How to get emergency help from the police without asking for it: The case of domestic violence

Emma Richardson, Elizabeth Stokoe

Research output: Unpublished contribution to conferenceAbstract


During the COVID-19 pandemic, police, media, and charities reported a sharp increase in reports of domestic abuse internationally (Bradbury-Jones & Isham, 2020). For example, the national domestic abuse charity in the UK, Refuge, reported a 25% increase in requests for help in the first week of the first UK lockdown in March 2020 (BBC, 2020). However, as police forces note, most increases in reporting occurred in the third sector – in domestic abuse helplines and related services – rather than to police. The increased attention paid to domestic violence during the pandemic has provided an opportunity to understand how incoming reports of domestic abuse are made directly to the police, and how call-takers respond to and progress them.

Telephoning the police emergency services to ask for help when one’s life maybe in danger can be especially challenging in cases of domestic violence, and during periods of lockdown when the perpetrator may be in close proximity to overhear the victim’s call. Separately, a key challenge for all emergency services call-takers (and helplines, more generally) is how to respond to so-called ‘silent’ calls; where people are in immediate danger but unable to speak (IOPC, 2020), hoax or prank calls (Emmison & Danby 2007) or accidental dials. In this paper we focus on how callers accomplish the action of requesting help without asking for it explicitly. To do this, we collected a corpus of 200 telephone calls to UK police services (999 and 101, both of which handle domestic violence cases) both prior to and during the first COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ in England. Calls were provided by a police service in England, UK. All personal information is redacted and anonymised. We transcribed the calls for conversation analysis using the Jefferson system, paying particular attention to features that comprise non-lexical turns that may, nevertheless, be important for the actions being done in this environment.

We found that, in addition to direct requests for the police, callers accomplished the same action using other practices: 1) saying nothing; that is, making ‘silent’ calls, which call-takers may or may not treat as calls for help, 2) responding in such a way that call-takers use yes/no interrogative formats to enable one-word responses from callers, and 3) asking for something else (e.g., “I’d like a pizza for delivery”), in which call-takers and callers collaboratively deploy the constraints of grammar, turn design, and sequence to nevertheless request emergency help - while ensuring that the ‘literal’ content of the requests are hearable as such by potentially overhearing assailants. The possibility of both types of call being treated as ‘time-wasting’ or a ‘hoax’ is high, however, and we show that even direct requests that articulate a threat to kill may be treated as such.

We chart the interactional features that make a call to the police hearable as a possible domestic incident when neither party overtly categorizes it as such. We note the practices of callers, operators and call handlers to collaboratively, tacitly, identify a request for help. We consider our findings in the context of potential barriers to calling the police and to provide rapid input to the promotion of police services to support victims of domestic abuse.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jun 2021
EventInternational Pragmatics Conference, International Pragmatics Association -
Duration: 27 Feb 20212 Jul 2021
Conference number: 17


ConferenceInternational Pragmatics Conference, International Pragmatics Association
Abbreviated titleIPrA


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