Domestic violence: the dangers of tick‑box policing

In a debate on Monday on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, unwittingly demonstrated how utterly disconnected from reality political thinking on domestic violence has become. The short debate, between her and Garry Shewan, assistant chief constable for Greater Manchester, showed perfectly how policy on domestic violence is currently being made on the hoof, using incomplete and misleadingly presented information, in order to cynically get political mileage out of a sensitive and complex societal problem. 

The debate concerned the question of whether too many ‘community resolutions’ were being used to deal with domestic-abuse cases. The term ‘community resolution’ refers to the peculiar disposal of a case in which the police basically engineer an apology or some other ‘action between parties’, bringing the case to a close without a prosecution. Cooper said that the number of cases in which community resolutions were being applied had tripled in recent years. This now meant, she said, that ‘thousands of domestic abusers’ were being let off criminal charges ‘by saying sorry’. 

But this is a severely incomplete and distorted picture. Before Cooper spoke, Shewan pointed out that, yes, there were nearly 7,000 instances last year when community resolutions were used to settle domestic abuse cases. But, he continued, given that there are approximately one million incidents of domestic violence every year, community resolutions are actually being used in less than one per cent of total cases. He then justified the use of community resolutions on the grounds that it would be absurd to prosectute the cases to which community resolutions were applied, like snapping off a wing mirror in a moment of anger – especially if the victim did not wish to pursue it. He pointed out that there were ample safeguards in place to ensure that community resolutions were not used in cases of serious violence.

All Cooper could do was repeat the go-to statistic, which is wheeled out whenever one politician wants to say that another politician is failing to deal with domestic violence, which is that two women a week die at the hands of their partners or an ex. This is, tragically, true, but when Cooper was pushed to provide evidence that cases involving violence were being resolved using community resolutions, Cooper couldn’t. When asked whether there was any evidence that cases involving serious violence were not being dealt with seriously, she couldn’t. Her argument, which she had come on the programme to defend, was quickly shown up to be nothing more than completely shameless scaremongering.

But what of Cooper’s claim that the use of these disposals had trebled in recent years? Such an increase would make sense, given that the definition of what constitutes ‘abuse’, and therefore grounds for police interference, has expanded beyond recognition. As well as snapping off a wing mirror, many even less serious offences could potentially be recorded as ‘domestic abuse’ today. These include ‘harassment’, which can often be prosecuted on the basis of name-calling and raised voices, depending on how the complainant experienced the behaviour. In a context in which the police are allowed to intervene in a very broad range of behaviour, it makes sense that those involved in these ‘offences’ may well respond by discontinuing police involvement as soon as possible. The fact that the use of these disposals has increased may say more about our very broad notion of what constitutes ‘abuse’ today than it does about the police’s lackadaisical approach to serious violent offences.   

While Cooper did not have the evidence to support her position, the increased use of these resolutions may well demonstrate a lack of objective investigation in these cases. The guidance issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) on the use of community resolutions is revealing: not only can they be deployed without the complainant’s consent, but it seems they are designed, at least in part, to avoid having to record an incident as requiring ‘no further action’, something the police are often criticised for. At a time when the discussion on how we treat domestic violence focuses on ‘driving up’ conviction rates, or ‘driving down’ ‘no further action’ rates, you can understand why the police might want to place greater reliance on ‘community resolutions’. They allow the police to tick a particular statistical box without doing any serious work. It is noteworthy that the ACPO’s guidance indicates that a resort to community resolution must be recorded as ‘separate to… no-further-action cases’ so that community resolutions will be recognised by the Home Office as a ‘positive outcome’. 

That’s why Cooper’s two-minute cringe fest on the Today programme was such an appropriate illustration of the profound and complex problems at the heart of modern domestic-violence policy. On the one hand, politicians are using whatever scraps of information they can get their hands on to attempt to make half-baked political claims about the system’s failings in dealing with domestic violence. On the other hand, this climate, in turn, fixates the police on targets, which do little to reflect any objective reality, and can allow them to completely avoid investigating serious allegations rigorously. Dealing with police failings in these cases requires a return to objectivity and sound judgement, rather than misinformation, exaggeration and a blind deference to statistics. The important point which is too rarely made is that the political and prosecutorial obsession with statistics in these cases is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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