Patrol police officers are isolated actors in the chain of domestic violence prevention work

The ongoing IMPRODOVA research and innovation project mapped the intervention in domestic violence by the police and other frontline responders in eight EU member states. In Finland, 19 police officers working in response operations or crime investigation units were interviewed. Police officers were asked to tell about their training, experiences and working methods in relation to domestic violence tasks.

Police officers responding to emergency call outs have scarce training in identifying and intervening domestic violence. Hardly any of the interviewed patrol police officers had received any training about domestic violence tasks after graduating from the Police College several years ago. At the same time, house calls are considered routine work that could be handled without any special training. Police officers tend to think that the required competencies to handle domestic violence tasks were achieved as experiences of repeated house calls are accumulated during the years.

Police work with respect to domestic violence is divided into two very different worlds in Finland. On the one hand, there are patrol police officers who respond to emergency tasks and handle the violent incidents. On the other hand, there are crime investigators who carry out pre-trial investigation, which at its best involves multi-professional Anchor-teams1 and risk assessment working groups that can take charge of the victim, possible under-aged children and the suspect.

These two worlds of policing are separated by a veil of mist through which is hard to see. Study found that very few patrol police officers knew what measures crime detectives performed to the case, nor did they know multi-professional assistance and services that are offered to the victim and the perpetrator. Patrol police officers had hardly any knowledge about the responsibilities and possibilities that crime detectives have for guiding victims and perpetrators to various support services. Moreover, patrol police officers rarely have full understanding of neither the dynamics of domestic violence nor the work of other frontline agencies.

Patrol officers' unawareness of what happens to the case after filing a report has significant consequences. Several interviewees carrying out emergency policing tasks could not fully grasp that their conduct during the house calls could have a substantial influence on the assistance available to the victims, children and the perpetrator. Interviewees might speculate whether it is reasonable to report an offence in the case of petty assault if the only consequence is a fine, which at worst affects the whole family.

There has been shouting back and forth, and things have boiled over. Now we talk about some slap with the flat of a hand. Do we really want to take this case to the courtroom, or, should we fine for it when the family with financial problems has to pay it together? How does that help the case?

Police officers dealing with emergency cases could set to themselves unrealistic goals to stop violence in the family by the means of discussion, or persuading the victim to walk out on a violent relationship. Interviewed patrol police officers told us that they use often their own life experiences and personal skills in order to build trust and dialogical relation with the victim and make them understand their own human dignity. Consequently, police officers were considerably frustrated if despite a dialogue that had been experienced as successful, the victims continued staying in abusive relationship.

...There are no actual channels, that 'now you take off with me, leave this, you move to this flat and start a new life'. But you have to put ideas into person's head that she changes her thoughts in order to get through her life better. So, is anything getting into her head, or at least little, or can she hold it up at all after our chat... that is the challenging part.

Some interviewees believed that both the victim and the perpetrator primarily need conversation to prevent violence.

Very often, discussion is the thing that helps, and often people tell it themselves that it was helpful that somebody listened. You rarely need to guide them anywhere.

The uniformed police officers whom we interviewed were not aware of service systems and treatment options available for the victims and perpetrators. Therefore, it is likely that gaining victims' trust and offering discursive help during the house call was regarded very important.

Experience and research has shown that the victim and the perpetrator of domestic violence require multi-professional and timely help, often repeatedly. In this sense, building trust and the discursive help offered by the police officer entering the house should be understood only as the first, albeit a very important step. If the initial encounter with the victim is unsuccessful, it takes time to gain back trust in the police later. At the same moment, the police should start a systematic risk assessment of the case in order to obtain an overall understanding of the situation. The patrol should not assume that a conversation, even though experienced as well functioning and leading to a shared understanding with the victim about the unbearableness of the situation, would as such break the vicious circle of violence.

Understanding how the cases move on within the service system might support the motivation and well-being of the police officers handling emergency tasks: how the next steps are taken by other professional and how the responsibility of the family's health and well-being is shared out by many different authorities and associations. Raised awareness could ward off cynicism when recurrent house calls come from the same address. Recurring or continuous violence is a problem that the police cannot solve alone, but filing a crime report enables multi-professional intervention - patrol police officers are the gatekeepers.

Violence in close relationships is among the most common police assignment and it is often handled well, yet training would deepen the understanding of police officers on the dynamics of violence and effective intervention. Knowledge about how the other frontline agencies continue with the case after a crime report is filed could help patrol police officers reflect upon their work in relation to what the other professionals do, what are their approaches, procedures and needs. This would create new perspectives and deeper meaning to work, as one's own actions could be seen as a significant link in the chain of multi-professional cooperation in preventing domestic violence and improving the health and well-being of the victim, children and the perpetrator.

Anchor work in Finland is carried out in multi-professional teams consisting of professionals from the police, social services, health services and youth services.

2020-06-23 by Marianne Mela and Jarmo Houtsonen (POLAMK)