Domestic Violence: History of Police Responses

Domestic violence is often a trending topic on mainstream and social media today. But the issue of domestic violence first became a major public issue in the 1970s.

 Women's rights advocates challenged established practices in treating women at that time. In the 1980s and 1990s, public awareness increased regarding intimate partner violence. Researchers began studying the police response. People began questioning how police handled domestic violence and other public safety issues.

In the last 30 years, the law enforcement response to domestic violence has expanded and evolved. But even today, many people believe that police don't take domestic violence calls seriously. One common view is that domestic violence is a family matter, and the police should not get involved. Another idea is that domestic violence must be a priority for police. After all, police officers are authority figures and usually the first to respond to domestic violence calls. Some voices in minority communities question an aggressive response by law enforcement officers. They often mistrust the criminal justice system. They perceive discriminatory treatment in domestic violence cases.

This article will discuss past police responses to domestic violence. It will also detail efforts to reform the police response throughout the years.

Past Police Responses to Domestic Violence

Before the 1970s, incidents of domestic violence rarely came to the criminal justice system. Police would only pursue a case with serious physical injury or death (e.g., homicides). Many responding officers viewed domestic violence as a family matter. They did not believe domestic violence should be prioritized over other criminal cases. They questioned the time and effort when victims often became "uncooperative." In most jurisdictions, domestic violence represented a simple assault, a misdemeanor offense.

A Delayed Response to Domestic Violence Calls

In the 1970s and '80s, some police departments trained police officers to delay the response to domestic violence calls. The purpose behind the delayed law enforcement response was two-fold: 

  1. If the police response were slow, the problem would resolve itself at home.
  2. If the police did not appear, the aggressor would leave before the police arrived. 

This delayed response reduced the time the law enforcement agency spent on the call. It also decreased time spent on a criminal investigation of the incident. 

Unfortunately, this strategy failed to provide for victim safety. Instead, it became a "free pass" to batterers. At that time, police officer training was not victim-centered. It did not focus on many factors now known as key in understanding a domestic violence incident. For example, officer education and training failed to consider the role of victim intimidation. It also did not identify warning signs that each party's behavior might provide at the scene. The delayed response to the domestic violence call had other deficiencies. It reduced the ability to document physical abuse. It limited referrals for follow-up medical treatment for physical injury.

Enter Victims' Advocates

The burgeoning women's rights movement saw this as a crisis. Advocates wanted to help victims of domestic violence and sexual violence. These victims needed emergency shelter and other support services for their children. Advocates provided aid and safety planning to help victims. Advocates listened to victims. They understood victims' dissatisfaction with the law enforcement response. Victim advocacy expanded. It pushed for reforms such as making battery a criminal offense. It pressured legislators to create stand-alone crimes on family violence throughout the states. Advocates also pushed for court orders of no contact or protection from further abuse.

During this time, new definitions of domestic violence took shape. Today, state law will usually define family or domestic violence. The focus will be any assault or threats between related parties. Related parties may include spouses, former spouses, live-in partners, or former live-in partners. It may include parent/child, step-parent/child, siblings, or other relatives.

Lawsuits Against Police

By the 1980s, two significant trends placed extraordinary pressure on the state. Domestic violence victims were filing lawsuits claiming police misconduct. Academic experts were calling for preferred arrest policies in the police response. In landmark civil liability cases like Thurman v. City of Torrington and Sorichetti v. City of New York, police lost million-dollar civil lawsuits due to poor police response. Juries did not agree with law enforcement policies that ignored victims.

Cities feared more lawsuits by victims of domestic violence. In Torrington, a battered wife was awarded over $2 million when she sued the city of Torrington, Connecticut. The police department and its police officers failed to arrest her abusive husband. Officers ignored the husband's criminal history and refused to take action. In Sorichetti, the city was liable for injuries to a woman's child. The woman petitioned the court for a protection order, which it had granted. Police knew of the father's threats but failed to enforce the protective order. The child's father had caused serious physical injury. City leaders became critical of the police response to domestic violence. They realized it might expose them to major liability. This led to the re-evaluation of law enforcement training in these areas. It also supported efforts to strengthen laws against domestic abuse.

At the same time, academic researchers published studies on the weak response of police agencies to domestic violence. One such study involved the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment, published in 1984. It gained notoriety as it tracked methods that police used to respond to domestic violence cases. The study reviewed call logs and incident reports in Minneapolis. Many relied on the study's conclusion that arrest policies reduced domestic abuse. Over time, some have debated the findings of the study, and others have questioned its methods. The study remains a key reason many police officers now use preferred or mandatory arrest in domestic violence cases.

