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Coercion: the disturbing hidden crime of controlling a partner

It’s at the heart of domestic abuse, but the police are failing to implement the new law.


It’s at the heart of domestic abuse, but the police are failing to implement the new law.

Photo credit: Laura Dodsworth

This article was produced in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

How do you charge someone with a crime when secrecy and intimidating the victim into silence are an integral part of the crime itself?

“This understanding of patterns of abuse could be a lifesaving step”

In December 2015, ‘controlling and coercive behaviour’ in an intimate or familial relationship became a criminal offence. The behaviour – that can include threats, insults, and controlling the victim’s access to friends, family, money and communication – is central to abusive relationship patterns. Prior to this, emotional domestic abuse of this type was not illegal.

But the figures on coercive control charges brought against individuals over the last two years show that police forces across the country are failing to utilise the new law. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism obtained crime data in the second half of 2017 for 29 police forces across the country and found that the rates of charges per 100,000 people varied significantly – and many forces hadn’t made a single charge of the offence at all.

What is coercive or controlling behaviour?

There are several signs to look for in your own, or someone else’s, relationship. Coercive or controlling behaviour can include:

  • Controlling where someone goes, who they are allowed to see, and what they do
  • Checking social media, phone records or other communications
  • Using threats, verbal aggression or silence to control a partner
  • Control of finances
  • Controlling aspects of a partner’s appearance or what they wear

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, described the “long lasting and devastating” impacts the crime can have on survivors. She pointed out that of the number of domestic abuse-related offences recorded by police, less than 1% were classified as coercive control, and an even smaller number resulted in a charge or conviction. “It is extremely worrying that some frontline police officers are still not identifying the crime, and survivors are not getting the response they need when reporting to the police,” she says.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary charged seven people with coercive control as the principle offence in 2016 and 11 people in the first half of 2017 – a rate of 1.1 charges per 100,000 people. For a crime estimated to impact at least one in four women in their lifetime, the number seems gravely inadequate. It is also lower than the average among forces surveyed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 1.4 per 100,000.

‘Coercive control’ is an ongoing pattern of behaviour designed to isolate, intimidate, degrade and control the victim. It’s part of an understanding of domestic abuse which doesn’t imagine a fight between two people, but instead a programme of intimidation and control in which the abuser maintains a constant state of domination over the victim. It can be just as devastating as physical abuse and often occurs before, after or alongside violence.

Given that two women are still murdered every week, on average, by current or former partners, this more nuanced understanding of patterns of abuse by authorities could be a lifesaving step in slowing the rate of violence against, and murder of, women and children.

‘On the back foot’

What accounts for the frustratingly slow uptake of the law by Avon and Somerset Constabulary? Detective Superintendent Marie Wright, who is the force’s lead on domestic abuse and sexual violence, admits there have been problems introducing the new law.

“The police still aren’t prosecuting violence so it’s unlikely that they’ll start doing coercive control with any enthusiasm”

“It was brought in quite quickly so we had to react to it, when really it would have been better if we had been on the front foot,” she explains. “Legislation got brought in, front line police officers didn’t really see that that had happened, and didn’t really understand what it was either…it comes under the domestic abuse umbrella, but still a lot of police officers were going to incidents and not realising it was coercive and controlling behaviour, weren’t asking the questions to establish that.”

She points out that the force may have not been recording coercive and controlling behaviour alongside other crimes ‘more easy to prove’ such as assault, meaning that it is not logged as an offence, even if it appears to have occurred.

Compiling evidence and prosecuting without victim involvement – many abuse victims are reluctant or scared to testify against their abuser – are also hurdles to implementing the law. Whereas a black eye or broken bones are obvious, evidence in a case of coercive control requires a different approach from officers, who may instead use a person’s diaries, speak to a person’s friends, or seek evidence of the controlling of finances.

The limits of the classroom

Wright says the force has recognised its need to improve: “We’ve trained all our front line officers, put them on a structured training programme particularly about coercive and controlling behaviour,” she says. “We’ve also highlighted the legislation, we’ve used some case studies particularly.” The force did a four-week domestic abuse awareness campaign at the end of last year.

This effort is necessary, as research by the College of Policing into the effectiveness of a day-long domestic abuse workshop for officers piloted in 2015 showed that despite slight positive impacts into polices officers’ understanding of ‘coercive control’ there was ‘no impact on officers’ general attitudes’. Very few within the group of police officers who’d received training on domestic abuse and the control group mentioned the gendered nature of coercive control.

A tale as old as time

It may also be ‘general attitudes’ that are the problem in recognising this form of abuse, for both men and women. Professor Charlotte Bishop, who studies domestic violence legislation at Exeter University’s School of Law, says the difficulties stem from the fact that the abuse is highly gendered, with men being the vast majority of perpetrators and females the victims. “It merges with what we would expect anyway in a heterosexual relationship,” she explains of the cultural factors. The controversy surrounding the teenage, vampire-themed Twilight films is a case in point: “There’s a lot of obsession and jealousy and control but it’s portrayed as very romantic, the girl’s view is that is a sign the man really loves her,” says Bishop. It’s a theme as old as time.

From edition 14, OUT NOW!

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Pat Craven trains police officers to better recognise coercive control. She also runs the Freedom Programme, a training course for survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse. She set it up after spending her career as a probation officer working with violent men – and getting a clear insight into the ‘programmes’ of control present in abusive partnerships.

When the Cable spoke to Craven, she’d just spent a weekend creating training materials on controlling and coercive behaviour. “The police still aren’t prosecuting violence so it’s unlikely that they’ll start doing coercive control with any enthusiasm,” she says. “I’m hoping that this new training will introduce more police officers and prosecutors to the concept of the domination…because I’m betting they don’t know.”

The gendered nature of the crime is significant not just for victims and perpetrators but the authorities too. The police, Bishop agrees with Craven, is a patriarchal institution. “If we think there’s a prevalence of abuse in society there will be perpetrators in the police,” she says. This was born out in Bristol: in summer 2017 Avon and Somerset police officer PC Wayne Hodge was sacked from the force for having abused a partner during a previous two-year relationship, and continuing coercive and controlling behaviour towards his more recent partner, a Police Community Support Officer.

As Katie Ghose, from Women’s Aid, points out, “Sexism and women’s inequality is both a cause and consequence of coercive control, and we must tackle the root causes of it across society if we want to give the right response to survivors and ultimately prevent this form of abuse.”

Culture change

Detective Superintendent Wright says alongside the training, the force is looking into how to achieve more victimless prosecutions – when the victim chooses not to come forward. “We have to balance that with the seriousness of the offence, and we have to have these conversations with the victim,” she says. She also thinks better public awareness of the crime will result in more charges: “Because the more people know about it, the more people will report it.”

Despite the training, Wright says it will take time for the culture within the police to change and for the crime to be fully understood by first responders. There is also the prospect that ‘notices’ could be introduced as a warning for perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour when the police decide not to charge.

Women’s Aid is calling for more training for everyone in the justice system to understand the crime. “We must continue to improve the response to coercive control across society to send out a clear message that it is unacceptable; that this crime is taken seriously, perpetrators will be held to account for the harm they have caused and that survivors will be supported in their escape and recovery from all forms of domestic abuse,” Ghose says.


Do you need help for yourself or someone else?

If you would like advice, you can contact the Freephone 24/7 National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge.


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