Policing is the institution responsible for protecting victims of domestic abuse and the institution to which victimisation is formally disclosed. The police workforce, therefore, are routinely exposed to domestic abuse victimisation, perpetration and its consequences. When police themselves become victims of domestic abuse, the interaction between personal and professional identity and cultures may exacerbate the harms of victimisation and discourage victims from seeking help from their colleagues and from the institution of policing. In this study, we describe themes that emerged from accounts of reporting and not reporting domestic abuse by police officers and staff in an English police force. Through the lenses of victimology theory and police culture theory, we describe how there appears to be few protective components of working in policing and several adverse consequences for victims. Reporting was impeded by difficulty recognising abuse and experiencing feelings of shame in a way similar to that of many non-police victims. However, these common obstacles were exacerbated by a conflict between police and victim identities, by significant concern about formal and informal violations of privacy by colleagues and by worry about potential damage to their career. These challenges were particularly acute when the perpetrator also worked in policing. The paper concludes with a call for researchers, policy makers and policing to recognise and respond to the unique vulnerabilities inherent in the police-victim overlap.
Corresponding author is Iain Brennan. Key words: Domestic abuse; Policing; Violence against women; Help-seeking
Domestic abuse is experienced across age, ethnicity and gender in patterned ways but there is limited understanding of how exposure to and experience of domestic abuse might vary by occupation (Office for National Statistics, 2021; Dheensa et al., 2022). Some jobs, such as policing, might affect a person's perception and response to domestic abuse due to frequent exposure to victims, perpetrators, and abusive behaviour (HMICFRS, 2021). When police employees become victims, the blurring line between guardian and victim creates a unique set of obstacles that may adversely affect help-seeking behaviour.
This paper sheds light on the experiences of police officers and staff who have been victims of domestic abuse with a particular focus on disclosure of that abuse. It complements our paper that describes the prevalence and patterns of domestic abuse victimisation in policing (Brennan et al, 2023). Using qualitative data from the same anonymous survey undertaken in a police force in England, the study identifies unique challenges and harms that police victims both fear and experience in making decisions about help-seeking. These include concerns over privacy violations, worry about mistreatment by colleagues and inadequate support from their employer – challenges that become exacerbated when the perpetrator is a colleague. Given the preliminary nature of our observations and in recognition that there is likely to be unheralded work to improve the experience of domestic abuse victims within police, we stop short of providing recommendations for how policing should respond to domestic abuse within its workforce, but call for further research on the overlap between police employees as victims and as guardians, the police-victim overlap.
The issue of crimes committed by police officers has received extensive attention in the literature and is a prominent concern in the UK policing agenda (HMICFRS, 2022). However, crimes against police employees (officers and staff) have received comparatively limited attention, especially from a victimological and procedural perspective. Recently, the issue of police-perpetrated domestic abuse has gained attention, but only as a passive element in the examination of police-perpetrated crime (Home Office, 2023). The few instances where the police-victim overlap has been considered in the literature have primarily focused on workplace violence (Ellrich, 2016; Reynolds, Helfers & Upshaw, 2021), hate crime (Mawby & Zempi, 2018) or victimisation due to occupation (Sal, 2002; Kilatya & Kavivya, 2021); notably, all crimes perpetrated by strangers. When the victimisation of police employees has been addressed, it has mostly been framed as stress or trauma (Xu, 2022) to be treated with clinical solutions (Anderson & Bauer, 1987; Reiser & Geiger, 1984), rather than addressing its structural causes or procedural harms. With a specific focus on domestic abuse, despite there being clear potential for conflict of interest, violations of privacy and abuse of power, there is no published research about the experience of police employees accessing the services they provide or exploring the conflicting identities of being both a victim of domestic abuse and a police employee. Needless to say, the intersection between gendered exposure to domestic abuse and gendered policing identity is also absent from the literature.
To add an element of jeopardy to our discussion of police response, we note that the police-victim overlap may have been neglected because it is not a harmful interaction worthy of focus. A police employee’s unique position of being a service provider that becomes a service user means they will have a heightened awareness of the law and familiarity with police procedure that mitigates the harm of being a victim and eases the process of disclosing victimisation. Although a link between knowledge of the law and familiarity with process has received little attention, preliminary results point towards a positive relationship (Kim & Ferraresso, 2022) that may explain the police-victim overlap not being an issue worthy of attention.
