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This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. Caada is the previous name of SafeLives.

‘The overall police response to victims of domestic abuse is not good enough': this was the conclusion drawn from the review of police forces in England and Wales by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) earlier this year. In a special interview for eNews, HMIC Inspector Zoë Billingham reflects on the implications of the review, and offers tips to police and practitioners on working together to tackle coercive control.

What key findings did the inspection make? 

That the police response to victims of domestic abuse is just not good enough. Forces told us that domestic abuse was a priority on paper, but we found that this just isn't being put into practice. What was most disappointing is the way in which victims of domestic abuse are being failed with respect to even the most basic elements of policing. Too often domestic abuse is seen as the 'poor relation' in comparison to other types of crime.

What impact have HMIC's recommendations had so far? 

We were really determined that any report we wrote didn't just sit on the shelf, but that it led to a real difference being made. We'll be continuing to work with the Home Secretary, the police and with women's voluntary organisations to make sure that the recommendations happen.

What findings and recommendations did you make around coercive control in particular? 

We identified that, while police are aware of the definition of domestic abuse, they're generally poor at being able to identify coercion and threatening, controlling behaviour on the frontline. We also found very limited examples of frontline response officers having been trained effectively in domestic abuse.

To combat this, we've recommended that the College of Policing conducts a thorough and fundamental review to ensure its training reflects the fact that domestic abuse – including coercive control – is core policing business and is relevant to all officers and staff. Forces have a tendency to use online e-learning packages as a cheap and easy way of training staff, but we know from our inspection that it's not a good way to learn. It's absolutely vital that police officers have the time and space to think and reflect on such an important issue, and a classroom setting is essential to this. The voluntary sector has a massive role to play in this too.

You talk about domestic abuse being the ‘poor relation' in comparison to other crimes. How can forces go about changing this organisational culture? 

We're asking Chief Constables and senior officers to review how they, as individuals and as leaders, give priority to domestic abuse. This includes looking carefully at the force's own culture and values, and its performance management framework. For instance - are officers that are really good at understanding victims rewarded through the selection and promotion processes? What sorts of messages do senior leaders send to their force about the importance of tackling domestic abuse? And so on.

What other advice can you give to senior officers to help them make changes within their force, particularly in relation to coercive control? 

The advice I would offer would be:

  1. Take on board the recommendations we've outlined in the report, and act on them. When you put together your action plan, make sure it's realistic – work with partners, victims and charities to develop it, and look at how you can move training away from e-learning to something that includes proper input from victims.

  2. The College of Policing is pulling together a range of evidence about what works in identifying and tackling domestic abuse, and identifying coercion and control. This will feed into updating the Authorised Professional Practice and training programmes for policing at a national level, and be delivered to staff through education at a local level. As soon as that's available make sure that you're aware of it.

  3. Lead by example and show that domestic abuse is a priority for you. Attend the training with frontline officers, talk about the issue on your blog and social media, and raise it with the public at roadshows and local groups.

What about frontline officers? What advice would you give to them? 

The best thing you can do when you go into a domestic abuse incident is:

  1. Make sure you've got all the available information. Things like a history of incidents at the property will help give you an idea of the nature of the relationship and who is likely to be the victim.

  2. Separate the parties immediately and listen carefully to what each has to tell you. Never jump to conclusions or make assumptions about the victim or their lifestyle. Be aware not just of what they are saying but how they are saying it, and observe whether they seem to be holding back. If the victim is being uncooperative, consider why this might be - it's possible they are simply terrified.

  3. Ask questions that will help you to ascertain whether this is a relationship which is controlling and abusive - remember that there doesn't have to be visible injuries in order for you to act.

  4. Above all, take your time. Doing the best you can to understand the relationship in front of you will help you to identify what support the victim needs, and what police action is required in order to protect them.

Finally, what can domestic abuse practitioners do to support the police? 

They have an invaluable role to play. In some areas, we're even seeing IDVAs accompanying police to incidents. In the report, we're extremely clear about the important role IDVAs play because we just couldn't conceive the overall response to victims being where it is without them. IDVAs give such extraordinary levels of support - often across all risk levels.

During the review, we found so many benefits in forces where IDVAs are co-located either in police stations, or working in the specialist domestic abuse or protecting vulnerable people units. It's not just the support the IDVAs provide to the victims that's important, it's the knowledge and understanding that IDVAs bring into an organisation, a police force.