Why do we waste police time arresting women in distress?

Work with Offenders looks at the inappropriate use of police resources.

Earlier this week the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System and The Howard League published the second briefing from the APPG’s inquiry into women offenders. Entitled “Arresting the entry of women into the criminal justice system”, the report concluded that:

“Thousands of women in distress are being arrested unnecessarily each year instead of being given the help and support they need.”

The APPG reached its conclusions after receiving original and detailed evidence from five police forces in England and Wales, who provided anonymised data on more than 600 arrests of women. This valuable resource revealed that a staggering 40 per cent of arrests resulted in no further action. Nationwide, police forces made almost 100,000 arrests of women during the year ending March 2019.

The APPG found numerous examples of women being arrested for alleged non-violent offences. They included a woman who was arrested for begging outside a supermarket. Another woman was arrested after she walked into a main road repeatedly. A third, who was believed to be drunk and known to have mental health problems, was arrested for trespassing on railway property.

The briefing states that women who are drunk, behaving badly or putting themselves at risk do not need to be arrested. Often, police are being asked to deal with problems that other public services have failed to resolve, such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental ill-health and homelessness.

“If women do need support,” the briefing states, arresting them for begging or shop theft will not tackle underlying issues causing poverty and may even drive women further into the criminal justice system if they end up with fines which they have no means to pay.”

Some of the evidence submitted to the APPG related to arrests of women for alleged violent offences, including arrests in connection to suspected domestic abuse incidents.

The briefing reveals that, for too many women, contact with the police results in their criminalisation rather than a recognition that they might be victims of domestic abuse. The evidence provided by the five forces included details of cases where women had contacted the police to report a domestic incident but ended up being arrested themselves, and then released with no further action.

Detailed analysis 

The APPG was able to consider more information about this after the Howard League for Penal Reform asked one force to analyse its data on arrests of women and girls over a two-year period. It emerged that almost three-quarters of the women arrested had previously come to the attention of the police as victims of violence or sexual violence. More than half of them had been victims of domestic abuse.

The briefing states:

Forces should investigate whether the duty to take positive action in alleged domestic violence incidents is unnecessarily driving up arrests of women. Officers do not have to arrest and can take alternative positive action, such as finding somewhere safe for the woman to go, where she is not in the same house as the other party.

If officers arrive at the scene and have no or limited knowledge of the background to the incident, they may arrest women when it is not necessary or proportionate. An unnecessary arrest can be distressing and damaging for women and it is important that officers have the skills to make the right decision quickly.”

The briefing reveals that Black, Asian and ethnic minority women are more than twice as likely to be arrested as white women, but less likely to be charged following arrest. It states that “greater challenge” to prevent unnecessary and inappropriate arrests would help to prevent their disproportionate criminalisation. The briefing calls for more specialist services for these women and secure funding to ensure they are sustainable.

The APPG found examples of good practice where forces were diverting women who needed support, without arresting them first. But there were too many police force areas where this was not happening.

The APPG found that women’s centres were key in delivering gender-specific services for women, but provision was a “postcode lottery”. Police forces such as Avon and Somerset, Surrey, Thames Valley and West Yorkshire had developed close links with their local women’s centres and were diverting women there for assessment and support. But, in some areas of the country, there were either no local women’s centres or police officers were unaware of the services offered.

The briefing recommends that all forces should adopt a set of principles for policing women, taking into account the factors that bring women into contact with the police and preventing criminalisation when it is unnecessary and inappropriate.