The healthcare literature provides insights into the experience of service providers – doctors - becoming service users - patients. Thompson et al. (2001) found that cultural barriers, such as a persona of invincibility, a professional status that inhibits treatment-seeking and privacy concerns, discouraged medical practitioners from seeking treatment. Fox et al. (2009) described a stressful work environment that overlooked or discounted illness and identified difficulties that arose from role ambiguity in the doctor-patient relationship. When doctors did seek help, the discomfort that resulted from this role ambiguity adversely affected their doctor-patient relationship and had an adverse effect on their treatment (Fox et al., 2009).
These professional obstacles to help-seeking will resonate with those familiar with policing, where individual wellbeing is discounted in favour of ‘the job’ and identities of invincibility are commonplace (Brown et al, 2020; Loftus, 2010; Reiner, 2000). Despite these similarities, there are limits in the extent to which we can extrapolate from healthcare professionals using healthcare services into police using police services. For example, individuals with serious health issues must consider different factors in their decision to disclose illness or seek treatment and the consequences of their help-seeking are usually personal rather than affecting another party. In contrast, not disclosing victimisation is the most common response of victims and reporting has direct consequences for others in a way that health problems typically do not. Despite the imperfect alignment of these dual-role issues, the literature provides a useful starting point for exploring police help-seeking.
Although most domestic abuse victims disclose their abuse to someone, they are most likely to do this informally, such as to a friend or family member (ONS, 2022). The vast majority – around 85% - do not report the abuse to police (ibid.). There are many factors that influence domestic abuse victims’ not reporting the abuse to the police. These include not recognising the abuse for what it is (Boethius & Åkerström, 2020), feeling shame or embarrassment for being a victim (ONS, 2022) and past negative experiences with the criminal justice system (Kunst, Popelier and Varekampl, 2015). Victims may also fear the consequences of reporting the abuse, such as an unwanted arrest of the perpetrator or retaliation from the abuser (Reich, Anderson & Maclin, 2022).
Reporting may also be impacted by perceptions of victimhood or what an ‘ideal victim’ is (Christie, 1986) and the extent to which they fit this model (Duggan, 2018). Their identity and perceived “worthiness” as a victim depend on how others subjectively perceive the victimisation experience, or on how the person thinks others would perceive it (Christie, 1986); consequently, if a victim feels they do not fit the societal image of a victim, they may not seek help. This body of literature highlights the complex and multi-faceted nature of help-seeking among domestic abuse victims and notes the many challenges that a victim faces in having their victimisation validated and in seeking help, formally or informally.
As with the victim-offender overlap, the concept of a police-victim overlap brings together contrasting ideas and stereotypes. There is the ‘ideal victim’ who is virtuous and vulnerable being devoid of the means or knowledge to protect themselves from harm – a concept inherently gendered. The perpetrator is typically male, and the vulnerability tends to be physical rather than, for example, psychological; the victimisation is clearly identifiable. In contrast, the police officer is stereotypically stoic in the face of danger and stress, invulnerable to physical threat, typically male or at least masculine (Westmarland, 2017) and knowledgeable about procedure for dealing with crime (Pogrebin and Poole, 1991). Of course, these are stereotypes and there is a wealth of literature that shows exceptions to these concepts. For example, police officers are clearly damaged by stress and trauma (Purba and Demou, 2019), they experience physical harm more than any other profession (Health and Safety Executive, 2020) and procedures for dealing with crimes are often complex, contextual and prone to change. Similarly, the characteristics of victims, including those experiencing domestic abuse, frequently deviate from a stereotypically virtuous female who is abused by a physically stronger male (ONS, 2022) and the abuse is often a course of coercive and controlling conduct as well as, or instead of isolated physical incidents.
