Topic: Violence and abuse

«Not worth telling the police”. Intimate partner violence that has not been reported

Grøvdal, Y. (2019). "Ikke verdt å gå til politiet med": Om vold i parforhold som ikke er anmeldt [«Not worth telling the police”. Intimate partner violence that has not been reported] Norwegian only. (Rapport 5/2019).

Despite a considerable increase in the number of police reports in Norway in the last decade or so, research clearly indicates that most people still do not report intimate partner violence.


Intimate partner violence is a considerable social problem in Norway, as in other parts of the world. Women are particularly at risk, but intimate partner violence also affects men and not least children living in households where violence is committed. An important, negative aspect of the violence is that people are targeted in their homes – a place that is supposed to be safe. Living in an atmosphere of insecurity, unease and restraint brought on by such violence, puts a great strain on a person. Violence in close relations, which is the notion most often used in Norway today, has been high on the Norwegian political agenda for decades, and the police has been considered pivotal in the effort to reduce this social problem.  

However, the police are dependent on the public for knowledge about the violence and from the point of view of the authorities it is regarded as unsatisfactory that most of those who are subjected to intimate partner violence do not report. Accordingly, several measures have been implemented to increase the rate of reporting to the police. Such measures include making the police report intimate partner violence to a greater extent, and encouraging those subjected to violence to contact the police. The latter has primarily been attempted through campaigns promoting the police as the right instance for dealing with such problems.

Despite a considerable increase in the number of police reports in the last decade or so, research clearly indicates that most people still do not report intimate partner violence. For instance, a survey published by NKVTS in 2014, shows that just about one in four women and men subjected to what the researchers characterised as severe violence had reported to the police. 

In this report – based on face to face interviews with thirteen women and six men who had experienced violence in heterosexual relationships – I present and discuss various aspects of what I have named the “relevance of the police in lives where intimate partner violence is committed”. Qualitative studies of intimate partner violence with both female and male participants are few and far between, and conducting such a study has been a challenge in several ways, one being that the body of research exploring the phenomenon of women’s violence against men in depth, is limited. 

With this project I aimed to understand what might be of importance to women and men subjected to such violence when, or if, the question of reporting said violence to the police was raised. Rather than asking them why they had not reported the violence I wanted to make the interviewees talk about whether or not they had considered contacting the police, and about their possible views of how involving the police might have impacted on their life situation. The question of reporting crime is extremely normatively charged in our society, not least when it comes to intimate partner violence. Reporting to the police seems both to be the obvious thing, as well as the right thing, to do. Accordingly, it was essential not to make the interviewees feel a need to defend not having done so. 

The results of the study support to a great extent what we have learned from prior qualitative projects examining various different aspects of intimate partner violence, including the question of police reports. A factor well known to influence police reporting that is confirmed in this study, is whether or not the persons subjected to the violence has left – or has decided to leave – their spouse or partner. Involving the police seems to presuppose not wanting to share one’s life with the partner committing the violence. Another aspect influencing decisions of police reporting, is whether or not one is left in peace after the break up. Reporting does not seem relevant unless the former partner continues to harass, or act in a potentially dangerous manner, or if conflicts arise that threaten feelings of safety and the possibility to protect any children one might have. On the other hand, fear of more violence and insecurity might also weigh against reporting.  

The study also shows that in the instances where reporting to the police were actually thought of as a possibility, the resolve to do so or not was generally the result of carefully considering a number of issues important to the interviewees. Both preconceptions of, and experiences with, the police, as well as private and personal matters, were of importance for the women and men in question. However, some of the interviewees can be said to not have considered contacting the police at all. Even so, most had preconceptions about the police force. Finding clear patterns in the material has been difficult, as the story of each participant is complex, involving a number of unique elements. However, a recurring feature was a rather limited belief in what the police could provide in cases of intimate partner violence. More details from the study will follow below. 

