Happy International Women’s Day

We are really pleased to be celebrating International Women’s Day with this blog series. In today’s blog (the second in this series) we are going to be sharing details of two key research projects that concern the policing of domestic abuse.

Historically, the relationship between domestic abuse survivors and the police has been fraught with complexities with debates about whether domestic abuse should be seen as a private or a public matter. What victims want when they call the police and what action police take can often be a contentious issue. Due to dissatisfaction with the service police provide, survivors in domestic abuse often disengage from the process. At the point of disengagement, police have some options available to them which brings us to another key point of debate in this area- choice and control. Due to a policy of ‘positive action’ in domestic abuse cases, the police can take a case to court even when the survivor disengages from the process. It is at this point that survivors often report feeling that the choice of what happens has been taken away from them and that the control the perpetrator had over them has now been replicated by the police and wider criminal justice system.

Engagement in domestic abuse is one of the key foci at the OU and today we are going to be sharing details about two research projects the team have been busy working on recently.

Survivor (Dis)Engagement Study

The first of these projects explored the issue of survivors’ decisions to engage or withdraw from the police in domestic abuse cases.  We know that domestic abuse is much more likely to be perpetrated by men against women.  We also know that the most common reason for these types of cases to be dropped is because survivors either do not provide a statement or later withdraw it. Worryingly, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services (the body responsible for monitoring the performance of the police in England and Wales) raised concerns about the increasing number of domestic abuse cases that were being closed due to survivors not supporting the investigation.  They were concerned because it was not always possible to tell if survivors had actually been spoken to about the decision to close the case.  But it was not just the Inspectorate who were concerned about this, in 2019, police forces in the Centre or Policing Research and Learning at the Open University were asked what issues they felt needed to be addressed (in relation to violence against women and girls) and they identified survivor engagement as the number one issue.  It was because of this that the Centre for Policing Research and Learning funded a large project to understand how, when and why survivors of domestic abuse disengage from police and how, in turn, police officers encourage and understand survivor engagement.

The research was led by Dr Lis Bates with support from Dr Anna Hopkins, Dr Shona Morrison and Dr Holly Taylor-Dunn in the policing team at the OU. The research included data collected during 2019-2021.  The team analysed over 95,000 domestic abuse incidents across seven police forces, 140 in-depth police case files, 31 survivor interviews, and focus groups with 15 police officers from three forces.

The research found that survivor disengagement remains the most common reason given by police for closing domestic abuse cases without charge – with 58% of survivors withdrawing – a far higher rate than for general crime.  There were certain factors that seemed to be associated with the likelihood of a survivor disengaging including:

  • Cases where someone else reported the incident
  • Cases where the incident was reported within 24 hours of it happening
  • Cases where the survivor and perpetrator were living together.

Importantly, this research has shown that the vast majority of survivors who disengage do so at the very start of the police process – before, at, or just after the initial police response.

But we were really interested to understand the reasons why survivors disengage so early on and by analysing the police case files, we identified two key themes.  The first of these relates to survivors who disengaged because their needs had been met by the initial police response.  For example, some survivors called the police because they wanted help for the perpetrator’s mental health, while some just needed the police to ensure their immediate safety and de-escalate the situation, and for others, they just wanted the police to make a record of the incident without taking it any further.

The second theme relates to barriers that prevent survivors engaging with the police.  This included survivors who were fearful of the suspect and the repercussions of making a statement, delays in the initial police response which meant they lost confidence in the police, a poor initial response from the police where survivors felt blamed, and finally, survivors who felt the criminal justice process had ‘taken over’ and they had lost control of the situation.

We are still working on the analysis of this research and there will be more we can say about survivor engagement (and disengagement) in domestic abuse cases.  For now, what these early findings suggest is that we should consider what survivors need from the police, whether the police are able to meet those needs and if not, what needs to change.

Evidence-led prosecutions study

The second project we want to tell you about is concerned with something called ‘evidence-led prosecutions’.  An evidence-led prosecution is one where the victim either does not support the prosecution or withdraws their support and the case goes ahead anyway.  These types of prosecution have been used in the United States since the 1990’s but there is still debate about how appropriate they are in cases of domestic abuse.  For example, some people argue that by taking the decision away from survivors, we are simply replacing the control of the abuser with control by the State.  However, other people feel that by placing the decision to prosecute with victims, this actually puts them at greater risk of intimidation and pressure from the perpetrator.  In terms of what survivors feel about them, some studies in the US suggest victims are largely supportive of ELPs, but there is also research that suggests survivors are not necessarily safer as a result.

Although these types of prosecutions have been advocated in the UK since 2009, there is currently no evidence from the UK to tell us how and when they are used by the police, which cases are selected for prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and how they impact on victims.

This project is being led by Dr Anna Hopkins and Dr Holly Taylor-Dunn and involves an in-depth analysis of 100 police case files (50 that were considered as ‘evidence-led’ and 50 typical cases).  The research also included interviews with CPS prosecutors and victims whose case was taken forward as an evidence-led prosecution.  The research is due to complete at the end of March 2023 and we hope to be able to share findings soon.

If you are interested in hearing more about either of these studies, do please contact us at: