Research highlights importance of training police to recognise coercive control and domestic abuse

Police training to raise awareness of the complex nature of domestic abuse has had a positive effect on the number of arrests for controlling or coercive behaviour in England and Wales – according to new research led by the Universities’ of Portsmouth and Hull.

In the context of the pandemic – when crime data* recorded by police shows an increase in offences flagged as domestic abuse and an increase in demand for domestic abuse victim services – the results of the study are significant.

Controlling or coercive behaviour was classified as a criminal offence in 2015 in England and Wales, the year the study began. The study looked at the effectiveness of a training programme, ‘Domestic Abuse Matters’, which had been adopted by 14 police forces in England and Wales by the end of the study.

The study was a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth, University of Hull, Behavioural Insights Team and the College of Policing. The programme was delivered by SafeLives and Women’s Aid. The study was published in Police and Society Journal.  

targeted in-person training, supported by a force-wide strategy of peer support and continuing development, can assist officers to understand the reality and complex dynamics of domestic abuse, and identify the signs of coercive controlling behaviour.

Dr Jacki Tapley, Institute of Criminal Justice Studies

In December 2015, England and Wales became the first country to criminalise controlling or coercive behaviour. Since then, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have introduced similar legislation. The Government defines coercive behaviour as an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. Controlling behaviour is defined as a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Dr Jacki Tapley, from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Portsmouth, said: “Domestic abuse is rarely a one-off incident, although historically that is how it has been responded to by the criminal justice system. We now have a better understanding of the nature of domestic abuse and rather than it occurring as the result of a loss of temper, we now know it is part of a wider pattern of coercive controlling behaviour, designed to undermine and isolate the victim. It is the cumulative effect of this ongoing abuse that has a particularly harmful impact on the victim and others in the household.

“The findings of this study, together with evidence from an evaluation of the training undertaken in one force in 2020, demonstrates that targeted in-person training, supported by a force-wide strategy of peer support and continuing development, can assist officers to understand the reality and complex dynamics of domestic abuse, and identify the signs of coercive controlling behaviour.”

The study, which analysed data on over 13,000 arrests from 33 police forces, showed that:  

  • Force-wide training to raise awareness of issues in the policing of domestic abuse and of the crime of controlling or coercive behaviour was associated with a 41 per cent increase in arrests for controlling or coercive behaviour
  • This effect was an average addition of 3.3 arrests per force per month
  • The effect of the training was sustained for approximately eight months
  • While arrest may not be the only or even most desirable long-term outcome of training to improve outcomes for victims, training a large majority of police force members to understand the context as well as the procedure surrounding coercive control was effective in increasing use of this police power
  • Despite the success of this programme, nationally, only two per cent of domestic abuse arrests during the study were for controlling or coercive behaviour

Melani Morgan OBE, SafeLives Lead for Domestic Abuse Matters, a change programme for Police, and the SafeLives Responding Well programmes, said: “DA Matters is much more than a training course – it is a cultural change programme designed to create long term, sustainable improvements and consistency in the response to domestic abuse. Twenty-one out of 43 police forces in England and Wales have adopted the DA Matters programme with SafeLives, with many more signed up for 2021.

“This research shows the positive and sustained impact of the programme – leading to a 41 per cent increase in arrests for controlling or coercive behaviour. And our own evaluation and anecdotal evidence suggests the training leads to a change in attitude and thinking around domestic abuse, which will not just affect arrest rates, but also the overall response victims receive.

“Every victim, no matter who they are, or where they live, deserves the same quality of response when they reach out for support and we hope this report will lead to all forces signing up to DA Matters. We will continue to identify further support needed in adopter forces to sustain the changes in attitude and practice."

David Tucker, crime lead at the College of Policing, said: “It is pleasing the research shows the Domestic Abuse Matters training programme is having a positive impact on how police forces across England and Wales respond to and investigate domestic abuse incidents.

“The programme, which is made up of training for frontline responders and further training for domestic abuse champions in forces, aims to support greater consistency around the policing response to reports of domestic abuse.

“We know this can be an extremely complex issue, which is often characterised by non-violent coercive and controlling behaviour, which has a significant adverse impact on the quality of life of its victims, as well as indicating risk of future physical harm.“

The challenge for policing is to sustain the improved recognition of coercive and controlling behaviour by embedding the responses to the DA Matters training across the service.

“We will continue to work with our operational colleagues and charities to develop the sustained support for domestic abuse training which the research suggests is necessary.”

Professor Brennan, from the University of Hull, said: “Compared to the pre-training period and compared to untrained forces, trained forces saw an increased rate of arrest for approximately eight months. After this time, the boost from the training reduced. 

“This pattern suggests that the training had meaningful but short-term effects and highlights that improving the police response to domestic abuse will require sustained investment by police and policy makers”.

The programme, which is made up of training for frontline responders and further training for domestic abuse champions in forces, aims to support greater consistency around the policing response to reports of domestic abuse

David Tucker, crime lead at the College of Policing

The training programme was introduced to raise awareness following the publication of a report in 2014 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary that concluded that the police response to victims was ‘not good enough’ and that ‘officers lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to engage confidently and competently with victims of domestic abuse’ (HMIC 2014, p. 7). The report was also critical of the over-reliance on e-learning and identified an urgent need to overhaul domestic abuse training.

Although this new research focuses on a single training programme and it is important not to overstate its significance, its relative success may have wider implications for police training.

* Office for National Statistics, 2019 

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