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Police response to domestic abuse prior to 1980s 01.11.07

Police responses to domestic violence have traditionally been variable, depending on the attitudes and approach of the individual officer. Until the late 1980s the criminal justice system paid little attention to the needs of women and children experiencing domestic violence.

A number of early studies documented the dismissive and derogatory way in which police officers tended to handle "domestic disputes"(1) .

Domestic violence was frequently seen as a private matter, not 'real' violence, and the sympathies of a predominantly male police force were often with the violent man/husband.

Women seeking refuge and help from Women’s Aid complained frequently about the lack of protection, effective action or information about other sources of help from the police, although there were some individual police officers who did as much as they could to help, despite the overall approach.

Much domestic violence still goes unreported to the police. While many women have sought help from the police in an emergency, for others calling the police is not the first option, and is often only a last resort after repeated attacks.

Every minute in the UK, the police receive a call from the public for assistance for domestic violence. This leads to police receiving an estimated 1,300 calls each day or over 570,000 each year (2). However, according to the British Crime Survey, only 40.2% of actual domestic violence crime is reported to the Police (3).

Many abused women have been ambivalent about calling the police:

  • they fear they will not be believed or taken seriously
  • they may believe that the police can only respond to actual physical assault
  • they may fear it will provoke further or greater violence
  • and they may not want their partner/ex-partner to be taken to court.

Racist stereotypes, lack of interest in the needs of Black women, and racist immigration laws mean that women from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities, in particular, are often reluctant to call the police, for fear of racism against themselves or their partner.  Research shows that some Black women even found that they themselves were assaulted or threatened with arrest when they called the police (4). 

 View related article on police responses from the 1980s onwards.


1. Bourlet, A. (1990) Police intervention in marital violence (London: Open University Press). Dobash, R. and Dobash, R. (1980) Violence against wives (London: Open Books). Hanmer, J. and Saunders (1984) Well-founded fear: A community study of violence to women (London: Hutchinson). Edwards, S. (1989) Policing ‘domestic’ violence (London: Sage)

2. Stanko, E. (2000) “The day to count: A snapshot of the impact of domestic violence in the UK” Criminal Justice 1:2

3. Dodd, T. et al. (2004) Crime in England and Wales 2003-4 Home Office Statistical Bulletin 10/04 (London: Research, Development and Statistics Directorate)

4.  Mama, A. (1996) The hidden struggle: Statutory and voluntary sector responses to violence against Black women in the home (London: Whiting and Birch Ltd.)

Editorial has been adapted from Hester, Marianne, Pearson, Chris and Harwinn, Nicola, with Abrahams, Hilary (2nd edition 2006)  Making an impact: Children and domestic violence – a Reader (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers). View the full article.