Reports of Police Domestic Abuse Increase by 49% During Pandemic
Data from a Freedom of Information request shows that incidents of domestic abuse where a police officer was the alleged perpetrator dramatically increased between April 2020 and March 2021
Reports of domestic abuse made against police staff increased by 49% during the Coronavirus pandemic, compared to the previous five-year average.
Data obtained by a Freedom of Information request revealed that in the 12 months between April 2020 and March 2021, there were 308 reports of domestic abuse against serving police staff in 33 of the UK’s 45 territorial police forces – almost six incidents a week.
During the previous five years, there had been a total of 1,378 reports, meaning the rate had increased by almost a half.
Of the 96 reports against police staff in the Metropolitan Police, 15 involved actual or bodily harm along with 46 cases of common assault. In the Sussex Police force, where reports of domestic abuse relating to staff were 25 times higher than the previous five-year average, coercive control was the most common offence.
Domestic abuse typically has a low conviction rate – between 2015-20 only 5.7% of reports in England and Wales led to a conviction. However, when a police officer is accused, the conviction rate drops even further, to 3.5%.
After the first national Coronavirus lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020, the domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid expressed concern over the increased risk of harm and isolation this would bring for those affected by domestic abuse. This new data suggests that those at risk included the partners of serving police officers.
The concerning levels of domestic abuse perpetrated by police staff comes as the former Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens is sentenced for the murder of Sarah Everard. She is one of 15 women killed by police officers since 2009.
Reacting to these figures, Jess Phillips MP, Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, said “police officers who commit domestic abuse should face justice with the same rigour as anyone else and what is more they must be seen to be held to exacting standards in order to give faith to victims coming forward.”
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When Rachel’s (not her real name) partner joined his local police force, he became increasingly controlling. By the time she was pregnant, he had taken over complete control of her finances and maintained his control by threatening to take her baby away.
“He would say, ‘I’m a police officer’,” Rachel explained. “‘No-one’s going to believe you’.” The controlling behaviour escalated and soon he became physically and sexually abusive.
When Rachel found the courage to report her abuser to the police, she was interviewed by his colleagues. She did not want to prosecute but was told there would be an internal investigation.
Fearing any potential retribution, Rachel asked to be informed once her ex-partner was spoken to. She never heard anything back. Rachel remains unaware of any outcomes from her report.
A request to move her ex-partner to a police station further from where she lived was also refused, ultimately leaving Rachel with little trust left.
“I now feel so let down by the police that I do not honestly think I would ever ring 999 again,” she told Byline Times.
While convictions of domestic abuse are rare, other sanctions are possible – for example a police officer who has been accused of gross misconduct or inappropriate behaviour can be reported to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). However, reporting is only compulsory in the most serious cases, such as allegations of corruption, serious assault, and serious sexual offence.
In all other cases, referrals for domestic abuse complaints are left to the police force’s discretion. Of the 33 forces for which data was provided, only 7% had referred officers to the IOPC following a complaint.
Police officers can also be subject to internal investigations, which was what Rachel had requested in the case of her abuser. Byline Times found that in only 18% of closed investigations did forces report that the accused received any form of internal discipline or management action. This was usually a misconduct hearing followed by a written warning. The rate was even lower in the Met, where only 8% of officers reported for domestic abuse faced any internal discipline or management action at all.
Only a third of police forces are known to have any processes in place to deal with the potential issues created when a person’s abuser is a police officer and therefore a respected figure of authority in the community. Processes include appointing an investigating officer not known to the accused, something which did not happen in Rachel’s case.
“It takes huge courage for women to report domestic abuse to the police and, to do so, survivors must trust the police to keep them safe,” said Lucy Hadley, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Women’s Aid. “These findings, on the extent of domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers, seriously damage and undermine this trust. The lack of robust disciplinary action in response is highly concerning.”
This systemic inaction led the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) to file a super complaint to The Police Inspectorate in March 2020. The super complaint alleged there was evidence of a pattern of “inadequate investigations, inadequate charging and misconduct decisions, and in some cases accused officers and their colleagues abusing their powers, harassing, punishing and victimising women”.
Investigations following on from this super complaint are still ongoing. Nogah Ofer, a solicitor for the CWJ, suggests a key change must be that investigations are carried out by external bodies like the IPOC.
“You can put in place additional provisions and requirements but all these things can be gotten around by officers if they are determined to protect a colleague,” Ofer told Byline Times. “The big move that you can make is putting that dividing wall between parties and the investigation.”