Although long-held identities and stereotypes are beginning to give way in the face of a changing culture and organisational initiatives that seek to recognise the impact of workplace trauma (Foley, Hassett and Williams, 2022), to overcome stereotypes of victims and their behaviour (Brennan, Myhill, Tagliaferri and Tapley, 2021), to address gender imbalance and identity in policing (Brown and Silvestri, 2019) and to normalise help-seeking in the face of workplace trauma (Edwards and Kotera, 2021). Despite these improvements, progress is slow and it is likely that inaccurate and reductionist ideas about victims still abound within policing (Myhill, 2019). When these identities are strongly held within a society or an organisation, even those who are directly harmed by them may hold these views and come to feel shame (Edwards and Kotera, 2021) or self-blame (Miller and Porter, 1983; Pereira et al, 2020) for contradicting or failing to embody these stereotypes. In the case of policing, where policing identity and victim identities are incompatible, it is inevitable that a conflict will emerge in those who experience victimisation. However, the extent to which this becomes problematic or is resolved (and how) is unknown, as is the extent to which this dual-identity conflict limits a police officers’ use of procedure to protect themselves and reduce their exposure to future harm.
As noted, the decision to disclose domestic abuse can be complex and influenced by various factors, including the characteristics of the abuse, perceived shame and stigma and societal views of blame attribution. In the case of police employees, their unique position as both a service provider and a victim may create additional obstacles to disclosing or reporting abuse.
The influence of workplace dynamics, police culture and how colleagues treat domestic abuse cases can also play a role in the decision to report or not. The views and assumptions developed by police officers about what it means to be a victim and the perception of victims by their colleagues and the organisation may influence their decision to report domestic abuse. These views are often highly gendered (Javaid, 2020) and can conflict with male and female police identities (Westmarland, 2017). Internal workplace dynamics, such as organisational culture (Hoyle, 1998) and relationships with colleagues, supervisors and upper management, may also impact on a police victim’s decision to disclose domestic abuse. The internal environment can either reinforce a culture of respect and care or threaten the victim’s perception of the workplace, which in turn can affect their identification with the organisation and their views of senior management (Loftus, 2010). The actions of the person to whom the abuse is reported can also play a significant role in this process, as they can either support or ignore the victimisation claims. Finally, the close-knit community of policing means that many victims of domestic abuse will also know other victims of abuse among their colleagues. If that disclosure has not been handled well or there have been negative personal or professional consequences as a result of having disclosed abuse, it may have suppressed help-seeking by other victims, creating a hidden epidemic of unrecognised abuse and harm within their workforce.
In addition to the potential added harms created by the police-victim overlap, these harms could be further compounded by the abuser also being a police officer or staff. An abuser may continue the abuse at work removing any sanctuary effects of the workplace (MacGregor et al., 2022). Abusers may make pre-emptory counter-allegations against the victim (Burman and Brooks-Hay, 2018), undermine their mental health, identity and credibility (Stark, 2018) or use their access to police records to control the victim or their colleagues. Furthermore, abusers may be familiar with the locations of domestic abuse shelters or support agencies, removing a potential source of support for victims. Victims may also believe, or know, that they would encounter strong resistance from the police force if they were to accuse their partners (Wetendorf, 2015) and the decision to disclose police-perpetrated abuse may be affected by the threat of economic consequences of their partners losing their income (Reich, Anderson and Maclin, 2022).
In summary, based on evidence from other occupations and from the general population of victims, it is reasonable to speculate that police who are victims of domestic abuse may be at heightened risk of harm as a result of dual-role conflict or organisational response to their abuse. These harms can be in terms of identity where an ‘invincible’ occupational identity conflicts with constructions of a vulnerable ‘ideal’ victim. Harms can also be practical if police members are discouraged from disclosing abuse because of their dual-role conflict, concerns over privacy or damage to their professional identity. In particular, if the perpetrator is also a member of the police workforce, victims who seek help must overcome a strong workplace culture that discourages reporting illegal behaviour by a colleague and the consequences of doing so.
Noting the relative absence of literature on these issues, this research seeks to contribute to the understanding of domestic abuse in police workforce, through a victimisation lens. More specifically, this study intended to explore police employees accounts of the obstacles to disclosing domestic abuse to colleagues or a line manager.
The study is based on qualitative data extracted from a survey undertaken in a police force in England. More details on sampling and descriptive statistics can be found in an accompanying paper (Brennan et al., 2023). The survey was developed by the police force and delivered via an online survey tool. The survey consisted of a mix of closed and open-ended questions, with mandatory completion of all closed response items. The open-ended questions allowed for deeper investigation of responses, but also meant that the number of participants answering each question varied. The flow of questions is illustrated in Figure 1 below. The three main themes of the open-ended questions related to a colleague’s experience of abuse, personal experience of abuse and suggestions for how the force could further support officers and staff suffering from domestic abuse. As the survey was developed to understand internal processes, it was structured to focus on understanding negative outcomes rather than positive ones. Accordingly, questions asked about why victims chose not to speak with their colleagues and line managers about the abuse, why they felt the report was not handled well, and why, based on their experience, they would not recommend reporting to other colleagues who may be experiencing domestic abuse.
An invitation to complete the survey was sent to all police officers and staff who were employed by a single police force in England. The recruitment email explained that the survey was anonymous and was designed to understand vicarious and direct experience of domestic abuse within the workforce. The survey was open between January 26th, 2021, and July 13th, 2021, and was answered by a weighted sample of 876 police employees, which reflects around 25% of the total workforce1. The data were made available to the authors through a data processing agreement with the police force that stipulated that the force should remain anonymous. With this agreement in place, due to the secondary nature of the data set and the lack of personal data therein, the requirement for ethical approval by University of Hull was waived.
The present study focused on the section relating to personal experience of abuse, thus the sample was limited to the 197 respondents (22% of the total sample) who indicated that they had experienced domestic abuse. Respondents were not required to answer all open questions, resulting in varying numbers of respondents for each question. Seventy-five respondents provided feedback on why they did not speak to a colleague about their abuse (a response rate of 71% for eligible victims). Ninety-six respondents provided feedback on why they did not speak to a line manager about their abuse (86% of eligible victims). Fifty-eight respondents provided feedback on why they thought their reporting was not well-handled by the force (84% of eligible victims2); 85 who indicated that they would not recommend that a colleague reported their abuse also provided feedback (83% of the eligible respondents).
The answers from the survey’s open-ended questions were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis. Although the survey did not have questions specifically asking police employees to describe or attribute meaning to their dual identity as victims of domestic abuse and police employees, nor about the hurdles of disclosing the abuse, these were two themes inferred from the analysis of the data within the overarching theme about the personal experiences of abuse. It is also noteworthy that the questions were designed to be gender neutral which, when combined with the small number of items, prevented taking a more gendered approach to exploring the topic than was desirable.
As argued by Terry and Hayfield (2021), Thematic Analysis (TA) does not have any restrictions regarding the maximum size of the sample, so it is suitable for large datasets such as those originated by qualitative surveys, or surveys with qualitative sections. Additionally, the flexible application of TA meant that although inductive analysis was the main approach used, some deductive analysis was also applied to identify reasons for not disclosing the abuse commonly addressed in the literature. As explained by Braun and Clarke (2022), coding and theme development can encompass both types, with the range from inductive to deductive acting as more of a spectrum than a dichotomy.
Due to the nature of the data and the aims of this study, an essentialist analytic approach was followed, interpreting meaning mainly on the semantic level, albeit with some aspects being further explored on the latent level as well. The data was initially organised by the predetermined topics informed by the data collection questions. The first author led the analysis, by coding the data and clustering the themes into initial thematic patterns. After all authors familiarised themselves with the data, the themes were further reviewed by all researchers to ensure important aspects of the data related to the subject were not left out, i.e., that the analysis provided a thorough and meaningful account of the data (Braun & Clarke, 2022). In the data analysis, quotations are presented with the sex and occupation of the participant the quote belongs to. All potentially identifiable information were removed from the quotes.
The major themes that emerged from the analysis related to: recognising abuse; dual-identity conflict; the intrusive influence of police culture on victim behaviour; and the difficulties in disclosing abuse to supervisors. Evidence for these themes is presented below and discussed in light of existing literature.
“I wasn’t aware of it at the time. It is hard to see from an outside perspective […].” [male, police officer]
Some participants further explained how they were only able to understand/make sense of what they had gone through after getting some emotional distance, for example, after some time dealing with the abuse, after the relationship had already ended or after participating in a domestic abuse course.
“I kept it to myself as I didn’t see it at the time, and it wasn’t until the relationship was over that I realised how bad things were.” [female, police officer]
“It was my daughter that went through the abuse and only when I attended a DA [domestic abuse] class with her did I realise that I had suffered the same in my life.” [female, police staff]
“At the time of the abuse, I was blinded and did not realize how much he controlled me. We suffered many marital issues which I confided in my colleagues, but no one identified the abuse and advised me. Eventually I saw the wood from the trees and threw him out of my life and filed for divorce.” [female, police staff]
Consistent with victims in the general public, recognising the abuse appears to have been more difficult when the abuse experienced was not physical. Some participants also added that even if they had recognised the coercive control they were experiencing, they would not be able to report it as it was not criminalised at the time.
“Didn’t feel it was DA at the time, coercive control wasn’t an offence then, only afterwards was it pointed out to me when I explained what went on in the relationship that I had been in a toxic and controlling relationship.” [female, police officer]
Another officer benchmarked the abuse she was suffering against the emotional abuse she had witnessed in her professional life and discounted her own experience.
“As a police officer I found it difficult to accept that what was happening was a form of domestic abuse. […] I investigated abuse and because what I was suffering wasn’t physical it was hard to accept it was domestic abuse.” [female, police officer]
Even in those cases where the abuse was at some level recognised for what it is during the relationship, some respondents explained how they spent some time in denial in the hope that the abuse would come to an end.
“I think I was in denial about it.” [female, police staff]
“I buried my head in the sand in the hope that it would go away.” [male, police staff]
A common theme within domestic abuse literature is the difficulty victims have in recognising their experience as abuse (Boethius & Åkerström, 2020; Pitman, 2017; Reich, Anderson & Maclin, 2022). This was also the case in this police sample, suggesting that when abuse happened in their private lives, their professional knowledge and experience in identifying the signs of abuse were redundant. Indeed, as illustrated above, being exposed to extreme domestic abuse – exemplified by the need for police intervention – may set a very high benchmark for what constitutes abuse resulting in discounting their own experience as abusive or criminal.
Participants expressed not wanting to disclose the abuse because they did not believe others would understand what they are/were going through or felt/feel embarrassed about it.
“Didn’t trust anybody and thought they wouldn’t understand. […] Without the physical signs who was going to believe or understand.” [female, police staff]
“[…] There is a shame that you are ‘letting’ someone treat you so badly that you don’t want to admit it.” [female, police staff]
A clear conflict was evident between a stoic and ‘invulnerable’ policing identity and a victim’s realisation that they are vulnerable to victimisation and may need help. The police identity appeared to generate feelings of embarrassment about being a victim of domestic abuse which deterred the reporting of abuse. As some participants mentioned, although police culture changed over time and domestic abuse progressively started to be taken more seriously, there were still significant obstacles hindering the disclosure of abuse. These included a culture of not discussing personal issues, a need to show they can take care of themselves and an implicit assumption they should know what to do when victimised.
“[…] There probably has been a culture officers not sharing their own concerns due to the role of a police officer. I think police officers previously would be less likely to disclose then other members of the public. A lot has changed over the years, but the culture still exists. Having a means to break down those initial fears of seeking help is essential and we are not there yet in this police force.” [male, police officer]
“An officers home matters are not considered important by the organisation. I have witnessed officers and staff being criticised for personal problems affecting them at work instead of being supported.” [male, police officer]
“Don’t assume as you work in a police force a colleague knows what to do. [When] they do that makes it twice as tough, it’s more overwhelming and harder to report if you work in a police force than if you worked in any other company or unemployed. There is a stigma that you would do the right thing, we all know what that is but that’s double shame, double guilt and twice as much pressure.” [female, police staff]
To some, being a police employee victim of domestic abuse represented a vulnerability that they may not be willing to reveal. When they consider disclosing the victimisation, some have expressed going through the process of dissociating their two contrasting identities.
“I thought that by discussing my situation, it would be a sign of personal weakness.” [male, police officer]
“Found very difficult to really trust and someone to actually listen and peel away the onion layers so only a layer would be spoken about and the rest hidden.” [female, police staff]
“[…] The truth is you have to put yourself on the other side of the enquiry desk and leave your ID and be the person on your birth certificate not the ID badge and the job role employed in a force.” [female, police staff]
The embarrassment felt due to being a domestic abuse victim, appears to be further expanded due to their workplace identity as a police employee, i.e., being a police employee working with domestic abuse victims seems to add an additional barrier to reporting. Some participants feared the disclosure of being a victim of domestic abuse would in some way hinder other people’s perceptions in terms of their ability to conduct their job.
