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Everyone's business: when officers and staff suffer domestic abuse

The Metropolitan Police is making efforts to improve its response to a disclosure of domestic abuse from its officers and staff.

Last Thursday (24 November) around 40 supervisors out of Charing Cross Police Station attended a three hour session on the force’s domestic abuse employee policy.

The BCU Commander, Chief Superintendent Owain Richards, told attendees: “The purpose of today is about giving you frontline supervisors the skills, the knowledge and the framework to be able to support our officers and staff who may be suffering domestic abuse, to come forward to report and ask for help.”

Detective Sergeant Viran Wiltshire, from the central domestic abuse team, is leading on the policy.

“Today is about two things,” she told Police Oracle. “One is giving confidence for women to come forward to report concerns - and it is women 80 per cent of the time that are victims of domestic abuse.

“And two is giving confidence to line managers, giving them the tools to be able to deal with this when it's disclosed.”

DS Wiltshire said the previous policy was only one paragraph long and “wasn't sufficient to cover everything that needed to be done”.

“It didn't give victim reassurance and it didn't hold perpetrators to account.”

So a new one was drawn up in 2019, alongside partners like the charity Hestia, and input from a Met wide survey.

The survey revealed people were reluctant to go to line managers and were worried about the impact it would have on their career development.

The officer delivering the session, who wished to remain anonymous, told attendees. “There is a lack of understanding when it comes to disclosures being made by officers."

He line manages someone who is a victim and has had a "disappointing" response.

And another one of his colleague's, a member of police staff, approached her line manager to disclose she was a victim of domestic abuse and the response was 'it's a private matter', "which is a little bit concerning in the century that we’re in", he said. 

"We still don't talk about domestic abuse enough," said DS Wiltshire. "We need to remove the taboo the same as we have done around mental health."

DS Viran Wiltshire

The force has brought in Hestia’s Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVA), trained specialists who act as a confidential face-to-face support to victims and line managers.

Introduced in March 2020, the IDVA now receives around one referral a week from the Met.

In a testimony from a victim within the force, one officer expressed fear that no one would believe them, since as a police officer they “should be resilient and strong”. 

They wrote: “Emotional abuse and control doesn’t happen overnight it's progressive and by the time you realise what’s actually happening it’s gone too far.

"Trapped, no escape, you are broken and battered, no strength or belief in you. At this point the importance of noticing changes in our friends, family and colleagues is so important to supporting those who are in difficult situations.

“How can I say I am being abused when I have nothing to evidence this, no bruises, no cuts just emotional pain and trauma.  

“It’s really hard to be honest but I often thought I wish they would hit me, I would have something on my body to which someone may notice and ask me about my welfare.”

Another account read: “Many of us in the job actually have or are suffering from domestic abuse, and our colleagues don’t have a clue.  

"How can I - a police officer - let this happen to me? I’m supposed to be stronger than that. I am supposed to enforce the law. I felt like a joke, an imposter - like I would be seen as weak by my colleagues. 

"And what if I wasn’t believed? This is a common reason for anybody not reporting, and it’s so much harder in the job or if the abuser is a serving police officer/staff. You tell yourself they would know exactly what to say to get away with their actions; that things would only get worse if I told anybody what was happening."

Speaking to supervisors, one of the advisors from Hestia said perpetrators in the police have used their position to intimidate their clients, telling them things like "I'm a Sergeant, who is going to believe you?".

The account went on to say that they, the victim, shouldn’t have worried about their colleagues’ reaction and has had nothing but support from their management, SLT and the officers they initially reported things to.  

“There are many people who work with us who go home to situations that are unsafe and volatile. We need to start picking up on signs and taking action to help our colleagues who may be too afraid to report this, no matter if they say they don’t want to - they are probably scared and are being protective of their partner… like any other person you deal with on the street. They have probably become somewhat dependant on that relationship and are worried of the unknown.”  

The session featured a video from now retired Chief Superintendent and borough commander Sally Benatar, who suffered a long-term abusive partner and eventually made the decision to call Thames Valley Police - the force area in which she was living - on 101. PC Andrew Harper was one of the first responders that attended.

She wants to spread the message domestic abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of your job and rank. She is also thankful for the 'first class service' she received from the day she took the first step by contacting the police. 

The session emphasised the importance of supervisors making reasonable adjustments at work and being understanding when it came to leave. 

Other forces have mirrored the policy, and it’s even going international. Spanish and Italian police have used it as a template, and the Met recently gave a presentation on the policy to the Greek police.

“There’s a public interest issue as well, when a police officer is alleged to have committed domestic abuse, in terms of professional standards and culture. An officer may lose their position,” said C/Supt Richards. “And clearly there's a national context to this.”

The policy was launched in 2019, before the Centre for Women’s Justice super complaint.

Spanning 15 forces (including the Met) the complaint is looking at allegations from victims that forces were closing ranks to protect officers who are domestic abusers.

Another piece of feedback from the survey was for first responders to be mindful of their language. Saying things like ‘Come on mate, let’s go sort this out down at the station’ was leaving victims with the feeling officers were colluding with the perpetrator. There was also a concern around "slight victim blaming language" such as asking those who had taken the step to involve the police 'are you sure you want to do this?'.

In the Met, when it's an off duty criminal allegation it will go to a local borough to investigate. If it was on duty it’s taken to professional standards and the borough as both a potential criminal investigation and misconduct matter. 

If an allegation of abuse took place where the victim lived, it's passed to a different borough to investigate, because they potentially might know someone living and working within that unit.

“We wouldn't want to be seen to either be colluding with the victim or supporting the suspect. And that's where there has to be an element of independence,” said C/Supt Richards.

The Victim’s Commissioner Vera Baird has said when there is an allegation of domestic abuse against a police employee, it should automatically be referred to a different force for an independent investigation.

DS Witshire does not agree with Dame Vera's proposal. 

“It's really difficult because then we would have ownership of victim safeguarding and they have ownership of investigations," she said. "So already, you're now disclosing all that information to two forces.

“[Officers} move between forces so therefore you can't offer confidentiality and sensitivity just because another force is investigating. All it does is create another layer.

“They'll only look at the criminal side, and we'll look at the misconduct side. So already, you've got two parallel investigators, and who does what? And waiting for the other force to do this. And that delay is what causes the victim frustration.

“It has to be case by case. There might sometimes be merit in a neighbouring force, or another force investigating. I don't think it should be automatic. I think that's what professional standards are there for.”

The Met's professional standards is currently undergoing a review of current and past investigations into allegations of domestic abuse by officers, due to completed in Spring 2022. Until then, responding to domestic abuse within the ranks will remain high at the top of the force's agenda. 

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