The trouble with an iceberg is that you only see the tip – a domestic abuse blog

Two stories this week have set me thinking that western criminal justice systems might still be failing to see the full story of domestic abuse.

The first is the tragic story of Casey Brittle who was murdered by her estranged partner on 3rd October 2010 leaving behind her daughter. The Independent Police Complaint’s Commission (IPCC) investigation published this week found that police officer’s approaches were lacking in several of incidents reported to the police.

On one occasion officers took the word of the aggressor. On other occasions officers failed to refer the incident to the domestic abuse unit or investigate independent evidence due to Casey insisting that she did not want further action.

It seems that officers were unaware that victims often fail to support prosecutions because of the very coercion which breeds violence and through fear of reprisals.

Nottingham Police had not, one might suppose, taken on board the message that by the time a call is made to them, in most cases there will have been lots of prior incidents.

No incident of domestic violence should ever been considered in isolation as in the vast majority of cases it will be the tip of the iceberg. 

The second story comes from the US where on 8th September 2011 District Attorney for Shawnee County stopped prosecuting misdemeanour cases in the city of Topeka (including those relating to domestic abuse and battery). The DA passed responsibility over to the Topeka City Prosecutors Office. Then, on 11 October 2011 the City of Topeka repealed the law which permitted it to prosecute domestic battery misdemeanours.

A misdemeanour crime is often described as a “lesser” criminal act and is punishable much less severely than a felony. More severe cases of domestic violence will be prosecuted and punished as felonies.

Let’s be clear though, misdemeanour acts crimes are still punishable by up to 1 year in prison. If you are the victim of a domestic battery, a year is a heck of a long time to be free from the risk of further crimes!

The circumstances in Topeka led to public outcry and rightly so. There currently no final solution to the stand off but thankfully, interim measures mean that cases will continue to be prosecuted whilst the budgetary issues which led to the remarkable situation are discussed.

In the words of Washington Attorney General:

“Repeat felony domestic violence offenders often begin their behavior as misdemeanor domestic violence offenders. These misdemeanor domestic violence convictions are not just important in sentencing repeat offenders, but are often just as meaningful to a victim and the victim’s children as a felony.”

What conclusions can I draw from these stories?

  • Any incident of domestic abuse which results in a criminal justice intervention (whether that is the police attending or a prosecution) is significant. 
  • That message is not getting through to some criminal justice agencies both here and in the States. 
  • Outcomes for victims will only improve sustainably if criminal justice agencies consistently see the iceberg as a whole

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