take him away.” I would have to go to court on Monday morning, get an injunction, get a court order against him, and that’s what, that’s all she could say.
Some women felt that awareness of domestic abuse was changing, but they remained unsure how effective the police were in abuse situations.
 

Tasha felt that police are ‘a lot more clued up now about domestic violence’ but she was frustrated by their limited ability to prevent unwanted contact from her ex.

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Age at interview: 40
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How have they been helpful or not helpful? Do want to grab something?

No [laughs]

[Laughs]

No, they, they, they’ve been good. And the one that’s been around recently, he’s been excellent and he has said that they are a lot more clued up now on domestic violence and they obviously have more courses and stuff and they know what to look out for and they …

Right.

… the first time that they had emailed him to say ‘Do not send anything, it is deemed as harassment. If you send anything else you’ll be prosecuted.” He replied, “It’s not harassment, I can do it”. So, so they’ve got the measure of him already, they know that, you know, he is that sort of person a controlling person, and, so they know now what to look out for which, which is good. I think, that’ they’re more, more aware of it. But like I said, at the end of the day I’ve got to wait for him to do something before I can report it.

Yeah.

And then if he’s good for like a few months they take it off and it all starts again. And, you know, you, it’s, instead of sort of saying that this person’s given me x amount of trouble over the years which has, it’s all been logged  you know, can you just sort of put, say, you know, he’s not to contact me, you know, at all…

Yeah.

… unless it’s through a third person. You know …

Yeah.

… why, why can’t they do that? It, it’s my life, I should be able to say who can speak to me and who can’t.
 

Anna received no support for herself or her children and felt the police could have provided information about women’s refuges.

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Age at interview: 47
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I think the police could have done more earlier. They never told me about refuges.

They, they didn’t say …

They didn’t ….

… they were, they came out to you …

They didn’t tell me there was routes out. I only got, I had a leaflet when I went to the solicitor for the injunction he gave me a load of handouts and one of those was refuge and that’s how I got to know that they even existed. There wasn’t the Internet at that point, like there was now either, so police didn’t, they made me fearful that they’d take the children.

Yeah.

Which made me not feel that I couldn’t approach them again.

Yeah.

So, yes, it’s blame, that you know, you could say there are children here but explain …

Yeah. 

… it could have an effect, on, you know, …

Yeah, so perhaps they could have had an additional role to play though in the time you were seeing …

Yeah. They could have even said there were ways out, he wouldn’t know where I was…

Yeah.

… to be told that might have been a relief, finding out that years earlier. But, yeah, no, they didn’t say anything. In, in fact they brought him back home but, yeah, no, there was nothing. 

No support offered?

No.

For you.

No.
Fear for safety puts women off calling the police

Shaina’s partner smashed up the family home in a violent rage on several occasions. Although police attended, there was little follow-up and no understanding of the need to protect Shaina’s safety.
 

Shaina felt her partner’s conditional sentence was just like a ‘slap on the wrist’ after her terrifying ordeal.

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Age at interview: 32
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He went crazy. He broke all the door handles trying to get in, shaking the house. I ran into my bedroom and I was banging on [neighbour]’s bedroom door, [neighbour] next door.

Next door, yeah.

“Help, help, he’s coming for me.” I knew he was going to get in at some stage.

What were you afraid was going to happen?

He was going to beat me really bad. I could tell by the rage of him shaking the whole house, trying to break all the doors to get in. The kids were still sleeping and I think, I believe they, they slept through it all, luckily, I think. So in the end he smashed this window. Blood all over the place. Came – I had set up the camcorder, because I thought he was going to beat me up, remember.

Yes.

I was panicking. I thought, “Set up the camcorder so I’ve got proof that he’s beaten me up.”

That was good thinking.

But big mistake. He climbed back up and saw the camcorder on the windowsill. I think that raged him even more. And that’s why he smashed that, went straight to the camcorder in my room and was about to throw it at my head.

Gosh.

Yeah.

What happened?

So he smashed it on the floor in the end, so there was no evidence. Because obviously he came towards it. Then [neighbour] came. All the doors were broken and I couldn’t let her in. The only way was in and out of the glass area. She said, “[name of partner], what the fuck are you doing? You’ve got your kids in here. What is wrong with you?” And he’s standing there huffing and puffing, still got my phone in his hand, full of blood, all the glass all over the place. She said like, “Get, go away. Give her phone, because she’s going to have to call the police for the window to get boarded up. Your kids are in there, for God’s sake.” And he left. He got convicted again for domestic criminal damage. He just got a conditional sentence for that, slap on the wrist.
Women’s partners frequently made threats to stop them from calling the police. Linda described a violent attack by her partner followed by threats to burn down their house and harm the children and grandchildren if she contacted the police:

‘I thought I need to phone the police, I need to phone the police and I couldn’t. And then I said I’m going to call the police and he went if you effing do that, you effing so and so, I’ll kill the children, I’ll kill the grandchildren you don’t know what I’m capable of, he said you think you’ve seen what hell is but you don’t know what hell is. So I didn’t.’ 

Last reviewed February 2020.

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