Jake Gunton and Richard Worth 23rd November 2017
Some police forces in the UK are failing to use a law that protects people from controlling or coercive behaviour from partners or family members.
In 2015, “controlling or coercive behaviour” became an offence under the Serious Crimes Act, making actions such as manipulating a partner’s finances or depriving them of freedom of movement classifiable as a domestic abuse crime.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered data indicating that some police forces across England and Wales are failing to implement the new law. For example, since the law was brought in, Suffolk Constabulary has made 54 of these charges, while Northampton Police Force, with a similar population, has made zero. The Metropolitan Police, which oversees a population of over 8.7 million, made a mere 36.
Controlling and coercive behaviour makes up a tiny fraction of domestic abuse incidents. Last year, police documented 1.1 million reports across England and Wales, yet only 488,000 of these were recorded as crimes, according to data released today by the Office for National Statistics. This is a slight decrease on the previous year.
Detective chief inspector Fran Naughton of the West Yorkshire Police’s safeguarding team said: “Controlling and coercive behaviour comes in many forms and can have a very significant impact on someone’s life.
“Officers responding to it, however, can face significant challenges – but we have now trained every single front line officer about how they respond to victims, how they risk assess each allegation and help victims who want alternative outcomes other than a prosecution.
“We accept that we can still improve our service to victims and we are about to launch a campaign to increase the awareness of the public on the signs of controlling and coercive behaviour to encourage further reporting.”
Chief inspector Danny Patrick of Humberside Police added: “This is why as a force we delivered training to our front line staff in anticipation of the legislation being made, this ensured that our officers were fully prepared to respond to reports of coercive and controlling behaviour.”
Despite this, only 46 charges were made in total over the two counties in the last two years.
Phil Owen, a retired detective superintendent for Greater Manchester Police, now trains police forces across the country in domestic abuse legislation and thinks that training may not be enough.
“Cops are aware of it, but they are so busy now their opportunity to spend time with the victims is diminishing. Officers are often just not getting enough time with victims.
“You’ll need an awful lot of information from the victim about the coercively controlling aspects. The legislation talks about a ‘substantial adverse impact on the day to day of activities of the victim’. You’re only really going to get that with full engagement from the victim, if the victim discloses what that means to them.”
On top of which, the legislation has its own limits. Victims in long-term abusive relationships face the added difficulty that evidence can only be used from the time the law came into force. This means evidence from before December 2015 has to be ignored.
Likewise, police attitudes towards their training may be the problem. Dr Jane Monckton-Smith of Gloucestershire University said: “Some police forces definitely don’t recognise [coercion and controlling behaviour’s] links to serious harm and homicide and it is just not prioritised. It is a postcode lottery when it comes to the training the police, what kind of leadership the force has, you know, police are all self-governed.
They have this resistance and see it as women just whinging
“I’ve done a lot of training with police officers and some really get it some, some really just don’t. They have this resistance and see it as women just whinging, there’s that feeling that it is not dangerous. They just don’t get how serious it is.”
The reality of controlling behaviour
The Overtake spoke to Jennifer*, whose boyfriend became increasingly abusive and controlling after the birth of their daughter.
“It would stem from arguments of him still going out and getting drunk all the time and me sat in by myself. It got to the point where it was things like tipping my handbag out down the stairs, shouting, name calling, punching walls, pushing me or holding me up against a wall.
“The first time he hit me was when Rosie* was around nine months old. She was sat on my knee at the time and I remember her screaming immediately, obviously very scared of what was happening.
The incident wasn’t even recorded or followed up and I think it really made me lose faith in the police
“A couple of weeks later I had gone out with my friends, I was still breastfeeding so had only gone out for a couple of hours and wasn’t drinking. He was calling me and screaming at me to come home because he couldn’t settle Rosie. His sister went round to help but he was still mad that I wasn’t home so he smashed the TV up. I called the police and they arrived shortly after I got home.
“It was two policewomen that attended, and I was trying to explain what had happened. They didn’t seem interested at all because it was his own property that he had damaged. I took the opportunity to tell them that he had punched me a couple of weeks earlier and this was an ongoing problem. I was told that they couldn’t do anything as ‘this was a separate incident’. They then left without doing anything to help. I have since found out that the incident wasn’t even recorded or followed up and I think it really made me lose faith in the police.”
Eventually Jennifer was able to end the relationship in September 2015, just months before the new law was enacted, but the abuse continued.
“Brian* would still cause problems but I taught myself to brush them off and I would anything to keep to peace.”
“He would threaten to kick off every now and again, even smash my car up one day after we had taken Rosie to hospital. She had fallen over and he blamed me for it.
He was saying if I didn’t get back with him he would kill me and all my friends
“Just over two weeks ago he called me one morning while I was getting Rosie ready for school. He was saying if I didn’t get back with him he would kill me and all my friends. He said he had ordered a gun and was saying the most scary and disgusting things to me. I had 12 phone calls before 9am from him, all threatening to shoot me that day.
“After I dropped Rosie off at school I decided to record the phone calls and went straight to my mum’s house. I told her what had happened and we called the police on non-emergency line.
“They sent a policeman over to take a statement. He was very nice and really sensitive with how to deal with it. I had to play the recordings to him and explain the backstory as to what has happened.”
Brian was arrested and sentenced to 18 months probations and a two-year restraining order from both Jennifer’s home and her mother’s.
It just had to be something drastic for them to take me seriously, which is dangerous and worrying because, in a lot of cases, this would be too late for some people
“The police that interviewed him said that without the call recordings they wouldn’t have been able to do much because it’s my word against Brian’s.
“I do feel I was let down by the police and other authorities initially and that is why it took me so long to leave him and finally do something about it. But this time round it seems they have stepped up. It just had to be something drastic for them to take me seriously, which is dangerous and worrying because, in a lot of cases, this would be too late for some people.
I do think I could have left him a lot sooner and got the support I needed. It takes so much courage and a lot of time building yourself up to speak to someone about it
“I know police are strained and they can only work on hard evidence. But they should be able to pick up on warning signs and have the power to act on them. If the policewomen that attended the call about him smashing up the TV back in 2014 had taken me seriously and acted when I said he had hit me, I do think I could have left him a lot sooner and got the support I needed. It takes so much courage and a lot of time building yourself up to speak to someone about it.”
Even with this law, charges can still fail thanks to a lack of evidence or willingness to find evidence. A survey by Rights of Women and the Welsh Woman’s Aid found that while 99% of the participants reported the incident to the police, only 8.3% were able to provide substantial evidence. Given the danger of domestic abuse cases, charities say it can be perilous for a victim to collect their own evidence, yet this is crucial in being able to bring charges against the perpetrator.
Jake Gunton and Richard Worth 23rd November 2017