More than 10,000 women and children are at high risk of being murdered or injured by current or former partners, according to new figures.
Data from 34 out of 44 police forces in England, Wales and Scotland reveals that at least 10,952 individuals, mainly women, were deemed to be at risk of violent death in the home or suffering serious violence in the year to November.
But the figures seen by the Guardian are likely to be an underestimate as domestic violence is heavily under-reported and police forces appear to gather and collate information in different ways despite there being calls for a nationally standardised way of assessing the risks.
There are concerns that police have made too many mistakes when dealing with people at risk of violence which leave them at risk of being killed and the dangerous individuals responsible at large.
In Chichester, an inquest this week heard how Cassandra Hasanovic, a 24-year-old mother-of-two, was killed by her former husband after he had made repeated threats to take her life. He was already known to the police.
Ms Hasanovic had been assessed by the Sussex force as a high risk of serious harm but was killed as she made her way to a domestic violence refuge, having asked for and been refused a police escort.
The jury found on Wednesday that Sussex police and the Crown Prosecution Service failed to take steps that would have prevented her death.
Last year a coroner in Derbyshire found that errors by the police had contributed to the deaths of Rachael Slack and her two-year-old son, who were stabbed to death by her estranged partner. Slack had also been assessed as at high risk of homicide, but officers failed to inform her.
Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, said domestic violence was a problem of systemic proportions. She said women and children deemed to be at the highest risk must be given proper protection and the police must not use risk assessment as a “tick box” exercise.
“There is no point in doing a risk assessment if the knowledge gained does not lead to proactive safety planning measures that keep women and children safe from violent men.
“I am deeply concerned that in too many cases this does not happen,” she said.
Most forces have adopted what is seen as a national risk protocol, Dash – domestic abuse, stalking and honour-based violence – but some still use their own assessments or the judgment of the officer on scene.
Dash was designed to provide national standards to identify those women and children who are at the highest risk from violent partners and ex-partners in order for police and other agencies to intervene early to safeguard women and children and – importantly – to target the perpetrators.
But there appear to be huge discrepancies in the way forces assess the risk and gaps in record-keeping, the Guardian reported.
Laura Richards, a criminal behavioural analyst who developed the Dash assessment, said this was a worrying scenario. “The fact that a force cannot grab those individuals from their data quickly means there is clearly a problem,” she said.
“The whole point is that you can start to risk-manage and at the same time target high risk perpetrators, actively work on them and start closing down their space, putting them under covert surveillance if necessary and arresting them.”
Over 12 months West Midlands police assessed 2,082 individuals as high risk but admitted it was a minimum figure as four police units had failed to maintain their records.
Across Essex – a force that has in the past been heavily criticised for the number of domestic violence murders that have taken place after the woman had made contact with the police – 1,801 women and children were identified as at high risk of harm in the year to November 2013.
Some forces were unable to provide figures on how many women and children were at high risk at any one time, saying such a calculation would involve too much manual searching of IT records. Those included Cambridgeshire, Durham, Humberside and Lancashire.
In the Metropolitan police area – where one call every six minutes is a domestic violence incident – only 87 women and children were assessed as high risk in one month.
A spokesman for the Met told the Guardian: “Risk is assessed dynamically and will fluctuate during an investigation. If, for example, a victim is placed in a refuge far from the perpetrator who has no means of determining her whereabouts the risk may be lowered. Risk can of course be raised during investigations if additional evidence comes to light.”