Police Response to Domestic Violence Essay

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Domestic violence was long thought to be a personal issue—one in which the police should not get involved. However, changes in many states’ laws have guaranteed that police will take official action when arriving at the scene of a domestic incident. Even with changes in domestic violence law, police officers continue to have much discretion over whom and when to make arrests for domestic violence. There is evidence that even today police officers are less likely to arrest an intimate partner than a stranger for minor assault. The unfortunate consequence of this failure to act may result in the continued abuse and victimization of women in intimate relationships.


Researchers sometimes refer to the criminalization of domestic assault following the women’s movement of the 1970s. However, assault has always been illegal— although police and prosecutors have historically been unwilling to enforce the law in cases of domestic assault. Prior to the women’s movement (and prior to increased recognition that domestic violence should be treated seriously by the criminal justice system), officers called to the scene of a domestic assault were trained to mediate the situation and were not inclined to arrest the aggressor in the incident.

Feminists have argued these attitudes exist because women have traditionally been viewed as men’s property; therefore, violence against them was justifiable (or at least, able to be ignored). Others claim that domestic incidents can be too difficult for the police to sort out, with many incidents ending up as “he said, she said” affairs, with little evidence in either direction. Handling cases of domestic violence may also be viewed as not serious police work. Under a traditional crime-control viewpoint, police officers do not deal with domestic violence—a problem best left to social workers.

An important event governing the actions of the criminal justice system with regard to domestic violence was the Violence Against Women Act, signed into law by President William Clinton in 1994. The act was renewed in 2000 and again in 2005 (by President George W. Bush), with additional provisions added for the protection of battered women.

The widespread use of community policing has also changed officer attitudes regarding domestic violence. Community policing places a strong emphasis on problem solving; thus, police actions and reactions to crime are less likely to be rooted in traditional law enforcement (i.e., making arrests). Instead, officers are encouraged to find novel solutions to problems in their jurisdictions—including domestic violence.

Mandatory Arrests

Several states passed mandatory arrest laws after research findings were published in the mid-1980s indicating that arrests deterred domestic violence. The purpose of these laws was to deter violence—to scare batterers into nonviolent behavior due to the fear of incarceration. However, additional research on this topic indicated that mandatory arrest does not deter everyone. Although mandatory arrest is most useful for people who are employed and married (i.e., people who have something to lose by incarceration), it may actually increase violence among other types of people. Those offenders who are unemployed may not change their behavior upon arrest because they have little to lose if incarcerated.

It has been assumed that arresting a suspect for committing a domestic assault will deter that person from future battering. However, in some cases the arrest of a suspect will only increase violence, as batterers may retaliate against the victim. Recent research has suggested that the mere act of reporting domestic violence may deter future violence, but that arrest itself does not have much of a deterrent effect.

Dual Arrests

With the increasing use of mandatory arrests for domestic violence, some police departments developed dual arrest policies. Because it is often difficult for police officers to determine who the victim is and who the offender is, arresting both citizens provides an easier solution for police officers. However, this practice of arresting both parties and letting the courts sort it all out can be damaging to victims and their families. Victims who are arrested are not likely to call the police for help in the future, fearing they will be arrested again. When the victim and offender have children in common, the victim may lose custody of minor children even if only for a short period. Immigrants are also harmed by the practice of dual arrest, as they might face deportation following the incident.

In many cases, women are violent toward men who are abusing them. Under dual arrest policies, a victim can be arrested if she physically defends herself against an attack. If convicted of assault, these victims can face difficulties in finding employment and housing. Some researchers have referred to this as the double victimization of victims—they are first victimized by their abusers and then victimized again by the criminal justice system. Dual arrest policies have since been discouraged in the Violence Against Women Act and by many police jurisdictions.

The ultimate goal of the police is to reduce crime; however, domestic violence has not always been thought of as a crime. The efforts of the women’s movement, legislative changes such as the Violence Against Women Act, and changing attitudes and strategies by police have brought increased focus to the issue of police response to domestic violence.


  1. Buzawa, E. S., & Buzawa, C. G. (2002). Domestic violence: The criminal justice response. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Felson, R. B., & Ackerman, J. A. (2001). Arrest for domestic and other assaults. Criminology, 39, 655–75.
  3. Felson, R. B., Ackerman, J. A., & Gallagher, C. A. (2005). Police intervention and the repeat of domestic assault. Criminology, 43, 563–88.
  4. Finn, M. A., Blackwell, B. S., Stalans, L. J., Studdard, S., & Dugan, L. (2004). Dual arrest decisions in domestic violence cases: The influence of departmental policies. Crime & Delinquency, 50, 565–589.
  5. Miller, S. L. (2001). The paradox of women arrested for domestic violence. Violence Against Women, 17, 1339–1376.
  6. Sherman, L. W. (1992). Policing domestic violence. New York: Free Press.

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