“I was embarrassed and ashamed of the fact I was dealing with DV related incidents at work yet couldn’t solve my own issues.” [female, police officer]
“I felt that coming forward I would been seen as failing within my professional life as at the time I had the belief that we sort out and support victims of DA and I felt embarrassed about being talked about through canteen gossip. I also thought it was my issue and mine alone to sort – a belief now which I do not hold.” [male, police officer]
“I spoke to my friends and colleagues but not line manager through fear they would think my ability to do my job was compromised.” [female, police staff]
It appears that in this sample of victims, and more than in any other sample of victims we could identify in the literature, victim identity was filtered through professional identity. Being a police officer or staff member impacted on recognising, labelling and responding to the abuse they experienced – in general, their conflicting identities seems to have had adverse effects on each stage of the process. It amplified the reasons many victims have for not reporting, such as feeling shame and stigma but also closed off the routes to disclosing vulnerability through occupational risk and a perception on invincibility.
If a police member or staff lives within their own force area, they may have to report domestic abuse at their workplace, to the same people they work with. As participants indicated, having to mix both spheres to disclose such a personal and private issue added a layer of difficulty that in many cases was enough to discourage reporting. Some also reiterated not wanting to bring their private life to work out of fear of damaging their career and/or the way they are viewed by others.
“At work I wore a mask as it was the only ‘normal’ environment and felt safe, did not want to blur the two worlds and be judged, shamed, and have my personal life exposed. Wanted to be judged at work for being the person at work not a person at work with baggage.” [female, police staff]
“Didn’t want them to know about my private life or get them involved.” [female, police officer]
The issue of having to mix both private and work spheres was further exacerbated when the abuser was also a police employee. Some participants explained how they had their every move controlled even at work. In such cases, the opportunities to disclose the abuse became significantly reduced and reporting became an almost unfeasible task. Adding to this, participants also indicated fearing not being believed over their partner who may have friends of higher rank or be more popular.
“I was told many times, no one would believe me over him.” [female, police officer]
“Domestic Violence is evil. I could cope with the physical abuse as he never hurt me where anyone would see and I could cover it. The worst for me was the emotional abuse. Day in and day out monitoring my moves even when at work!!! I had to have itemised billing sent in the mail so he could check who I was messaging. I got quizzed many a time about why I had text a certain individual on my shift even though it was more likely just a laugh I sent back than an actual message.” [female, police officer]
“I would not have been believed over someone who presented to others as popular and agreeable. I would have been seen as a liar and been isolated and bullied by his friends.” [female, police officer]
Adding to the aforementioned issue of feeling that the abuse was something too private to disclose, especially in their place of work, frequently participants expressed significant concerns, about their disclosure of abuse not being kept confidential both at the organisational and individual level, and of their abuse being spread through canteen gossip.
“More discretion is needed, as the fear of people finding out prevents reporting in the first place.” [female, police officer]
“[…] There is also something of a ‘gossip culture’ in the Police Service so I didn’t feel comfortable that any conversation would remain confidential.” [male, police officer]
“Supervisors like to gossip too, heard it and seen it. I didn’t [report] because I didn’t have confidence in my supervisor to keep this private.” [female, police officer]
For many police victims, reporting their abuse to supervisors and senior management was not seen as a realistic or attractive option. Many respondents did not feel supported by their supervisors nor, as noted previously, confident the issue would remain private were they to report it. Some supervisors were perceived as unapproachable, unsupportive and flippant about domestic abuse issues as well as lacking the experience or skills to provide meaningful support or to deal with the situation.