Preconceptions and views about the police 

A very limited number of the study participants had previous experiences with the police in connection with episodes of intimate partner violence. Moreover, most of them had never been involved with the police, or if they had, their involvement had been rather insignificant, limited to seeing police officers or maybe reporting a stolen bicycle. Nevertheless, most had fairly clear opinions about the police, not least about the work of the police in cases of intimate partner violence. As previously pointed out, there was generally little faith in what the police could have done in the situations the participants found themselves in with their spouses or partners. Some women did not believe that the police had adequate or sufficient means and «tools» to prevent the men from committing more violence. These beliefs were particularly prominent in women whose partners spread fear by subjecting them to grievous bodily harm and who appeared to be unstable and unpredictable. Serious threats compelling women to remain in the relationship for fear of repercussions, also made reporting to the police out of the question or regarded as too dangerous. 

Moreover, several of the interviewees were convinced that the police would not really busy themselves with the violence that they had experienced. Should they have wanted to make a police report, they believed that the incidents might not be regarded as serious enough for the police to spend much time on. The fact that the better part of the violence or its consequences had not been documented, and that the incidents had rarely been witnessed by someone else, made the first argument even stronger in the eyes of the study participants. Reporting to the police would most likely not lead anywhere but to a dismissal of the case. Several had also found support for such views in conversations with others, including police officers and shelter employees. A widespread view appeared to be that the police prioritise cases of very serious violence, where there is sufficient evidence. Media coverage of police dealings with intimate partner violence had also left the impression that even cases of serious violence may fall through in the criminal justice system. 

Despite the fact that the police is sometimes referred to as a place to seek help, and the police themselves occasionally describe the police force as a help scheme, the study participants mainly considered the police to be crime controllers. When the primary goal was making the relationship work, or getting help for the man or the woman committing the violence, reporting to the police was ruled out. Referring the violence to the police was also regarded as a potential loss of control over one’s life, a control that can be said to have been of considerable importance to many of the study participants.  
There were many similarities in the way women and men who had not made police reports talked about their situation and reflected upon what involving the police could have brought about. There were, however, also differences. The majority of the women had been subjected to more serious violence than the men, even though there were exceptions on both sides. And while none of the women expressed reservation against contacting the police because they were women, this was a prominent feature in the interviews with men. Lacking the evidence that they supposed that the police would have needed was one thing, but the assumption that being a man would make it unlikely to be believed or taken seriously, was all the more important. 

The points of view provided by those who had not reported the violence to the police had little in common with the impressions given by a police campaign calling on people to report intimate partner violence that was launched while the study was in progress. The message conveyed by the campaign title Where do you draw the line? (direct translation from Norwegian: How little should you put up with?) was that the police wanted to make it easy for people to contact the police even with stories of incidents that, strictly speaking, fall outside of the scope of what is called violence. Instead of mulling over how much one would have to put up with before it would be relevant to contact the police, the police urged the public to ask the opposite question: “How little can you go to the police with?”  Both through the campaign material and in the media, the police assured that they would, in their words, «build down the barrier» between the public and the police. Through contact with young couples in particular, the police would contribute to the general prevention of intimate partner violence. Some of the interviewees who had tried to get assistance from the police shortly before the campaign was launched, felt provoked by it. One point of view that was common was that the police officers they had been in contact with acted in ways that were perceived as the opposite of helpful. Others did not consider the invitation to tell the police about unpleasant but not violent episodes with the partner credible. 

In light of Norwegian (in particular) and Nordic research on police work with intimate partner violence and on victim experiences with the police, the views of the study participants on what they would have gained by going to the police, appear to be rather realistic. Despite improvements in recent years, there are still deficiencies in the way that the police handle intimate partner violence in general. The police force itself point to their limited resources and admit to the need for prioritizing. Most cases of intimate partner violence are complex and difficult to work with, and securing protection under the law for all citizens implies the dismissal of most cases.

It is, of course, impossible to tell what the individual woman and man who took part in the study would have achieved by reporting the violence to the police. However, judging by the stories told in the interviews, there is little to suggest that any of the cases would have ended with a reaction from the criminal justice system. Some of the study participants might have been referred to or put in contact with other instances, but whether or not the police suggest or provide alternatives to police reports will often depend both on the duty station and on the particular police officer. 

