Domestic Violence and Mandatory Arrest Laws: To What Extent Do They Influence Police Arrest Decisions?

Article excerpt


In an effort to combat intimate partner violence, state laws governing the warrantless arrest powers of the police in domestic violence cases have been greatly expanded over the past thirty years. All states have empowered the police to make warrantless arrests in cases of domestic violence, and some state statutes have sought to reduce police discretion by mandating specific actions be taken when responding to such incidents. The extent to which states have permitted the police to retain discretion varies considerably. While some states allow police a great deal of discretion, many states require more aggressive intervention. While a mandatory arrest law states that an officer must make an arrest if (s)he finds probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed, a preferred arrest law instructs the responding officer that arrest is the preferred response.

Current research indicates that the passage of mandatory and preferred arrest domestic violence laws has resulted in an increase in arrests for intimate partner violence as well as other relationships included under such statutes. (1) This research also suggests that the increased arrest rate is in part attributable to a disproportionate increase in arrests for females either as a single offender or as part of what is known as a "dual arrest," the situation that occurs when the police arrest both parties involved in an incident for offenses committed against each other. The findings from these studies are limited in that they often include a single jurisdiction or small sample sizes. (2)

There may also be a "net widening" of domestic violence arrest practices because more recent legislation has considerably expanded the scope of relationships covered under such statutes. While initial domestic violence statutes typically only addressed violence between married couples, definitions have been expanded to encompass a broader range of domestic relationships, such as couples with a child in common, (3) persons in a dating relationship, (4) and adults related by blood or marriage. (5) No research has yet evaluated the impact of the new laws on these other types of domestic violence cases. The question to be addressed in cases of nondomestic violence is whether the increased attention legislation gives to intimate partner violence has a similar impact on non-domestic assaults, or, alternatively, limits the resources or willingness needed to provide a similarly aggressive response to those cases.

In this study we investigate the impact of domestic violence legislation on arrest practices in police agencies in nineteen states. In the sections that follow, we: (1) describe what is currently known about arrest practices; (2) describe our research approach; (3) present research findings; and (4) discuss the policy implications and future research needs as a result of these findings.


Beginning in the 1970s, political pressure exerted by women's groups, lawsuits brought against police departments for negligence and failure to provide equal protection to female victims in domestic violence situations, (6) and the findings reported by the Minneapolis domestic violence experiment, (7) resulted in a nationwide movement toward arrest as the preferred response to domestic violence. (8) At the core of this movement have been legislative mandates aimed at modifying police behavior. The fulfillment of legislative goals has been evidenced by research reporting increased rates of arrests, prosecution, and conviction, as well as improved responsiveness to victims. (9)

Prior research indicates that the raw numbers of domestic violence arrests increased in many police departments after the implementation of mandatory or pro-arrest laws and policies. Arrest rates from data collected in the 1970s and 1980s were generally in the 7% to 15% range. (10) More recently, however, these rates have been observed to be 30% or greater. …