Police Reforms Gain Ground

Since the 1980s and 1990s, police departments nationwide have reformed their practices. Some states have established a set of guidelines for law enforcement. These guidelines direct law enforcement when responding to domestic violence. For example, by 1986, California required more training in domestic violence for police officers and sheriffs. The state also started compiling statistical data from calls received. Many states and police departments developed pro-arrest policies or preferred arrest policies. These policies allowed warrantless arrests as long as there was probable cause. Such policies became part of domestic violence law. They direct police officers to arrest the primary aggressor when they have probable cause. These policies also discouraged arrests of both parties.

Police departments also adopted new protocols to improve police services. Police invited victim services advocates to the scene or the police station. They provided contact information to victims and informed them about protection orders and support services. Later, many prosecutors followed the lead of law enforcement agencies. Local prosecutors or district attorneys developed "preferred prosecution" policies. Some adopted "no drop" policies for domestic violence. They also opened their offices to partnerships with victim service advocates.

The Violence Against Women Act

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed in 1994. It encouraged the development of preferred arrest policies. It also caused an expansion of protection order protocols and victim services. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) made funding available to local governments through VAWA. This led to new programs to address domestic violence. In some cities, police departments created domestic violence units or "special victims" units. Prosecutors also developed new programs to help victims. Many created special units to hold offenders accountable. The VAWA grants provided financial resources to hire and train new staff.

Specialized units may engage in evidence-based prosecution of domestic violence. Often, the State can prove its case with or without the victim's cooperation. As in a homicide case, the state relies on evidence beyond the victim. The State will review the police report, which may include other witnesses. It will also inspect the 911 call, medical records, and photos documenting injuries. Finally, the state will look for admissions by the abuser. VAWA also made it a federal crime to cross state lines to commit domestic violence or sexual assault. It also encouraged the enacting of laws against stalking in every state.

The Role of Medical Professionals

Medical professionals have also tried to assist sexual assault and domestic violence victims. As first responders, they see the physical harm domestic violence causes. Medical providers raised awareness of the longstanding harms of abuse. For example, victims often report they were "choked" by their abuser. Medically speaking, this is called strangulation. Serious physical harm to the brain or the throat can appear days after strangulation. Victims need to seek out medical care and learn proper self-care afterward. Nurses developed the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program. This forensic nursing program provides important health care after a sexual assault. It also helps to document injuries and take samples for DNA testing. This also provides evidence that the police can use. Nurses also developed the Developing Options for Violent Emergencies (DOVE) program. This program provides important health care after domestic violence. It also helps to document injuries and provide referrals to social services in domestic violence cases. This also provides evidence that the police can use.

Current Law Enforcement Practices

Today, larger police departments often gather their own data on domestic violence cases. Departments with domestic violence units may have extensive information. Such units gather information on an abuser's history of domestic violence. Police agencies may also have protocols to improve dispatch in domestic violence calls. They may direct the dispatcher to have the victim stay on the line until the police arrive. They may try to confirm whether there are any active restraining orders. The dispatcher may inquire about the existence of substance abuse. They may also confirm the possession of firearms by the abuser. They may gather for police names of any other family members or household members who were there.

Most states now have laws to address the use of strangulation by domestic abusers. Some laws prohibit dating violence and elder abuse. Some communities have adopted a "coordinated community response" program for domestic violence. This is a collaboration of different agencies involved in domestic violence. It brings victim service and criminal justice agencies together to address domestic violence. It will include law enforcement representatives, police, and medical treatment providers. It also involves victim service organizations and mental health specialists. It may also include substance abuse treatment providers and community and religious leaders. The goal is to gather people with a broad understanding of family violence to work together. United efforts for violence intervention lead to better outcomes in public safety. 

How effective are police reform efforts in the area of domestic violence? It remains open to debate. The impact of domestic violence continues to affect victims, offenders, and their families. Many would argue that the reforms discussed above have saved the lives of many victims. We may still have a long way to go. The National Domestic Violence Hotline survey in 2015 reports some 80% of victim-survivors who had never called the police remained afraid to do so. Further, only 20% of victim-survivors who called the police felt safer after the interaction. Incidents of domestic violence remain a challenging community problem. Many call for continued innovation in the police response to domestic violence.

Questions About Police Responses to Domestic Violence? Talk to an Attorney

Domestic violence is nothing to take lightly. It can cause physical and emotional harm for years to come and tear a family apart. There are ways to prevent domestic violence and protect those you love from harm. If you know someone experiencing domestic violence, encourage them to learn more. You may want to contact a local family law attorney for more information.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Victims of domestic violence can press charges against their abuser
  • The ability or requirements to press charges varies in each state
  • Contacting a family law attorney or advocacy groups for advice is essential

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