‘Positive response’ to domestic abuse praised, but some ‘outdated attitudes’ need to be addressed, says HMICS

Despite “many positives” in Police Scotland’s response to domestic abuse, “significant challenges still exist” in preventing and understanding the scale of the crime, according to a new report.

Jan 12, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: Police Scotland

In particular, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICS) in Scotland found a lack of consistency in the quality of police response, with some officers lacking empathy and understanding and showing “outdated attitudes” in abuse cases.

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Craig Naylor praised the “many positives in the tactics and methods currently used by Police Scotland”, especially given the volume of reports of domestic abuse, but said there is a need for more training.

This should include trauma-informed practices and an element of the lived experience of victims to address problematic and outdated attitudes, and improved and more cohesive methods of communicating with victims throughout investigations, said Mr Naylor.

Plans for their safety, which is a critical aspect of the response to domestic abuse and developing a consistent recording method for safety plans, also need urgent attention, he highlighted in the report published on Thursday (January 12).

In addition, he said there is still a lack of knowledge and confidence among some officers in recognising and applying the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 legislation.

And there is a lack of understanding among officers of the extent and usage of counter/malicious allegations as part of domestic abuse, which needs to be addressed.

However, call handlers, who are generally the first contact a victim has with the force, were recognised as providing a “good service overall”,  as are officers in cases where children are involved and those in specialist teams.

But there can be a lack of awareness among attending officers in how to handle counter complaints and inconsistency in record keeping, inspectors found.

The HMIC review showed how the policing response to reports of domestic abuse in Scotland has “changed significantly” in recent years with this form of criminal behaviour being prioritised while steps have also been taken to protect those most vulnerable to its harmful effects.

“Police Scotland has a proactive approach to tackling the most persistent domestic abuse offenders, comprehensive training has been rolled out, various national specialist units have been introduced and innovative campaigns have been launched,” it said.

Police Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Task Force, for example, has achieved “significant success and has brought a number of prolific offenders to justice”, said Mr Naylor.

Since April last year, the work of the Task Force has resulted in 32 domestic abusers being sentenced to a total of 215 years in prison, with individual sentences ranging from 18 months to 15 years.

Mr Naylor said: “Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime committed by individuals on those they supposedly love and care for. It often takes place in private, behind closed doors and increasingly online, and the impact on those directly affected can be devastating.

“There is no doubt that domestic abuse, which is directed at men as well as women, has had a heightened profile in the public consciousness in the past decade with third sector and government input, in addition to that of criminal justice.

“New legislation has been introduced and Police Scotland has been at the forefront of tackling this most repugnant form of behaviour.”

The most recent figures show there were 64,807 domestic abuse incidents recorded in Scotland last year with 32,776 (50.6 per cent) reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

Homicide figures, from the same period, show that 56 per cent of women killed died at the hands of a partner or ex-partner.

Mr Naylor said it is widely accepted that domestic abuse is under-reported with significant social, economic and cultural barriers persisting. There are indications that issues arising from the cost of living crisis could result in an even higher prevalence of domestic abuse offending.

“Few could have predicted the long-lasting and far reaching impact the Covid-19 pandemic would have on us as individuals and communities,” he said.

“However, Police Scotland was swift to recognise that the effects of lockdowns and social isolation may be particularly impactful on the vulnerable, including those suffering domestic abuse.

Working alongside the Scottish government and in collaboration with existing networks in the violence against women and girls sphere, Police Scotland ran a number of initiatives, including a domestic abuse campaign, to reassure those at risk of domestic abuse, encourage reporting, and provide information on how and where to access help and support.

“A great deal has been done by Police Scotland and the organisation is committed to further improvements to the services it provides directly and those from partner organisations.

“The risks associated with this area of policing, which are of significant public concern, determine that the improvements we identify in this report must be prioritised.”

The HMICS Thematic Review of Domestic Abuse considered the state, efficiency and effectiveness of the police response to domestic abuse, with a particular focus on the user experience of the reporting and investigative processes up to the conclusion of the police investigation.

HMICS has made 14 recommendations, including the need to ensure there is an adequate cadre of suitably trained sexual offence liaison officers (SOLOs) and the prioritisation of a robust system for progressing domestic abuse inquiries which will improve the service to victims.

Progress in the provision and promotion of third party reporting sites, the use of diary appointments, greater opportunities for the capture of digital evidence to reduce “significant delays”, including the need to ensure and save victims from having to trawl through their own devices, enhanced response at the first point of contact and the requirement to offer the preferred gender of attending officer to victims are also reflected in the recommendations.

The report highlights the more developed approach within Police Scotland to sexual offending and expressed disappointment at the lack of a formal process to garner the views of victims of domestic abuse.

Recently published figures on repeat offenders and sentences that have been achieved through proactive work are welcome and need to continue to be delivered, said HMICS.

The scrutiny body identifies a number of examples of good practice and areas for development with a view to improving service delivery and the experience of victims, ultimately enhancing public confidence in an area of policing which is of great public interest and concern.

“Good quality service to victims at the first point of contact, and beyond, is crucial. If, having taken the bold step to report domestic abuse, a victim has a poor experience, they are far less likely to report any further abuse,” said Mr Naylor.

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