DAMNING reports into the handling of domestic abuse by police has shown how victims are being failed by “unacceptable weaknesses” in the way it is dealt with. Emily Flanagan looks at some of the issues.

A NATIONAL investigation into how police are dealing with domestic abuse was launched by the policing inspectorate because it suspected the police response to domestic abuse was “not good enough”.

The resulting reports confirmed this to be the case. The findings were described by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) as a “wake-up call” for police and “deeply worrying” by the Home Secretary, who pledged to set up and chair an oversight group herself to ensure its recommendations were implemented. To campaigners, the reports were indicative of domestic abuse being treated as a “second class crime”.

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In North Yorkshire, Cleveland and Durham, domestic abuse accounts for roughly one third of all assaults resulting in injury recorded by police and eight per cent of all their recorded crime. It’s a crime that is traditionally under-reported; there are thousands of identified victims within the region - many more unidentified victims - and no statistics for the impact of the psychological trauma suffered by its many victims.

“We know that domestic abuse is under-reported and we can understand the reason – why it’s often difficult for people to contact us if they are in a relationship or have recently left one,” says North Yorkshire’s Assistant Chief Constable Paul Kennedy, who is now responsible for going through the HMIC reports and drawing up an action plan in response to the recommendations.

“We hope to give people the confidence that they will be listened to and we will have a caring and appropriate response as and when it’s needed.

“It’s building that confidence; it’s not just police but other agencies are there to give them help.”

Inspectors found that both Cleveland and North Yorkshire forces were conducting “effective work” but there were “areas for improvement”.

In North Yorkshire not all victims were found to be receiving the support and access to services they needed, due to an inconsistent approach to risk assessment. But the force was found to have invested heavily in a Protecting Vulnerable Persons Unit and has received praise for its Making Safe Scheme which enables victims and their children to remain in their home while re-housing perpetrators and offering them support to manage their behaviour.

For all police forces, attitudes, ineffective training and inadequate evidence-gathering were all criticised in the national HMIC report, which quoted one victim recounting how: “Last year one officer came out and his radio was going and I heard him say “It’s a DV, we’ll be a few minutes and we’ll go to the next job”. And I thought – thanks a lot, that’s my life.”

In the year the police watchdog looked at statistics from the UK’s police forces (2012/13) 77 women were killed by their partner or ex-partner.

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor says: “Domestic abuse casts a terrible blight on the lives of very many people, and can have tragic consequences.

“In too many police forces we found there were serious weaknesses in services, which are putting victims at unnecessary and avoidable risk.”

Clare Laxton, public policy manager at the charity Women’s Aid says the report bore out the message they were getting from women.

“The report really emphasises what women have been telling us for a long time.

“At the end of the day we hear all the time women are told, “there’s nothing we can do”, “We can’t help you.” That’s letting violent perpetrators get away with it and in any other area of crime that would be completely unacceptable.”

Within 24 of the reports being released police and crime commissioners and police forces issued statements saying tackling domestic abuse was a “key priority” for them – but despite laudable policies and pledges, much of the problems identified were at ground level.

Clare said addressing those failings required a shift in attitudes at all levels.

“It does require a culture change. Sometimes even when the leaders are really, really committed it doesn’t always filter down to the ground level, that’s why training is really critical here.

“It’s not mandatory for police officers to have training in domestic abuse, but it makes up eight to ten per cent of all crime. Two people every minute call police about domestic violence. It’s about that frontline response that women get from that police officer on the door.”

Retired deputy chief constable of North Yorkshire Police, Peter Walker, writing on the website, www.ConservativeHome.com says attitudes had to be looked at.

Commenting on attitudes generally in UK police forces, he states: “Many of the criticisms voiced by HMIC stem from a culture within the police that mentally segregates “domestics” from “proper” crime in the minds of not only the officers attending, but their leadership within police forces as well.

“The evidence uncovered by the inspection reveals poor practice ranging from responding officers not taking the victim’s allegations seriously to a consistent failure to gather or review the evidence available.”

He says domestic abuse can be some of the most complex investigative challenges police officers face, with witnesses often appearing uncooperative, particularly as prosecution and court appearances loom. Similarly, they often find after starting a prosecution case, the Crown Prosecution Service refuse to proceed because the victim has changed their mind.

Speaking on the HMIC recommendations, Assistant Chief Constable Kennedy says the work police do in the field will be primarily concerned with improving life for domestic abuse victims.

“It’s not about ticking boxes; it’s making sure we take steps to get even better and build up confidence for victims because we genuinely care about domestic abuse.”

• To report an incident of domestic abuse contact police on 101, or in an emergency ring 999. To contact the Independent Domestic Abuse Services (IDAS) ring 03000 110 110