Experiences with the police 

Incidentally, the fact that the contributions of the police in cases of intimate partner violence can often be far from ideal, was illustrated through interviews with a limited number of study participants of both sexes who had attempted to report their former spouses to the police. The police reports were, without exception, filed after the relationship had ended, but under differing circumstances. Among other things, there were examples of unpleasant behaviour and/or use of physical force that did not end with the dissolution of the marriages. Lack of evidence and the gender of the person reporting the violence, were most likely among the reasons why these study participants were met with attitudes that they perceived as a rejection by the police. According to the women, the police did not openly refuse to accept their reports, but the arguments used were perceived by the women as efforts to talk them out of reporting. One man, on the other hand, described his encounter with the police as resulting in a straight refusal. The individual policewoman or policeman being a representative of the police force as a whole, experiences like these will often lead to a loss of the general trust that the police depend on in their work. As for the individual police employee, on the other hand, accepting reports of cases that would probably end in dismissals will probably not seem rational, considering the nature of the evaluative standard currently used to assess police work. About 70 percent of all reports of intimate partner violence made to the police are dismissed – most of them for want of evidence – and are consequently not regarded as solved. This is not positive for a police force whose work is measured by the number of solved cases and indictments. 

Different aspects of police encounters with (in particular) women subjected to intimate partner violence, have been described in a large number of national and international studies. The bulk of these descriptions indicate rather clearly that contact with the police often falls short of the women’s expectations. These results are congruent with the stories of the attempts to file police reports told by the participants in this study. A gap can be said to exist between the hopes and wishes of those subjected to violence and the realities in the police encounters. Such a gap does not preclude the existence of positive experiences, but these are likely outweighed by a large amount of negative outcomes. This may seem logical given the fact that the police themselves point to intimate partner violence as a very challenging field to work with. Additionally, due to the criticism directed against the police, researchers have likely found it an important task to study the problematic parts of the police work with intimate partner violence. Knowing about the problems and what they entail for people is believed to be necessary in order to ameliorate the situation. 

Many studies, including the present one, present examples of conflict and other issues in encounters with the police. The present study also provides examples of situations in which the general trust in both the police, and in Norway as a state ruled by justice, was challenged. All the same, we can hardly speak of direct confrontations with the police: The conflict and problem areas consisted of study participants feeling badly treated and/or not obtaining what they had hoped for and needed, without this necessarily being communicated to the police. Rather, the analysis shows how the authority that the police possess was hard to go against, meaning that the participants found it difficult to argue with the police in order to achieve what they themselves had hoped for. This effect was particularly apparent in the cases of the women. 

However, the women who had wanted to file reports or who had been in contact with the police for other reasons, avoided some of the experiences with police authority that were brought up in one of the interviews with a male study participant. The topic discussed here was how the police handled repeated police reports against him from the ex-partner who had subjected him to violence. The phenomenon of the person committing the violence reporting the one on which violence is committed, is to a certain extent known from previous research on men being subjected to intimate partner violence by women. Many men have described this phenomenon as a continuation of the violence after the break up, where the woman uses the police as a sort of tool. The descriptions men give of the police in such cases differ greatly. While some men find themselves placed in a very precarious position, others have found that the police have supported them and defused the situation. In this study, the police’s actions were described as an enormous strain that completely undermined the belief in Norway as a state ruled by law, and in the police as the keepers of the legal protection. It was of little help that absolutely all the reports of violence that his former partner had filed were dismissed. The light of suspicion had been thrown on the man, and it seemed impossible to escape. 

The line of conduct of the police was often talked about as aggravating an already difficult life situation. Instead of contributing to the reduction of the vulnerability both women and men experienced due to their partners actions, the police can be said to have upheld the power imbalance power that existed in the relationship. This seemed particularly clear in the cases of women who tried to engage the police in the protection of children who resided with them.  

On the other hand, the stories of the study participants also contained examples of how serious violence committed in the presence of witnesses, or where the suspect was apprehended on the spot by the police, resulted in indictments and convictions. There was, incidentally, a noticeable correlation between the descriptions of the encounters with the police, and assumptions and understandings about the police talked about by the study participants who neither filed reports nor had any personal contact with the police force. As already pointed out, many did not see the point in filing a report unless the violence was serious and the evidence strong.   

