Starting in 1986, the National Institute of Justice sponsored studies employing randomization to compare the effectiveness of different police responses to domestic violence in five cities. The studies—collectively known as the Spouse Assault Replication Project— were conducted in Omaha, Nebraska; Charlotte, North Carolina; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Metro-Dade (Miami), Florida; and Colorado Springs, Colorado, to help policymakers understand whether police responses would differ in effectiveness in different settings. All of the studies were supposed to test the effects of arrest on recidivism (the relapse into abusive and/or criminal behavior) for misdemeanor domestic violence. The design of the studies varied somewhat in each city, yielding a complex set of data that led many to believe that the effects of arrest were not clear. Studies that combine the data from all of the sites may yield the clearest policy recommendations.
In 1984, Sherman and Berk’s Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment was widely publicized. It was the first research to employ randomization to compare the effectiveness of different police responses to domestic violence. They found, according to victims’ and official reports, that arrest for misdemeanor domestic violence was significantly more effective than other police actions in reducing repeated violence. Many people called for replications of this influential research to determine whether the Minneapolis study’s results could be reproduced in other settings because jurisdictions vary widely in both law and actual police behavior in response to domestic violence.
The five studies were completed from 1986 to 1990. All of them randomly assigned police responses to cases in which there was probable cause for a misdemeanor (a crime with less injury or threat of serious harm than a felony) arrest. Most of the studies excluded cases when the suspect was gone, the victim wanted an arrest, the police thought arrest was necessary to ensure the safety of the victim, or a restraining order or warrant had been issued. They varied in whether the parties involved must have been married or have lived together for some part of the year preceding the incident, in whether both the victim and the abuser had to be present when police came, and in whether the incident had to involve an assault.
In each study, cases were randomly assigned to a variety of responses, including arrest, separation, and mediation. The Omaha study included a sub study on the effects of issuing a warrant for offenders who were absent when the police arrived. In other jurisdictions, police responses included warnings, advice, issuing emergency protective orders, or issuing a citation for the offender to appear in court. The consequences of arrest varied in terms of length of time the offenders were held in jail, and rates of prosecution of abusers varied between sites from 1% to 35%.
The researchers used data from police reports and victim interviews to determine rates of re-offense. Victim interviews are important because many domestic violence incidents do not result in police reports. However, finding and interviewing victims can be difficult. Only 70% of victims had a first interview within about a month after the incident, and only 63% were interviewed about 6 months later.
A summary of the results suggests that, while arrest sometimes had an initial deterrent effect, the effect often faded by the end of 1 year. In Omaha, Charlotte, and Milwaukee, arrest was not more effective than other options in reducing recidivism by abusers. In Metro-Dade and Colorado Springs, arrest had deterrent effects according to victim data but not according to official arrest reports. In Omaha, issuing a warrant when the offender was absent was a deterrent. There are indications in some of the studies that arrest was a deterrent only for offenders who were employed.
The major criticism of the studies is that they fail to take into account the contexts in which police responses take place, such as the cultural background of the couples or what might have occurred between them before the call to police. Histories of offenders were not analyzed consistently, even though offenders with previous criminal histories might be minimally affected by being arrested again.
The studies also could not measure the effects of police coming to victims’ houses during a violent incident. Police arrival interrupts ongoing violence and may give victims time to escape or get in touch with help. Other limitations include the failure to take into account the effects of the different police options used, such as issuing emergency protective orders or giving warnings threatening future arrest.
These studies were not focused on coordinated criminal justice responses to domestic violence because they did not account for differences in jail time after arrest, whether there was a prosecution, or whether offenders were involved in court-ordered batterers’ intervention. Although some studies mentioned that police gave out victim information cards, there was no analysis of the types of formal or informal support that the victims received.
Because there was variation within the methodology and findings of the studies, it has been difficult to draw meaningful overall conclusions regarding the effects of arrest. Researchers who combined all of the cases have performed a very useful service. In 2002, Maxwell, Garner, and Fagan reported on their analysis of 4,032 cases with male perpetrators and female victims from the five studies. They used official data and victim interview data and concluded, based on both sources, that arrest was associated with modest reductions in subsequent offenses.
These five replication studies did not show that arrest definitely deters future violence by all types of domestic abusers. However, combining 4,032 cases did show that overall arrest seemed to contribute to reduce rates of domestic violence. Future research should enlarge the context and investigate victims’ perspectives on police interventions. Arrest (or failure to arrest) might give a message to victims, the abusers, their children, and the community about society’s tolerance for domestic violence.
- Maxwell, C. D., Garner, J. H., & Fagan, J. A. (2002). The preventive effects of arrest on intimate partner violence: Research, policy, and theory. Criminology & Public Policy, 2(1), 51–95.
- Williams, K. R. (2005). Arrest and intimate partner violence: Toward a more complete application of deterrence theory. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10, 660–679.
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