Domestic abuse: over 50,000 in UK at risk of murder or serious injury
HMIC reveals number of women and children deemed at high risk, while senior police officers criticise ‘unfair’ report
The number of women and children deemed at high risk of being murdered or seriously injured by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales exceeds 50,000, figures obtained by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reveal.
In a report that heavily criticises the police for alarming and unacceptable weaknesses in the way it deals with domestic abuse, the Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), has obtained figures which have previously been hidden, detailing the scale of the epidemic of violence against women and children.
Every force in England and Wales has to assess victims of domestic abuse for their level of risk, with those at the highest risk considered to be in imminent danger of being killed or seriously harmed. Two women are killed a week in domestic attacks in England and Wales.
Zoe Billingham, the HMIC inspector who carried out the six-month review of how police in England and Wales deal with domestic violence, published on Thursday, obtained figures from 33 out of 43 forces which reveal 57,900 individuals – the vast majority of whom are women – were assessed by police as at the highest risk. But the HMIC said the inconsistency of the data – with 10 forces unable to provide figures – on the numbers of individuals in different levels of risk raised concerns over the police’s ability to protect the public.
An attempt by the Guardian last month to obtain the numbers of women and children deemed at the highest risk of violence, through Freedom of Information requests, resulted in a patchy and diffident response. Ten forces did not respond to the request, seven refused to provide the information, and the remaining 26 provided a mere snapshot of the individuals they believed were at greatest risk. The data obtained showed that 10,952 women were at the highest risk, said at the time to be a small fraction of the true picture.
As forces across England and Wales addressed the highly critical report and recommendations made by Tom Winsor, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, some senior officers hit out at the damning nature of his findings.
The report said the police were still treating domestic violence as less important than other crimes, prioritising it on paper but not in practice. It criticised everything from a police culture in which responding officers displayed poor attitudes to vulnerable victims, to serious gaps in the training of officers around domestic violence, shortcomings in basic investigative procedures and failures of leadership and supervision.
Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester, whose force was heavily criticised by HMIC and ordered to develop an immediate action plan, attacked the inspectorate for what he said was an unfair report. Fahy said in a letter to the Guardian that he and his peers had “considerable frustrations” at the nature of the HMIC report, which did not address the societal nature of the problem of domestic violence and the need for a joined-up response with other agencies.
He said: “The College of Policing, which represents all professionals in policing, asked for this to be a multi agency inspection, with a far wider remit, but this was ignored. Cases of domestic abuse invariably include a far wider range of social issues, shown by the fact that only about 30% of cases result in a recorded crime.
“There is a significant overlap between domestic abuse and complex dependency issues and with those involved in gangs and organised crime. Even if police can remove an abuser from a victim’s life they may well live in a community where they will face pressure from their families or criminal networks.”
Fahy’s force was criticised by the HMIC over key weaknesses in its system of dealing with victims, with the report saying urgent action was required. Winsor’s inspection team said GMP focused on dealing with offenders and that insufficient attention was paid to safeguarding victims.
The force is also facing three investigations by the independent police complaints commission over the way it handled domestic violence complaints from three women – Linzi Ashton, Farkhanda Younis and Rania Alayed – before they were killed by their partners or ex-partners. It has been heavily criticised in the past over its actions in the domestic violence murders of Clare Wood and Katie Boardman; both women who had contact with police before they were killed.
But Fahy said his officers dealt with an average of 170 domestic abuse incidents every day and “become weary that the wider system is not dealing with the underlying issues or that society is not taking this more seriously.”
Fahy said the legal system needed overhauling and he wanted to see the creation of specialist magistrates to deal with those assessed as at highest risk of serious violence at the hands of their partners. Forces should be able to take their high risk cases to the magistrate within 24 hours, he said, whether or not the victim wanted to make a complaint.
“The police can always do better and comply more closely with the processes but it has to be acknowledged that there are fundamental flaws in the way the wider system safeguards the very vulnerable which is why so many are so reluctant to come forward.”