Difficult to report someone with whom you have a close relation 

In spite of the participants being subjected to violence, the act of reporting, or the possibility of a criminal case was often held up as potentially damaging, or at best of little use. Filing police reports was not just seen as an act causing more problems for the one closest to the study participants, in particular the children, but was also considered to harm family relations in general. The need for help dominated many of the stories, while crime control hardly was seen as relevant. This was in part due to the psychological health of the man or woman committing the violence. Many felt sorry for a partner who did not seem to have a good grip on their situation and had no wish to further complicate his or her life. They did, however, also feel angry and/or sad about being subjected to the violence. Another argument against involving the criminal justice system was the wish to keep up a respectable facade towards the (surrounding) world. Such a wish was incompatible with making the violence public, and consequently making oneself known as a battered woman or man. 

In general, the research participants seemed to have been preoccupied with issues other than whether or not to file a police report. As in previous research, we find that being at mother or a father in a situation where one is subjected to violence by one’s spouse or partner is especially challenging. Fourteen of the nineteen participants had one or several children with the person committing the violence, and these children all lived with their mother’s violence against their father or vice versa. For several of the women worrying about how the violence in the household might affect the children was in important motivator in deciding to break off the relationship. A couple of them left their spouse when their child was quite small. Others, both women and men, waited quite long before breaking up, partially for fear of what would happen if the partner who had committed the violence was allowed the care of the children. The men who had been abused in a relationship were there were children talked at length about their fear of not being able to keep contact with them in case of a break up. When the relationships ended, many of them actually did experience short, longer, or in some cases more or less permanent breaks in their relationship with their (often young) children. This could be the result of the woman leaving and taking the children with her many miles away, or of civil court cases about access to the children, in which the woman was given the custody. One of the stories also shows how an injunction on visiting requested by the partner who had committed the violence prevented one of the men from seeing his child. While the women interviewees without exception were granted custody of the children after the relationship ended, none of the men did, although most of them wanted to. 

However, for both women and men, having children with a partner who had subjected them to violence lead to an unwanted bond between them and said partner. At any rate, the fact that one of the children’s parents had committed such acts was a source of uneasiness, worry and fear for the safety of the children. Women talked about how hard it had been to make teachers and kindergarten employees realise that their children were not problematic, but rather children who had problems, and to convince them to treat them accordingly. Both men and women talked about how they wished to spare their children from bad experiences and protect them against fathers or mothers who acted in unpredictable ways and who did not seem fit to consider the children’s feelings or to take care of their needs. As stated above, some women even approached the police asking for protection for their children, but according to these women all the propositions made by the police were far from satisfactory. The struggle to make life safe and predictable for the children, both while in the relationship and in the years that followed, had left many feeling worn out.  

Police reports and experiences with the health and social services, and the civil court

Attempts to obtain support from the police in order to protect the children were, however, not the only endeavours that fell through. Both women and men also described how trying to engage other services failed. Women who were in touch with the Child Welfare Services had been told that their views and statements were biased, and had to document that it was problematic for their children to be with their fathers. Consequently, one woman insisted that the headmaster at her son’s school send a note of concern about the child’s fear of being together with the father to the Child Welfare Services. Men who had asked for help from the Child Welfare Services experienced that their children were further traumatised as a consequence of how the staff acted in the matter. 

The negative encounters and experiences with the health- and social services, in particular with the Child Welfare Services, seem to have influenced any thoughts of contacting the police as well. In addition to the problems of not having their needs and perspectives recognised, negative experiences can in some cases be said to have spilled over into perceptions of the police, making reporting the violence even more unlikely. This is an aspect that does not appear to be known from previous research. 

 Another phenomenon that has not really been an object of great interest in the research, is that filing reports is advised against if the parties are involved in a legal dispute over their children’s residence and contact with the parents. This warning or advice was given to both men and women in encounters with different legal actors. The men’s legal representatives told them to do whatever they could to avoid looking like they wanted to seek revenge against the partner who had committed the violence. Even though the men had reason to believe that it would be problematic or damaging  for the children to spend most of their time with a mother who had anger management issues and maybe also psychological health problems, the men were told to lie low. The police used similar arguments towards a woman when she tried to file a report on her former husband.

