In March 2020 the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, submitted a super-complaint alleging that forces were not responding appropriately to cases of domestic abuse involving police officer or police staff suspects. Its submission included highly concerning victim testimonies that described victims feeling failed and sometimes further harmed by the police response.
It is vitally important that forces both respond robustly to these cases and are seen to do so. Police workforce members are entrusted with particular powers and responsibilities. Ensuring they uphold high standards of behaviour is fundamental to public trust and confidence in the police service. Forces also need to protect against the risks of having domestic abuse perpetrators in police roles.
Any allegation that a police workforce member has used their police status, knowledge and powers to deter a victim from reporting, to harm or discredit them or to undermine a police investigation must be treated with utmost seriousness. Protecting the integrity of the police response is not enough. The police must also be able to provide assurance and demonstrate that all the risks are managed.
Our three organisations have investigated CWJ’s concerns. It has been the most thorough review of the police response to domestic abuse cases involving police suspects to date. Our work has enabled us to draw some strong conclusions (although we have not conducted fieldwork in all forces and we have been able to look at some issues in more depth than others).
Our fieldwork indicates that the criminal investigation of these cases is typically of a comparable quality to other domestic abuse investigations. Data we have collected indicates that reports of domestic abuse offences are just as likely to lead to criminal charges when a police suspect is involved. We also found, for the cases we reviewed, that the initial handling and response to 999 calls was generally good.
While our findings are in some respects reassuring, there needs to be a recognition that the police response to domestic abuse, across the board, still needs to improve. There has been good progress with this in recent years, but it is concerning to find the same common weaknesses identified in other reviews of domestic abuse investigations are occurring in these cases. For example, these cases seem just as likely to be closed without all lines of enquiry being pursued, if a victim does not support an investigation.
While we have found examples of good practice when a police officer or staff member is accused of domestic abuse, we also found that the forces where we conducted fieldwork often took insufficient account of the specific needs of victims. Policing must be consistently more alive to a concern among victims that forces will ‘look after their own’ in these cases and, worse still, cause trouble for those who raise allegations. This concern will be stopping some victims from reporting and supporting investigations. More also needs to be done to protect victims from repercussions when allegations are reported to the police.
We have found that victims who work in policing themselves, particularly those who serve in the same force as their perpetrator, face a unique set of barriers to reporting. The service should be a leader in providing a work environment where those being abused feel safe and able to disclose, and those committing abuse are identified and appropriately dealt with to ensure victims and the public are safe. We conclude that the service is not consistently in this place at present, although we are aware of work locally and nationally to drive improvement.
Our investigation has also found that forces are not all going the extra mile with these cases, to show they understand the importance of protecting and demonstrating the integrity of the police response. We found safeguards to ensure and help demonstrate an impartial investigation and case decisions are not consistently applied. For example, case files should include formal ‘declaration of conflicts of interest’ records. These were often missing in the cases we reviewed, leaving it unclear whether or how those working on the case knew the victim or suspect.
One of our most important findings is that misconduct investigations are not always being carried out when they should be, nor conducted appropriately. Allegations of domestic abuse offences against police officers and staff should be reviewed and usually investigated by force professional standards departments. Shortcomings in this aspect of the police response, including failing to consistently refer cases to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (in line with the mandatory referral criteria), is something which chief constables must immediately address.
Overall, our investigation, combined with evidence submitted by CWJ, leads us to conclude forces are not fully recognising and responding to the risks and responsibilities associated with these cases. There are systemic deficiencies in the police response to cases of police perpetrated domestic abuse in England and Wales and this is causing significant harm to the public interest.
We are aware that many forces responded immediately to the super-complaint, by reviewing and revising relevant policies and guidance. An extra and important impetus for this activity has been rising concerns about violence against women and girls (VAWG) and, specifically, how forces deal with allegations against serving workforce members. The VAWG Taskforce, led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, has required all forces to review live VAWG allegations involving police officers and staff, including domestic abuse.
Evaluating new force approaches to cases of domestic abuse involving police officer or staff suspects has not been part of our super-complaint investigation. Our case file reviews and data collection did not include very recent cases and hence, they do not provide evidence on whether there have been any changes as a result of these new approaches, for example in investigation quality or case outcomes.
We have developed a series of recommendations aimed at better investigations and better protection of victims in these cases. The recommendations and actions for our own organisations are focused on ensuring national guidance and legal requirements are consistently followed, as well as growing an evidence base for effective practice.
We thank all of the victims who have shared their experiences and provided critical evidence to support the super-complaint and our investigation. We are also grateful to CWJ for its extremely important super-complaint submission. We believe that the very significant concerns it has raised should have been better recognised and responded to before.
Chief Executive of the College of Policing
HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary
Director General of the Independent Office for Police Conduct"