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:




Celebrating International Women’s Day at OU Policing

by Dr Holly Taylor-Dunn and Dr Anna Hopkins of The Open University’s Policing Organisation and Practice department

Welcome to a special series of our OU Policing blog in recognition of International Women’s Day which is celebrated on 8th March.

This is the first in a series of 5 blog posts that will be published every Wednesday during March 2023.  We wanted to share details about the work we are doing here at OU Policing in support of women and the issues they face.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘embrace equity’.  The organisers are calling on everyone to recognise that equality and equity are different things.  They are trying to highlight the fact that women face particular challenges and barriers in their lives that prevent them fulfilling their opportunity.  It isn’t enough to say we will treat everyone the same – because we aren’t the same – and we don’t experience the same obstacles in life.

So how is this relevant to policing?  Well, it’s really relevant.  For example, we don’t expect the police to treat all victims of crime in the exact same way, because their needs are not the same.  This is especially important when we talk about crimes such as domestic abuse or sexual violence, as these are crimes that affect the lives of women to a much greater extent than men.   For the last 50 years, women’s advocates have been calling on the police (and wider criminal justice system) to take these forms of abuse seriously and to provide effective support to victim/survivors.  But as you will see in the blog posts on 8th and  29th March there is still a way to go.

The debate around equality and equity is also relevant to policing as a workplace.  One of the projects that will be shared in this blog series relates to women’s experience of maternity leave and returning to work in the police – this project highlights the challenges faced by women with childcare responsibilities which can directly impact their career opportunities.

Current challenges in policing and the wider criminal justice system?

The last few years have been unprecedented in terms of women’s relationships with the police.   The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, followed by the horrendous crimes of David Carrick have understandably eroded trust and confidence in the police for many women.  The increased focus on police officers as potential perpetrators of violence against women resulted in the Centre for Women’s Justice launching a ‘super-complaint’ against the police.  This super-complaint alleged that the police were failing to deal appropriately with domestic abuse cases involving serving police officers.

But not only have police forces faced criticism for how they have dealt with police officers who commit violence against women, they have also been criticised for how they have dealt with reported offences from the public.  A government body responsible for inspecting police forces raised concerns about the number of violent crimes against women and girls that were closed by the police as requiring ‘no further action’.  The Inspectors were worried that the proportion of cases being closed in this way had increased a lot in recent years and they were not convinced that victim/survivors had been consulted about these decisions.

So, what is being done to address problems such as these?

The current challenges facing the police in terms of women’s trust and confidence may sound bleak.  However, there is so much work underway in police forces across the UK who are genuinely committed to getting it right. Nationally, for the first time ever a Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Taskforce has been set up. Led by DCC Maggie Blyth the taskforce addresses VAWG across Three Pillars:

  • Build Trust and Confidence – Policing cannot claim to take VAWG seriously if it does not respond immediately and robustly to VAWG-related allegations and root out those who do not uphold the culture and high standards that the public rightly expects from it.
  • Relentless Pursuit of Perpetrators – Perpetrators are the one and only cause of VAWG.
  • Safer Spaces – Locations where women and girls are most at risk from VAWG maybe online, behind closed doors or in public spaces, to target activity the riskiest locations need to be identified

Here at the OU we work in collaboration with 24 police forces throughout the UK via the Centre for Policing Research and Learning.  This collaboration brings together academics and police forces to address issues that are important to policing.  Given the current situation, it may not surprise you to learn that many of the projects we are currently working on are focussed on violence against women and girls.

We are working on projects exploring how to improve the police response to rape and sexual violence, a project examining the reasons why victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence may not want to support a police investigation, and a project investigating cases of domestic abuse that are prosecuted without the support of the victim.

It is important to highlight that all of these projects are supported by the police forces in our partnership – they recognise how important this work is and they want to improve.  We are also developing a project looking at domestic abuse within the police.  This will consider the work that is being done to support officers and staff who are affected by domestic abuse as well as how they deal with those who perpetrate it.

Concluding remarks

Despite the significant impact of recent events on women’s trust and confidence in the police, it is important to recognise the amount of work currently underway to address these issues.  The reality is that in order for women and girls to succeed and reach their potential, they should firstly be able to achieve equity in all aspects of their lives which would in turn would contribute towards a life free from violence, abuse and fear.  In order to get there we need to work together to change the structures in our society that allow such abuses to occur – including the police and wider criminal justice system.