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What is coercive control and why is it so difficult to recognize?

Engaging in controlling and/or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships became a new criminal offence in England and Wales in December 2015. Coercive Control involves a pattern of abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim. Example behaviours included in this legislation are isolation from friends and family, deprivation of basic needs, monitoring behaviour and time, controlling a victim’s life and/or finances, and may include physical violence.  The introduction of this offence was welcomed for recognising the cumulative impact of various forms of domestic abuse and for encouraging police and other criminal justice agencies to move beyond an incident-led and physical violence-based understanding of domestic abuse. However, four years on since the legislation was enacted and with no compulsory national level training or support, what has actually changed?

Coercive control as an offence carries implications for how we record and understand coercive control and domestic abuse victimisation more broadly in the UK. Despite recent figures suggesting an increase in recorded crimes of coercive control (from approximately 4,000 in 2016-17 to over 9,000 in 2018-19), prosecutions and convictions for the offence remain consistently low. This is in contrast to other domestic-abuse related crimes, namely those that result in actual bodily harm, which are 20% more likely to result in an arrest and a charge. Furthermore, the Office for National Statistics recently removed coercive and controlling behaviour questions from the Crime Survey for England and Wales because of uncertainty as to whether the questions were adequately capturing victims of the offence.

Research suggests that when coercive control crimes are reported, police officers often think that this will be hard to prove. At the same time officers miss evidential opportunities by, for example, not fully investigating coercive control disclosed in witness statements, failing to seek third party witness statements, or not making use of the body camera footage they may have recorded.

Further issues with the police response to this offence become evident when compared with other domestic abuse-related crimes. For example, it appears that some 87% of domestic abuse cases that resulted in actual bodily harm could have also been recorded as crimes of coercive control. In other words, police officers are continuing to miss important opportunities for responding to a repeated course of abusive behaviour.

Issues with police responses to coercive control highlight the potential benefits of additional resources and training. The College of Policing has developed and tested a new risk assessment that specifically takes into account coercive controlling behaviour. However, resources and training should go further. Criminal justice agencies, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Judiciary, need to be able to recognize coercive control at all points of contact people have with the criminal justice process. This is supported in the proposed Domestic Abuse Bill. However, delays in the delivery of training and a lack of clarity as to when Parliament will enact the bill, mean that issues with recognising and responding to coercive control will likely persist.

Featured image credit: “Grayscale Photograph of Woman Touching Her Eyes” by Juan Pablo Arenas. CC0 via Pexels.

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