“For officers working within different departments throughout the Force there is no consideration to these matters, and 90% of line supervisors no longer know their staff well enough as a person to be aware of anything going on in their personal lives. That or there is a severe lack of interest in their staff as a whole. I feel being a survivor of DA [domestic abuse] that there is a severe lack of education surround the subject and there is still a lot of ignorance from officers across the board. I say all of this from my own personal experiences […]” [female, police staff]
“I find that our supervisors are unapproachable on most occasions with minor issues let alone with a sensitive or personal matter. […] I find that the supervisors are often disinterested and ‘too busy’ to listen.” [female, police officer]
Respondents also addressed how reporting to supervisors, would mean having police involvement beyond their wishes. As police employees were aware of the established procedures, some participants expressed concerns about the possible consequences following the report, such as the possible impact on themselves, their families and/or the abusive partner which might have lost their job or be dealt with criminally. Even if some supervisors or line managers were supportive and had good working relationships with their team, the lack of desire for any sort of positive action following the disclosure, beyond recording the abuse and being offered support, represented another barrier preventing disclosure of abuse.
“I know supervisors would feel a duty of care to report the matter over and above the wishes of the victim. So, I would not always feel comfortable doing this.” [female police officer]
“I did not wish for police involvement due to the impact this would have had on my family and discussing this with my line manager would have resulted in that.” [female, police staff]
“[…] Due to my ex-partner working within the organization I did not want them to lose their job or be dealt with criminally. The DA Policy at the time meant if I gave an account to the attending patrol, then my ex-partner would have been arrested and their employment in question. I was an emotional wreck and was suffering with anxiety and depression; I just needed support leaving the relationship.” [male, police officer]
This paper is the first to present qualitative data from police officers and staff about the process of disclosing domestic abuse victimisation to colleagues, line managers and the institution of policing. Their reporting was impeded by difficulty recognising abuse and experiencing feelings of shame in a way similar to that of many non-police victims. However, these common obstacles were exacerbated by a conflict between police and victim identities, by significant concern about formal and informal violations of privacy by colleagues and by worry about suffering damage to their career. These challenges were particularly acute when the perpetrator also worked in policing. The sections that follow reflect on these accounts and interpret them through victimological and policing culture lenses.
We suggested that inside knowledge and experience of identifying and dealing with domestic abuse cases could provide a heightened sensitivity to signs of abuse in the lives of police employees, but this did not seem to be the case. Indeed, in police and non-police victims, the process of interpreting domestic abuse victimisation appears to be similar. Like non-police victims in the literature, police respondents alluded to not identifying what they were experiencing as domestic abuse, especially when it involved less visible forms of abuse, such as controlling or coercive behaviour. This discounting process was exacerbated by internalised feelings of shame and stigma about being a domestic abuse victim.
Police victims also alluded to ‘ideal victim’ prototypes through which they interpreted their own experience and decision-making about reporting in a similar way that other victims have done. However, their ‘ideal victim’ prototype may have been affected by experience and identity conflicts unique to policing.
Firstly, in terms of sampling, because police contact is often a ‘last resort’ for many victims, the sample of the population to which police officers and staff are exposed is likely to be different and arguably more extreme than that to which the general public is exposed creating a ‘jaundiced’ view of the world (Loftus, 2010: 13). Therefore, it is possible that the prototype of a domestic abuse victim held by police is not the same as that held by the general public and the threshold for being a ‘true victim’ of domestic abuse and what deserves police attention may be higher for police than for the general public.
Secondly, as we theorised, police officers and staff retained a police identity that did not sit comfortably alongside a victim identity. Regardless of gender, the police persona they sought to project was one of invulnerability, resilience and bravery. Clearly, this persona would be contradicted by a disclosure of domestic abuse victimisation and, by extension, vulnerability, which could cause internal conflict and discomfort, as well as their losing control over their professional identity and how they would be perceived by their colleagues. Respondents also documented additional cultural challenges to accepting a victim identity or disclosing victimisation, such as disregard for victims. Of these, most surprising was the organisational disregard for individual welfare. In describing the impact of witnessing line managers and other police criticise colleagues for disclosing personal problems at work or line managers being dismissive of victims of domestic abuse in the general public, respondents drew a causal link between non-reporting of domestic abuse and police culture.
