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Domestic homicides remain stable during lockdown but still an enduring problem says new report commissioned by police

A photo of a woman crouched down and covering her face on the floor

Domestic homicides remain an ‘entrenched and enduring problem’ despite figures remaining relatively stable during lockdown, a new report drawing on research by an OU academic and commissioned by police has found.

‘Domestic Homicides and Suspected Victim Suicides During the Covid-19 Pandemic 2020-2021’ is the first report of the Domestic Homicide Project, established by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing working with National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP). The project was created in May 2020 through Home Office funding.

The research carried out by the Project is the first police-led work of its kind in England and Wales and aimed to establish the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides with a known history of domestic abuse(1), to learn lessons from every tragic incident and seek to prevent future deaths.

Domestic homicide and suspected victim suicide figures

Evidence from the project showed that domestic homicides didn’t appear to increase dramatically during the pandemic, with 163 recorded in the 12 months to 31 March 2021. This was very similar to the previous year’s figure of 152 and is in line with the 15-year average (2).  Although there has not been a significant change in the numbers during the pandemic, all organisations in this sector agree that more needs to be done to reduce further incidents; a continuing situation where between two and three women are murdered every week by their partners or ex-partners is unacceptable.

The Project also found 38 suspected victim suicides with a known history of domestic abuse, although this figure couldn’t be compared with previous years as this was the first time that the data had been captured in this way.

Stay at home poster displayed at a bus stop

Occasional signage used during the pandemic

While domestic homicides haven’t appeared to increase dramatically, these numbers do confirm that it remains an enduring issue. The Project found that Covid-19 acted as an ‘escalator and intensifier of existing abuse’ in some instances, with victims less able to seek help due to Covid restrictions. It also concluded that Covid had not ‘caused’ domestic homicide, but it had been ‘weaponised’ by some abusers as both a new tool of control over victims, and – in some cases – as an excuse or defence for abuse or homicide of the victim.

Evidence from the report also supports existing research that coercive and controlling behaviour is associated with higher risk of homicide.

Victims and suspects

In terms of typologies and characteristics of victims and suspects, the evidence shows that victims were mostly female (73%) (3), aged between 25 and 54 years old, with the vast majority of deaths occurring in urban areas (90%) and the most common cause of death being by a sharp instrument (29%).

Over three quarters of victims with a known ethnicity were white (76%) though, since Covid, the proportion of victims from non-white ethnicities (24%) appears to be slightly, though not significantly, higher than in previous years and in the general population (4).

In contrast to victims, most suspects were male (80%), and this was across all homicide types, except for child deaths where more than half the suspects were female (59%). Similar to victims, the majority of suspects with a known ethnicity were white (76%) and the proportion of suspects from other ethnicities (24%) also appears to be slightly higher than in previous years and the general population (5).

Suspects aged between 25 and 44 years old were more likely to be involved in intimate partner homicides (44%) and suspected victim suicides (51%), while suspects in adult family homicides tended to be younger, with 60% aged between 16 and 34 years old.

Predictive and risk factors

Looking further at risk factors, there were differences between case types. However, several key risks were present across all domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides. Below are some examples:

  • Domestic homicide was gendered – women (and some men) were at risk from men (with some exceptions).
  • Just under half (48%) of all suspects had previously been reported to police for domestic abuse.
  • Victims and suspects from minority ethnic groups were less likely to be previously known to police than those from white ethnicities.
  • Existing mental health conditions, alcohol and drug use by suspects were exacerbating factors.

Between each case type, there were certain risk factors which were most present and below are some examples:

  • Adult family homicides: victims were older than in other case types. This reflects a pattern of younger adults (mainly men) killing parents and grandparents (often mothers or grandmothers). These cases were more likely to involve suspects with acute mental disorders and involvement with mental health services.
  • Child deaths: more likely than other types to involve male victims and more likely than other types to involved female suspects.
  • Intimate partner homicides: suspects were likely to have a previous domestic abuse police record (or to be a perpetrator of undisclosed domestic abuse).
  • Victim suicides following domestic abuse: the abuse profile largely mirrored intimate partner homicide group, though (female) suicide victims were even more likely to be previously known as victims of high-risk domestic abuse involving coercive control.

