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Recognising the controlling patterns at the heart of domestic abuse

Escalating abuse. Shutterstock

Perpetrators of domestic abuse often try to take control of every aspect of their partner’s lives. This controlling behaviour lies at the heart of domestic abuse, but legislation introduced in 2015 makes coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate or family relationships a criminal offence.

Coercive control often includes isolating women from friends and family, monitoring where they go, and controlling their use of social media. It also includes damage to women’s property and financial abuse, such as depriving women of money or taking the money they earn. It can include threats to children, or encouraging children to participate in the abuse of their mothers. Increasingly, coercive control takes place via social media, including the threat or use of so-called revenge porn.

Physical and sexual abuse of a partner was obviously a criminal offence before the new law was introduced. But the law now recognises the harms caused by the other patterns of behaviour by which perpetrators of domestic violence abuse their partners. One aim is to enable domestic abuse to be identified in the earlier stages of relationships, so that the police can intervene before the onset of physical violence, or before violence that has already started becomes more severe.

In many cases, domestic violence is life-threatening. The most recent Office for National Statistics homicide figures for the UK show that during 2014-15, 81 women were killed by former or current partners. These women made up 44% of female murder victims during that year, compared with 6% of male victims who were killed by current or former partners.

This has been the pattern for several years, with between one and two women killed by current or former partners each week. These killings are often the culmination of years or months of domestic abuse, the severity of which has escalated during the period leading up to the woman’s death. In many cases, the woman has previously sought help from the police or other agencies, and has not received an adequate response.

Missed opportunities to recognise threats

An Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) review of police responses to several women who experienced domestic abuse and were later killed by partners or former partners, identified several recurring problems with police attitudes and practices. These included failures to properly record details from callers reporting violence, failure to gather intelligence about offenders’ histories, failure to conduct assessments of the levels of risk which perpetrators posed, and failure to reassess risk when the situation changed – all of which contributed to the police missing opportunities to identify or react to the escalating violence during the period leading up to the woman’s death.

Perhaps most crucially, the report identified some police officers’ lack of empathy with women experiencing domestic abuse as one of the key factors contributing to poor practices.

The killing of Colette Lynch in Warwickshire by former partner, Percy Wright, in 2005, particularly highlights how a lack of police empathy can have deadly consequences. Early that year, Wright threatened Lynch and caused damage to her home. The police officers who attended the scene did not investigate this incident, or record it as a crime, despite Lynch reporting that Wright had threatened to kill her and reports to the police that Wright had been seen in public carrying knives.

Two days later, Wright stabbed Lynch to death. Another IPCC report concluded that “Colette was grievously ill served by a succession of officers … who failed to ask questions, failed to listen properly, failed to make adequate records”. Wright’s mental health had seriously deteriorated in the weeks leading up to the killing, for which he was convicted of manslaughter.

Joining up crucial information

In Lynch’s case, the police responded to the damage to her property as simply an incident of criminal damage. The police tendency to respond to incidents of domestic abuse as single incidents rather than as part of a pattern of repeated abusive behaviour is evident from other IPCC reports, such as their report into the death of Maria Stubbings, who was murdered by former partner Marc Chivers in 2008. During the period leading up to her murder, Stubbings had reported harassment and threats including Chivers breaking into her property. Despite Essex police knowing that Chivers had been convicted of murdering a previous female partner, they initially responded to the break-in as an ordinary burglary.

Because the new legislation specifically defines coercive and controlling behaviour as repeated and continuous, it has the potential to move police thinking and practice away from a focus on single incidents to one which recognises that domestic abuse involves patterns of behaviour which occur over time, and are cumulative in their effects.

This creates the potential for greater police understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse, and the effects it can have on the women experiencing it, which could lead to a more empathetic response. Had police recognised the patterns of escalating aggression towards Lynch and Stubbings in the periods leading up to their deaths – and responded appropriately – it is possible that their deaths might have been avoided.

Some of the successful prosecutions brought under the new legislation suggest that it is improving police recognition of patterns of coercive control, at least in some areas. For example, in Liverpool, Adrian Lee was sentenced to six months in prison and given a two-year restraining order under this law for controlling his partner by preventing her contact with friends, stopping her using her mobile phone, controlling her social media use, and making her delete friends from Facebook. In Cleveland, Richard Wilshaw’s “menacing” behaviours when his partner resisted his control, resulted in a conviction for coercive and controlling behaviour.

There is a danger that perpetrators may be charged with this offence as an alternative to charging them with offences which can be more difficult to prove. To prevent this happening it is important that the new offence does not become a “catch-all” offence which leads to more serious offences being overlooked. But the new law has enormous potential for changing criminal justice agencies’ attitudes to domestic abuse, and for enabling those experiencing such abuse to recognise it and seek help at an earlier stage.

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