Policing domestic abuse – case study of an English police force

This research investigates why there appears to be a continuous gap between policy and police practice regarding ‘positive action’.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Miriam Shovel
Police region
Level of research
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

Domestic abuse (DA) is regarded as a police priority area, partly because it is both high volume and a high risk (College of Policing, 2015).

The police have historically ignored or minimised domestic abuse (for example, see Dobash & Dobash 1979; Dobash & Dobash 1992; Hoyle 1998). However, since the 1990s there has been increased pressure on the police to proactively intervene in DA incidents.

In particular, a ‘positive action’ policy, which emphasizes arrest at the primary (though not exclusive) means of proactive intervention, has been in place at a national level since 1990 (Home Office 1990). However, there is an enduring gap between policy and police practice, with the Police Inspectorate recently declaring continued concern over falling arrest rates; nationally, there were 45 arrests per 100 DA-related offences in the 12 months to 30 June 2017 (HMICFRS 2019: 31).

This research investigates why there appears to be a continuous gap between policy and police practice regarding ‘positive action’ (that is, a majority of DA crime incidents do not result in an arrest, despite ‘positive action’ policies asserting that officers should arrest wherever possible, and need good written reasons if they do not arrest).

At the individual level, this research explores how frontline officers interpret such policy directives (and indeed, in how such information is cascaded down to them – if it is), and the extent to which officers feel their professional discretion is hampered by the ‘positive action’ instruction.

Frontline officers are analysed within the organisational context of the police, considering the operational guidelines they are given, as well as higher-level policy documents. This analytical process requires consideration of the effects of macro- and meso-level structures in policing on micro-level encounters.

Related to the issue of ‘positive action’ is the question of ‘positive outcomes’. Although officers can only arrest if they have reasonable suspicion that an individual has committed a crime, an arrest does not necessarily lead to a charge (though of course it can). The Home Office Outcomes Framework outlines 26 possible outcomes which an arrest might lead to, including simple and conditional cautions for adults and youths, Penalty Notices for Disorder, and community resolutions.

The Outcomes Framework is an attempt to recognise that ‘detection’ is not the sole basis on which we can evaluate whether the police have done their job. There is no explicit definition from the Home Office (at least not one I’ve found) that categorises outcomes as ‘positive’ or otherwise, though officers I have spoken to suggest that outcomes where the police can 'take some credit', having done some positive action leading towards the possibility of a prosecution, are seen as positive outcomes.

The phrase ‘positive outcomes’, though used a lot by the police, is therefore a slippery concept. This research explores how police understand ‘positive outcomes’, specifically within the context of DA-flagged crimes.

Drawing on the literature, this research aims to address four specific questions:

  1. How do frontline police officers understand and respond to domestic abuse (DA)?
    1.1. How do the police differentiate DA from the many other (possibly abusive) behaviours and interactions between intimate partners and other family members that officers respond to?
    1.2. Is police decision-making different in cases of intimate partner abuse (IPA) compared with the broader category of DA?
    1.3. How is this understanding framed by national policy (Home Office/College of Policing)?

  2. How do frontline officers apply policy in their responses to domestic abuse (DA)? How and when do they employ discretion in the application of policy?
    2.1. What underlying discourses shape policy responses to DA?
    2.2. How do response officers use arrest when responding to DA incidents?
    2.3. Does the decision to arrest have an impact on the outcome of the incident, over and above other factors?
    2.4. How does the risk assessment process influence frontline officers’ understanding of, and responses to, DA?

  3. How are police responses to DA shaped by the management and organisation of policing?
    3.1. How does understanding of DA differ between different members of the police (frontline officers, DAIU specialists, senior officers)?

This thesis addresses therefore the following key issues.

  • The nature and measurement of DA that comes to the attention of the police.

  • Police officer attitudes to and understanding of DA.

  • Police discretion and the concept of ‘risk’. 

  • The potential influence of police officers’ knowledge and attitudes, and wider policies, systems and organisational processes, on police officers’ responses to DA.

  • The normative question of what the role of the police should be in relation to DA.

Research methodology

The research uses a mixed-method case study approach to examine the interactions between the policy and practice of policing DA, exploring how policies are interpreted in practice, by frontline response officers, specialist DA investigation officers, and senior police officers in one English police force.


  • Semi-ethnographic observation and interviews with frontline response officers.  Frontline response officers were shadowed for fourteen shifts (spread across the complete 24-hour early-late-night shift pattern) and were observed for a total of 130 hours during this fieldwork period.

  • Semi-structured qualitative interviews with two specialist domestic abuse detective sergeants.

  • Semi-structured qualitative interview with the head of the area in which the shadowing took place.

  • Thematic analysis of policy and operational documents relating to the initial police response to domestic abuse incidents.


  • Analysis of 63 months of police data relating to DA-flagged crimes (1 April 2015 to 31 July 2020).

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