The impact of the pandemic on domestic homicides
Yesterday, 25 August 2021, the 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), published its first report. ‘Domestic Homicides and Suspected Victim Suicides During the Covid-19 Pandemic 2020-2021’ is the first police-led research 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.
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 tragically in line with the average over the last 15 years. 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.
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
The evidence unsurprisingly shows that victims were mostly female (73%), 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%).
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%).
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
Although risk factors varied between different types of case, several key risks were present across all domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides, including:
- 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.
- Victims 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.
Prior contact with police and other agencies
The headline finding picked up by many victims’ groups and the Victim Commissioner herself was the fact that 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.
In most of the cases not known to the police, either the suspect or victim or both were known to other agencies, most commonly children’s social services, adult social services, or mental health services.
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.
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.