In summary, if reporting is, metaphorically, a mountain to be climbed, a biased prototype of victims makes the mountain taller while police identity is a heavy backpack. We expected that this would be the case at an individual level with police seeking to maintain a persona that is stoic, resilient and invulnerable. While this was certainly observed, we underestimated the extent to which colleague and supervisor contempt for the airing of ‘personal problems’ would exist and, consequently, adversely affect victim’s help-seeking. Although impossible to compare, these organisational factors appear to have been a greater obstacle to help-seeking than any persona.
At the opening of this paper, we discussed the potential for policing and victimisation to be a harmful mix, but we also alluded to a possibility that exposure to victims, perpetrators, legislation and processes of domestic abuse could encourage reporting and be a protective factor against the harms of victimisation. Unfortunately, in this sample, we observed much of the former and little of the latter. Respondents were ‘victims first’ and ‘police second’: the additional knowledge and vicarious exposure to domestic abuse appeared to have, at best, no effect but potentially even had harmful effects on police victims’ experience of and response to their victimisation experience.
In the instances where the perpetrator was also a police officer or staff member, we observed additional harms experienced by victims. Perpetrators used a range of tactics or victims feared a range of consequences that created obstacles to reporting and the ‘sanctuary’ that the workplace can present was violated for these victims. At least across this sample, the force was ill-prepared to facilitate reporting of police-perpetrated domestic abuse and to prevent the harm to victims of being controlled or abused both in their private and professional lives. It is not possible to explain the causes of this unpreparedness using the data available to us, but it seems likely that organisational culture and inadequate policies were direct causes of this issue. The failure to consider the nuances of intimate relationships within policing may be an artefact of a time when policing was a male- or hetero-dominated world. There have been attempts to address these obstacles to reporting (International Association of Police Chiefs, 2003), but if policies to address this were present in our sample police force, they were not embedded in practice, at least at the time they were experienced.
The study suffers from a number of limitations. Firstly, the sample data explicitly excluded the better experiences of police victims but may also exclude the worst. Because the survey only asked respondents to provide feedback on negative experience, the results are disproportionately critical and police who had positive, affirmative experiences were not represented in this sample. This ‘conditioning on the dependent’ means that our interpretation of the causes of not reporting is potentially biased as we have no way of knowing if these causes, such as police identity, were also present in the group of victims who did report. Simultaneously, as the survey only sampled serving police officers and staff at the time, there is a possibility that those most badly affected by the abuse chose not to complete the survey, were absent from work because of the abuse or had left the job entirely. Particularly for those victims whose abuser was also a work colleague, this ‘survivorship’ bias remains a distinct possibility. Additionally, it is possible that some chose not to complete the survey for reasons related to their abuse or lack thereof. Particularly with the qualitative responses, some respondents may not have detailed their experience out of fear that it would compromise their anonymity. Although the aim of the study was not to produce generalisable insights, the adversity bias in the questions and the potential for missing the most extreme cases should be recognised and the findings interpreted accordingly. An additional limitation is that the survey did not clearly distinguish between informal and formal disclosure of abuse. As it only asked participants if they had spoken to a colleague or line manager about the abuse, it was not possible to ascertain potential differences between informal and formal disclosures. Given the blurring of roles that this study exposes, the blurring of formal and informal disclosure is both apposite and limiting. Finally, the secondary nature of the data means that issues such as the role of gender in experience, response and management of reporting could not be examined to the extent that we wished.
A distinctive aspect of our work was the exploration of the under researched and unique position where the identity of police employee and victim of domestic abuse intersect. We found that police employee insider knowledge did not appear to help them manage their own abuse. On the contrary, police victims faced the same challenges in disclosing domestic abuse as other victims but these challenges were almost always amplified by the dual-role conflict of being both police and victim. As the first study to describe accounts of the police-victim overlap, we have demonstrated the psychological and procedural harm when these two identities collide and we feel that this under-appreciated phenomenon deserves more attention beyond how it can affect reporting. Our introduction drew upon the experience of doctors’ being patients. Our next article, which delves into the broader experience of dual-role conflict will show that the metaphorical ‘canteen’ is where the parallels between healthcare professional and police help-seeking come to an end and that the clash of police culture and victimisation creates a professional experience that may be unique to policing. We invite other researchers to explore and better understand the police-victim overlap and we encourage policy makers and police leaders to recognise the vulnerabilities and challenges that a police identity and culture places on their workforce and to act to reduce their harms.
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