 The stories told by the study participants showed both similarities and differences in how women and men talked about, and experienced, their partner’s violence. Being subjected to violence made life difficult, and both women and men described feelings – not least consideration for their partner – that weighed against filing police reports. All of those whose children were in some way affected by the violence were concerned about the children’s situation. Both women and men talked about consequences of the violence, including stress reactions, which did not disappear after the break up. Among the differences were for example the fact that none of the men feared that physical abuse from the partner would have resulted from reporting her to the police, and that practically none of the men felt physically threatened by the partner after the break up, whereas this was the case for several of the women. While two of the men had been reported to the police by their former partner, one of them a number of times, none of the women had such experiences. All in all, we may conclude that police reports had little relevance in the lives of those living with violence. Gender, however, did seem to matter to men when reflecting on what it would have entailed were they to have filed police reports. Being a man made them consider it unlikely that they would have been believed, while none of the women reflected on the importance of gender in this context. 

Less intimate partner violence – whose responsibility? 

When Norwegian authorities assign the police a central role in what is referred to as the fight to reduce intimate partner violence and other forms of violence in close relations, it is partly because of the symbolic value of punishment for the degree of law-abidingness in society. If relatively few people file police reports, and especially if very few people are convicted of violence, it is quite possible that the value of punishment as a social symbol will diminish. Moreover, general prevention theories are based on some individuals being punished in order for the rest of us to remain law-abiding citizens. Taking recourse to the criminal justice system can be seen as tantamount to regarding the acts one has been subjected to, as socially unacceptable or even criminal. As expressed by one of the study participants, not reporting can, in a worst-case scenario, make a person accessory to a crime, or at least make him or her feel like an accessory. 

However, the fact that the women and men who participated in this study did not file police reports, was not tantamount to them accepting the act of violence. Moreover, several of the women felt that they should have considered the well-being of others, even people they did not know personally, by reporting.  These others were – more precisely – potential, future girlfriends or spouses of the men who had committed violence, or women that their ex-partners or ex-spouses were actually living with at the time of the interview. Some of the women interviewees found the thought of not having done so quite unpleasant. 

In an attempt to understand and explain the fact that only a minority of those subjected to intimate partner violence file police reports – despite the fact that reporting seems like the right thing to do – researchers, health- and social workers, and others have resorted to the notions of “barriers” and “obstacles”. Politicians and the police management express the need to “build down” barriers. But is it not possible to regard not reporting intimate partner violence as a reflection of strategic and well thought out choices or decisions made in a difficult and far from ideal situation? And, is it not equally probable that contacting the police because of the violence committed by the spouse or partner may seem neither self-evident nor right? Most of us would probably want as little contact with the police as possible, even if the possible (negative) consequences of reporting a stolen bike are fewer by far than if one reports intimate partner violence (risk of losing control, risk of losing face, risk of the partner ending in jail etc.) Research also shows that far from all who report intimate partner violence to the police do it of their own accord.  Many feel they have limited control over the decision, and stories are told about how one feels pressured by others – or to report for the sake of other people. 

Moreover, the police seem to have considerable potential for improvement when it comes to handling cases of intimate partner violence. Part of this potential can be found in the police communication with the public, and not least with women and men who find themselves in life situations which challenge their safety and integrity, or who contact the police in order to file a report of intimate partner violence. While it is difficult for the police force to do something about their resource situation or about stories in the media where their work is criticised, representatives of the police force can contribute to maintaining the general trust that a majority of the Norwegian public have in the police. Trust in the police will without doubt matter if one wants more people to file reports in cases of intimate partner violence.  Showing compassion, interest, good manners and friendliness – all things that the study participants wished for – are probably within reach. That the police continue to be honest to the public regarding the limitations of their powers as an institution, is also likely to be of importance. Contacting the police on account of intimate partner violence is undoubtedly a big decision to make and it is paramount not to create expectations that cannot be met.

«Not worth telling the police”. Intimate partner violence that has not been reported

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