Today’s (27th March) report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary makes for more than just sobering reading. It suggests that domestic abuse is a kind of ‘pretend’ priority for the police. Given the effects of such violence on children, and its known link to child abuse, the report has implications for social care, and safeguarding, as well as the police, says CareKnowledge Editor Jim Kennedy.

It’s not often you read an official report, and as a first thought, think “that doesn’t pull many punches”, but I think that’s certainly true of the Inspectorate’s publication.

The report notes that domestic abuse causes serious harm and constitutes a considerable proportion of overall crime. It says that the domestic abuse and its consequences cost an estimated £15.7 billion a year.

The report also points out that 77 women were killed by their partners or ex-partners in 2012/13, and that 1 in 4 young people reported that they experienced domestic violence and abuse during their childhood. Forces told inspectors that crime relating to domestic abuse constitutes some 8% of all recorded crime and 33% of recorded assaults with injury.

As a final comment in the introduction, the report says that, on average, the police receive an emergency call relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds.

And yet…

The Inspectorate concludes that, despite some progress in recent years and the hard work of many officers, the overall police response to victims of domestic abuse is simply not good enough. They say that there are weaknesses in the services provided to victims in too many forces, and that some of those are serious enough to put victims at unnecessary risk.

All of this is despite a period of many years –  certainly since the Inspectorate’s last themed review on the subject in 2004 – in which the need to treat domestic abuse more seriously in the criminal justice system, has been near the top of a number of policy and political interventions.

But the report says in the most unequivocal terms that those commitments have not turned into policing reality, on the ground. To quote:

“Domestic abuse is a priority on paper but, in the majority of forces, not in practice. Almost all police and crime commissioners have identified domestic abuse as a priority in their Police and Crime Plans. All forces told us that it is a priority for them.

This stated intent is not translating into operational reality in most forces. Tackling domestic abuse too often remains a poor relation to acquisitive crime and serious organised crime. “

The report lists a series of factors that the Inspectorate believes have contributed to this position, including a lack of visible leadership, supervision and effective management oversight, unacceptable weaknesses in some core policing activity, in particular the collection of evidence by officers at the scene of domestic abuse incidents, insufficient knowledge and  skills amongst police officers, and  a failure to prioritise action on domestic abuse, when setting priorities for the day-to-day activity of frontline officers.

And, perhaps crucially, “extremely limited systematic feedback from victims about their experience of the police response.” 
The challenges of tackling domestic abuse are not for the police alone, but the success of the whole system depends, to a considerable extent, on the (often first) contact with the criminal justice system. Getting the police response right is therefore essential. But I suspect the report tell us just how difficult it is going to be to make more progress than may have been the case since 2004.

The police, in common with public services in general, face competing pressures and falling resources. Not doing more to tackle domestic abuse may have complicated, or even cultural, roots in the police force, but simply loading additional priorities onto a stretched service, without considering the reality of the balance of priorities with which it is expected to grapple, could easily further stall progress.

And since priorities in public services are ultimately politically determined, that may mean having to ask politicians, if you want us to do a bit more of this, what is it that would be prepared to see slip a little further down the priority list?    
I also have a couple of final comments.

The impact of domestic abuse on families is enormous, and brings a number of other agencies into the picture, if its consequences are to be effectively tackled. And, the report is certainly clear on its direct impact on children, including their witnessing of much of the violence that is perpetrated, and the need to make them safe in the immediate aftermath.
But I’m not sure that it says enough about the added risk of specific, and separate, child abuse that comes with domestic violence in families. Perhaps more detailed reading will amend that perception.

It’s also interesting to see, that in a different sort of reference, the Inspectorate declares its commitment to Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs; and their interest in the possible extension of their application to joint work on domestic abuse.