Jurisprudence

How Police Became the Go-to Response to Domestic Violence

Feminists pushed for more policing in the 1970s. But the evidence shows there are far better solutions.

A police officer holds his equipment in front of his car.
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In response to widespread demands to “defund the police,” a specific question repeatedly crops up: “What about domestic and sexual violence?” These “what about” questions imply that defunding, reducing, and reforming the aggressive street policing currently under public scrutiny will leave people without vital protection and trigger a tidal wave of crime.

As prominent prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba has explained, the police have never been the solution to violence against women. Few women actually report rapes to police, and when they do, officers disbelieve and mistreat them. Kaba and others point out that police officers frequently commit domestic and sexual violence themselves, often using their authority to get away with it.

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Still, some argue that this reality calls for more policing. Laws and policies could require officers to believe women and make arrests in their cases. This may, in turn, increase reporting and victim satisfaction. Some policies like this already exist in the form of special victims units where officers are trained to be victim-centered and trauma-informed and to pursue cases to arrest. One letter to the editor responding to Kaba suggested that we could change the face of policing: “I disagree that we should abolish the police. Instead, we should simply replace male policemen with more women.”

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It is tempting to see aggressive rape and domestic violence policing as the solution to violence against women, especially as the coronavirus lockdown is increasing such violence. But we have been down that road before, and it just led to more harm for marginalized people, including women.

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Beginning in the late 1970s, battered women’s activists launched a remarkably successful campaign for states and police departments to adopt laws and policies that encouraged, even required, police officers to arrest in domestic violence cases. Before the policies, officers who responded to “domestic disputes” often did not arrest, instead choosing to mediate between the parties or temporarily remove the suspect from the scene. Department policies even encouraged police not to arrest.

In the early days of the movement, many feminists also rejected strict law enforcement. Black activists within the movement vociferously opposed increasing police presence in the lives of people of color. Social scientists warned that arrest “initiates a judicial process which, experience tells us, has little chance of a productive outcome,” as researcher Morton Bard observed.

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Consequently, much of the early battered women’s movement was oriented not around policing but around services like helping women obtain housing, employment, and public benefits. Shelley Fernandez, an administrator at La Casa de las Madres, a shelter created for Latina women, testified to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1978 about the kind of government intervention her clients needed: “We need money for teaching sheltered children, bilingual and biculturally. We need money for the day-to-day operation of shelters, ongoing rent, food, furniture, clothing, remodeling, upkeep, and paid staff. We need money for supplemental housing because we are already full.”

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Still, feminist advocates and lawyers heard horror stories from abused women who said they had begged for the abuser’s arrest, only to be dismissed by ambivalent or sexist officers. Feminists like advocate Yolanda Bako reasoned, “Since the problem is already at the doorstep of the police, I think it is essential to make reform there.” Activists pushed a pro-arrest agenda during an era of escalating tough-on-crime sentiments, and by the mid-1980s, law enforcement was the centerpiece of battered women’s activism. The domestic violence arrest program received a boost in 1984 from a pioneering and highly publicized Minneapolis study, led by sociologist Lawrence Sherman, that tracked 205 domestic violence cases for six months and found that arresting suspects had a greater deterrent effect than giving suspects verbal advice or temporarily removing them from the home for eight hours. By 1991, around 90 percent of police departments and half of the states had adopted pro-arrest policies and laws. (A 2011 ABA survey showed that 19 states and the District of Columbia had mandatory arrest laws, and six states had preferred-arrest laws).

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As police and lawmakers raced to implement aggressive arrest policies, Sherman was conducting large-scale replication studies that cast serious doubt on the deterrent effects of arrest. Several showed that arrest increased violence, particularly among unemployed Black men. By 1992, Sherman possessed enough evidence to proclaim, “Mandatory arrest may make as much sense as fighting fire with gasoline.” Some battered women advocates dismissed the replication studies in a disturbingly racist manner. One prominent activist argued that police simply needed to be tougher on unemployed Black men, whom she referred to as “society’s failures,” because in “subcultures of ghettoized people, where imprisonment is all too common, a few hours in jail may be seen as only minor irritation, or even a right of passage.”

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The pro-arrest program did not generally increase victim reporting to or satisfaction with police, but it made women more reluctant to seek state intervention. Women were right to worry that calling the cops would result in their partners’ incarceration, job loss, or deportation, or even the woman’s own arrest. Research in California revealed that the adoption of mandatory arrest policies increased arrests of men by 60 percent and arrests of women by 400 percent. The primary deterrent effect of arrest policies, it appears, was deterring women from calling for help. And this may have had deadly consequences. A 2007 study that compared domestic homicide rates among states with and without mandatory arrest laws and within states before and after such laws found that the laws corresponded to a “54 percent increase in intimate partner homicides.” The author hypothesized that arrest had deterred at-risk women from seeking help.

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The domestic violence law enforcement program was costly in other ways. Armed policing comes at a steep human cost. Take, for example, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd. In 2008, he responded to a domestic violence call, busted down the door of a bathroom where Ira Toles was hiding, and shot Tolles twice in the stomach. Chauvin claimed the unarmed Toles reached for his police gun. Toles told the Daily Beast that he remembered Chauvin breaking in and beating him but not being shot. But, he added, “I remember my baby mother screaming and crying.” Policing this domestic violence incident traumatized the victim, left Toles with holes in his stomach and a misdemeanor conviction, and garnered Chauvin a medal of valor.

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And significantly, the domestic violence policing program came at the expense of funding and expanding the many evidence-tested service programs available to states and localities, including shelters like La Casa de las Madres. The Violence Against Women Act, for instance, was the signature federal effort against domestic violence. A central part of the infamous 1994 crime bill, VAWA too had a tough-on-crime bent that became more pronounced over time. As professor Leigh Goodmark has noted, at VAWA’s inception, 62 percent of its grant funds went to the criminal system and by 2013, 85 percent of the funds went to policing and punishment. For 40 years, lawmakers and the public accepted costly policing that failed to meaningfully reduce violence, when all the while, Shelley Fernandez’s 1978 sentiments pointed the way.

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Policymakers are starting to recognize this failure. In 2017, the CDC published a comprehensive report on programs, policies, and practices that are effective at addressing and reducing intimate partner violence. The report deemphasizes the role of policing, prosecution, and punishment and instead highlighs programs that provide early violence intervention with children, prenatal care, shelter, employment, free preschool, and even green urban spaces, which studies have shown as being effective at reducing violence.

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One example is the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which provides cash and food assistance to low-income families to help working parents meet basic needs. Families receiving MFIP assistance experience a significant reduction in domestic violence compared with families that receive traditional benefits. Then there’s Washington state’s Housing First program, which helps survivors obtain shelter, child care, and other necessary services. In pilot studies, 84 percent of survivors in the program reported an increase in safety. The U.S. Airforce Suicide Prevention Program was created to address the stigma of seeking mental health services and connect Air Force personnel with professionals. In addition to reducing the risk of suicide, the program reduced moderate family violence by 30 percent and severe family violence by 54 percent.

The evidence is clear: Dialing back aggressive policing, even without other changes, promises to benefit women, especially those living in low-income communities of color. Investing in programs proved to reduce violence and increase victims’ well-being, instead of policing, is even better. The question “What about domestic violence?” is better understood not as a critique of defunding the police but as an argument for it.

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