Fair Treatment or Preferred Outcome? the Impact of Police Behavior on Victim Reports of Domestic Violence Incidents

Article excerpt

This research is an exploratory test of two hypotheses emerging from debates about how police behavior may influence domestic violence victim reporting. From a procedural justice perspective, victims should be more apt to report victimization when previous encounters with police are viewed as procedurally fair. From a distributive justice perspective, denying victims their preferred outcome may discourage future police utilization. We find that satisfaction with police is related to both distributive and procedural justice but that re-utilization of police is conditioned by preferred outcome. Specifically, if the offender was arrested in accordance with victim preference, the victim is significantly more apt to utilize police in the future.

Introduction

Only relatively recently has official victim reporting captured the attention of researchers (Greenberg & Ruback 1992; Langan & Innes 1986). This is partially due to a long-standing perception of police as gatekeepers of the criminal justice system (e.g., Frisch & Caruso 1996; Buzawa et al. 1992). Contrary to this traditional view, Hindelang and Gottfredson (1976) argue that from the perspective of the criminal justice system, suspects, and criminological inquiry, it is the victim who serves as gatekeeper. By deciding whether to officially report crimes, victims control mobilization of the criminal justice system, of which police are a part. Since victims serve as the first major decision maker in the criminal justice process, understanding the factors that influence victim reporting behavior should be a prominent criminological endeavor (Gottfredson & Gottfredson 1980; Hindelang and Gottfredson 1976).

In the case of victims of domestic violence, official reporting has been a topic of much discussion but very little research. Over the past 30 years, reformers have brought about many changes, perhaps most dramatic of which is the criminalization of domestic violence (Fagan 1996). A necessary condition for application of these reforms is that incidents come to the attention of the criminal justice system. Victims of domestic violence, like victims of other crimes, are the most likely parties to report their victimization to police (Bachman & Coker 1995; Waller 1990). As such, victims are the primary source of what Black (1980:45) calls legal intelligence, or information about violation of the law received by the authorities.

Still unclear is the extent to which domestic violence victims are willing to provide this legal intelligence. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), between 1992 and 1996, about half of the female respondents disclosing a domestic violence incident stated that they had reported the incident to police (Greenfeld et al. 1998). This is roughly equivalent to the rate of violent crime reporting overall (Laub 1997). Estimates derived from the National Family Violence Survey are substantially lower than the NCVS estimates. In this survey, about 7% overall and 14% of those suffering serious violence reported to police (Kantor & Straus 1990). This range is more consistent with other research that generally finds that less than 20% of domestic violence incidents come to the attention of the police (Dutton 1995; Greenberg & Ruback 1992). Whatever the actual rate of official reporting, it is clear that large numbers of victims continue to refrain from seeking the assistance of the police when they are assaulted by a present or former sexual intimate.

In this research, we explore the issue of victim reporting in the context of domestic violence victimization. Of particular interest is whether a relationship exists between the victim's assessment of police behavior during a previous domestic violence encounter and the likelihood that she will report subsequent victimizations. We begin with a review of the domestic violence victim reporting literature.

Domestic Violence Victim Reporting Behavior

Only a handful of studies have focused specifically on identifying factors associated with domestic violence victim reporting, and results are equivocal. …