It’s the call most law enforcement officers hate the most. It has killed three officers thus far in 2023. Police officers dealing with violence in the family are confronting volatile emotions, unknown psychodynamics, the presence of weapons, uncooperative victims, and various cultural norms that complicate the response to domestic violence (DV). Most police officers have a story of a victim who turns on the officer, posts bail for their abuser demands the dropping of charges, or returns to the attacker.
About a third of the states in the US have mandatory arrest laws removing discretion from police officers in handling DV calls. The impetus for requiring arrests comes from a famous Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment that was conducted in the early 1980s. In the experiment, police officers were randomly assigned a disposition on selected (misdemeanor) assaults that involved a spouse or partner. Officers were to make a custodial arrest, provide on-scene counseling, or require separation for at least eight hours. Based on follow-up interviews, the findings of the 330 DV calls in the experiment indicated that an arrest was most likely to prevent another reported incident within six months of the police contact.
The study influenced legislation and policy by encouraging more directed law enforcement intervention in DV calls. However, the results of that study have not been replicated to validate the result. With greater political pressure to take action on crimes against women, legislatures passed mandatory arrest laws and mandated law enforcement training then largely moved on to other hot issues thinking they’d solved the problem.
By sheer numbers alone, the problem of domestic violence demands attention. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), an agency of the federal government, approximately 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men 18 years of age or older experience domestic violence (DV) affecting as many as one in four women and one in nine men as victims of domestic violence. Annually, domestic violence is responsible for over 1500 deaths in the United States.
The human toll is immeasurable, but research cited by the NIH shows that children who are victims or witness domestic and family violence may believe that violence is a reasonable way to resolve a conflict. Males who learn that females are not equally respected are more likely to abuse females in adulthood. Females who witness domestic violence as children are more likely to be victimized by their spouses. While females are often the victim of domestic violence, gender roles can be reversed. Substance abuse and other family crimes like elder abuse and child abuse are associated with DV.
Intervention by arrest may have the advantage of eventual court-ordered anger management therapy, substance abuse treatment, and restraining order protections, but can add major stresses to a family unit. When a victim calls 911 for police intervention, they mainly want the immediate abuse to stop. The level of commitment and resources that a victim must devote to following through with making formal statements, testifying at hearings, and possibly seeking alternate living arrangements discourages many from pursuing prosecution.
Even where prosecutors carry through with charges where there is a non-cooperative victim, the victim can suffer from the after-effects of police intervention. Mandatory jail for a breadwinner until a hearing is held may mean loss of a day’s pay or even loss of a job. Costs for an attorney or compliance with court-ordered counseling or treatment can be a financial burden. An abuser who returns to the home may make it very clear that calling the police again will be met with threats, violence, or abandonment.
The answer to the problem of domestic violence isn’t simple and no one thinks it is. This is one of those areas where the police have been the answer – at least temporarily – and are expected to be a major part of dealing with DV. It also holds a compelling argument for social workers to be responders to family disputes. The problem with that, as with all proposals to send non-law enforcement to incidents, is the boiling pot of violence so associated with family disturbance calls. Hundreds of officers have been killed or injured at such calls, ranking the DV response as more dangerous than an armed robbery in progress call.
For now, it falls on the police officer to bring peace to a volatile, complex, and dangerous situation.
This article originally appeared at the National Police Association.