Domestic Violence and Pro-Arrest Policy

By Newbold, Greg; Cross, Jenny | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, March 2008 | Go to article overview
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Domestic Violence and Pro-Arrest Policy

Newbold, Greg, Cross, Jenny, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


Prior to the 1980s police in New Zealand, as in other Western jurisdictions, tended to adopt a minimalist stance to the treatment of domestic violence, with separation and mediation favoured over arrest. By the late 1960s, however, the "second wave" of the feminist movement had begun to have an impact on social attitudes, and from the early 1980s presumptive arrest strategies gained international popularity. Although research into the effectiveness of presumptive arrest has been inconclusive, New Zealand moved increasingly toward such a policy from 1987 onward. This paper discusses the progress and effects of various police initiatives in New Zealand's fight against domestic violence over the past 20 years, and argues that although a policy of presumptive arrest sounds attractive, there are good legal and practical reasons why the police have continued to exercise discretion in the way the policy is interpreted.


Although violence is a long-established component of family dynamics, serious discussion about the appropriate police response is relatively recent. The breaking of the women's movement's so-called "second wave" in the 1960s laid bare a number of issues, one of which was partner violence towards women. As a result of the movement's activities and a corresponding awareness of the problem of marital violence, by the 1970s pressure had come to bear upon police organisations, which had traditionally taken a hands-off approach to dealing with family affairs, to adopt a more interventionist stance. At the beginning of the 1980s a number of studies in the United States and Britain assessed the effectiveness of different response techniques. Publicised worldwide, these studies had a significant effect on the way police handled domestic violence in a number of Western jurisdictions.

Zero tolerance responses became the most popular from about 1980 onwards, actively encouraging police to make arrests in domestic assault cases. Rather than the uncompromising mandatory (automatic) arrest that has been tried in some parts of the United States, however, New Zealand favoured a more flexible "pro-arrest" strategy, where it is assumed that police will apprehend when there is evidence of a domestic assault, but room is left for discretion. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the recent evolution of domestic violence response strategies in the New Zealand Police and the emergence of the policy of pro-arrest. The implications of presumptive arrest will be discussed briefly.


Before 1980 police in Western nations tended to adopt a minimalist stance in family disputes. In the United States, for example, there was a well-known historical reluctance to arrest in domestic cases (LaGrange 1993:146-8), as there was in Britain, where police did not consider domestic disturbances as "proper" police work (Dobash and Dobash 1979, Edwards 1989, Smith and Gray 1983). In Australia, a number of studies found an unwillingness of police to intervene in domestic disputes, and at times a belief that male violence towards women was mostly triggered by the women themselves (Mugford and Mugford 1992:328-331). In New Zealand, before 1970 policing of domestic violence reflected similar attitudes. As with rape complaints (Coney 1974:22, Lee 1983:71, Williams 1978:196-7), there was a general suspicion about the reliability of domestic violence reports. Police tended to arrest only when the circumstances were clear, the assault was serious, and a victim could be relied upon to testify. Otherwise, the preferred response was to calm a situation down before leaving (Ford 1993, Marsh 1989:9). The 1964 General Instructions to police, for example, stated:

   Be wary of the wife who at 10pm wants her husband locked up,
   hanged, drawn and quartered for belting her in the eye and at 10am
   the next morning in Court she says she has a kind, wonderful husband
   and she is in Court only because the Police interfered! 

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