Prior contact with police and other agencies

Just under half (48%) of all suspects were previously reported to police as suspects for domestic abuse – this was most pronounced in intimate partner and victim suicide cases. A further 10% were known to police for non-domestic abuse offending, and a further 10% were previously known to police as a victim of domestic abuse or vulnerable person. A quarter (27%) were not previously known to police in any capacity – this was most common in child death and so-called ‘familicide’ cases.

Taken together, this means that over half of suspects (58%) were previously known to police as a suspect for some form of offending. This does suggest that potential domestic homicide suspects are more ‘visible’ to police than previous studies have shown.

However, multi-agency partnership working remains crucial to identifying risk and preventing domestic homicides and suicides and this is highlighted in the report. In 57% of all cases, either the victim or suspect, or both, were previously known to another agency other than police. Additionally, in 44% of cases not known to police at all, either the victim or suspect or both was previously known to another agency, most commonly children’s social services, adult social services, or mental health services.

Recommendations and exiting lockdown

The report contains 20 conclusions and recommendations for police and other agencies, covering a variety of areas such as: the impact of Covid, defining domestic homicide, implications for risks assessment, partnership working and further research.

NHS, a blue heart and a rainbow are drawn in colourful chalk on the pavement outside a home

A street scene in the UK during the pandemic.

In addition to the recommendations, the report sets out a number of lessons for police and other agencies in responding to domestic abuse and preventing domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides as the country emerges from Covid restrictions. These include:

  • Be prepared for an increased risk of domestic homicides and potentially domestic suicides, particularly intimate partner homicide and victim suicides as some abusers’ control is taken away by eased restrictions, and other abusers re-gain access to victims
  • Ongoing situational pressures arising from Covid-19, such as unemployment, mental health issues and delays to court cases are likely to continue to impact domestic abuse, domestic homicide and victim suicide
  • Remain alert to ‘Covid-blaming’ as an excuse or defence by suspects

However, the report also highlights that emerging from lockdown may have some benefits and could help reduce the risk of homicide and suicide in some cases by re-establishing support networks and making cases more visible.

I’m very proud of what’s been achieved through the Domestic Homicide Project since it was established. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed so far and helped produce the Project’s first pioneering piece of research, ranging from policing, partner agencies and also the friends and family of victims and the domestic abuse sector who have generously offered their insights to shape this project.

Domestic homicide and suspected victim suicides are not something that only the police can try to prevent and we’re grateful for all the collaboration happening across the entire sector. However, as the report highlights, there are still areas where we can improve, both separately and by working together, and this is especially important now that lockdown is over.

As the report rightly states, each one of these deaths is a tragedy for a family and friends, and each is one death too many, and we’re hopeful that the recommendations, conclusions and insights from this research will help prevent future deaths.

The Project is ongoing, and work is already underway to analyse specific patterns within domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides, with the aim of publishing more research next year to further assist policing and partner agencies in this area.

Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Domestic Abuse

This report builds on the tireless work done over many years by friends and family of victims and the domestic abuse sector to raise awareness of domestic homicide. We are grateful to them for sharing some of those insights through our Stakeholder Group. We would like to thank the police for demonstrating real commitment to learn lessons from domestic homicides. Police leaders have championed this project at the highest levels, and every force has supported this research by sharing data, taking part in interviews and engaging with emerging learning.

The research shows that domestic homicides do not all follow the same path. Whilst there are strong common themes – such as the gendered dynamics of abuse – the prior offending patterns and personal characteristics of those who commit intimate partner murder often differ from those who kill family members or children.

For too long, a relationship between domestic abuse and victim suicide has been suspected but not systematically documented. This report shows for the first time that there are at least three apparent suicides every month with a history of domestic abuse, and these are only the cases where the history was known to police.

Crucially, whilst this report shows that domestic homicides did not see the huge rise under Covid which was feared early in lockdown, they remain far too high, with on average 14 adults or children dying at the hands of a partner or family member each month.

Dr Lis Bates, Report Lead Author and Senior Research Fellow at The Open University (6)

Tackling domestic abuse is a key priority for the Government and we have made huge progress in supporting victims and ensuring perpetrators face justice.

Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act transforms our response to tackling domestic abuse by providing greater protection to victims and survivors from all forms of abuse.

I am grateful to the work of the NPCC, VKPP and the College of Policing on this vital project, and to the contributions from the domestic abuse and homicide stakeholders, the academics, and police forces. I am so pleased that the project will continue for another year so that we can continue to monitor domestic homicides and drive change to prevent these horrific crimes.

Victoria Atkins, Minister for Safeguarding

This ground breaking research greatly adds to our knowledge and understanding of domestic homicides and will prove vital in helping improve our responses to risk to keep victims, particularly women, safer.

Everyone deserves to feel secure in their homes and relationships and we must ensure policing takes every opportunity to further reduce the number of domestic homicides and suicides.

Although figures have remained stable during the pandemic it is totally unacceptable that between two and three women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week.

The College has developed a range of products to support forces, including working with domestic abuse charities to produce specialist training for officers and staff, which is being delivered in nearly 30 forces. We have also developed an updated domestic abuse risk assessment tool with academics, practitioners and survivors. This focuses on assisting police responders to identify coercive and controlling behaviour. This behaviour has very significant adverse effects on the quality of life of its victims, but is also an indicator of risk of serious physical harm.

This report is the first publication from the Domestic Homicide Project, and every organisation in this sector is determined to use the information gathered to develop more effective responses to domestic abuse and prevent these tragic deaths from occurring.

Bernie O’Reilly, interim CEO of the College of Policing
  1. The report didn’t investigate a causal link.
  2. 15-year average calculated from Home Office police-recorded homicide data.
  3. Important to note that this varied by case type. While intimate partner homicide victims and suspected victim suicides were overwhelmingly female (85% and 90% respectively), half the victims of adult family homicide (50%) and just under half of child death victims (48%) were male.
  4. 15-year domestic homicides average, the 2019/20 domestic homicides data, and the general population as measured by Census 2011.
  5. The general population as measured by Census 2011 and the 10-year domestic homicides average.
  6. Since this report was authored, Dr Lis Bates is now Reader in Interpersonal Violence Prevention at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Domestic Homicide Project

The Project adopted a wide definition of domestic homicides including murder from a (current or ex) partner, family member or co-habitee, child deaths in a domestic setting, and unexplained deaths or suspected victim suicides with a known history of domestic abuse. These latter two categories are not homicides, but were included in the project definition to capture as wide a range of deaths following domestic abuse as possible.

The Project team established a bespoke Stakeholder Group to advise the Project which has met twice during this twelve-month period. The Stakeholder Group comprises representatives from the domestic abuse sector including the Victims’ and Domestic Abuse Commissioners’ Offices, national domestic abuse services, such as Women’s Aid, Safelives, Refuge, Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse, and Respect; as well as specialist providers and advocates, like Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, Nia, the Counting Dead Women project, Imkaan, Southall Black Sisters, Karma Nirvana, Muslim Women’s Network UK, Gallop, and the ManKind Initiative. We would like to acknowledge and thank all stakeholders and panel members for their contributions and insight throughout this first year of the project.

The project team also convened a panel of national and international academics working in the field of domestic homicides and domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic, to identify relevant research evidence. We would like to acknowledge and thank the input of these esteemed colleagues.

Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP)

Demand related to vulnerability has significantly increased in recent years and it represents one of the highest threat, harm and risk areas. In beginning to address this, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) established the Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP) in 2018 to develop and co-ordinate holistic, evidence-based approaches to improve learning, practice and outcomes.

Assistant Commissioner (AC) Rolfe is the NPCC lead on Domestic Abuse and the Violence and Public Protection portfolio. The VKPP sits within this portfolio and its work is directed by AC Rolfe, alongside VKPP Director Gareth Edwards and Head of VKPP Rhiannon Sawyer. The programme works across all police forces in England and Wales and is a multi-disciplinary team of dedicated professionals including police officers, researchers and academics.

The Domestic Homicide Project is one of nine wider workstreams being delivered by the VKPP that contribute to the overall evidence base for vulnerability and violent crime. Many of these projects focus on direct engagement with forces and a range of key partners to gain an understanding of current practice and to explore opportunities for developing knowledge sharing learning and improving outcomes for those who are vulnerable.

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