Advocacy and Law Enforcement: Partners against Domestic Violence

By Defina, Marie P.; Wetherbee, Leonard | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Advocacy and Law Enforcement: Partners against Domestic Violence


Defina, Marie P., Wetherbee, Leonard, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Domestic disturbances generate some of the most frustrating calls for police officers. Such calls often are repetitious as officers respond to the same homes over and over, take up valuable time that could be spent on other investigative matters, and frequently produce no legal action against offenders.

In the late 1980s, increased public awareness that violence in the home is a criminal matter, not a private one, fueled changes in Massachusetts state law.(1) Under the revised law, officers no longer are restricted to mediating a volatile situation or merely walking the perpetrator around to cool off. Now, officers may arrest a battering spouse on probable cause.

With the burden of pressing charges lifted from the victim, who is often reluctant to proceed against an abusive mate, the number of arrests for domestic violence has increased statewide.(2) Other legislative mandates have enhanced law enforcement's efforts to thwart domestic violence. These include:

* Changes in firearms regulations, which allow for "immediate suspension and surrender (when the order is served) of [the offender's] license to carry firearms and/or [firearms identification] cards as well as any firearms, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, and ammunition...if the plaintiff can demonstrate a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse."(3)

* Bail reform allowing pretrial release of domestic violence offenders to be based on hearings about the defendant's alleged dangerousness(4)

* Special training of officers assigned to domestic violence cases in every police department in the state.(5)

Nevertheless, 5 years after the state legislature enacted these changes, police officers still met victim resistance to arresting their abusive partners. And, even though the number of arrests for domestic violence increased, the number of repeat offenses did not decrease as hoped.

While the revised state laws dramatically increased the tools available to police, law enforcement officials in the cities of Concord and Newton, Massachusetts, felt that something else needed to be done. Officers still left the scene of domestic disturbances frustrated that they could not do more, wondering how to convince a victim to leave.

In the upper middle-class communities of Newton and Concord, police encountered additional obstacles unique to their wealthy suburbs. They found some victims of domestic violence reluctant to call the police because they wanted to preserve appearances (not wanting a patrol car in the driveway); others did not seek help because they doubted that action would be taken against abusers who were influential in the community. The willingness of victims to call police proved contingent on several factors, including whether:

* The incident would be reported in the local newspaper

* Family pressure against disclosure was brought to bear on the victim

* The victim had peer support

* The victim was willing or able to sustain the possible emotional and financial loss associated with disclosure

* The victim perceived negative impact on the perpetrator's job or community standing.

Further, police in Concord and Newton were surprised to find that many well-educated citizens did not believe domestic violence posed a serious problem in their communities. Despite the relative affluence of the citizens in the community, there were fewer resources for battered individuals in suburbia than in the inner city, and individuals at risk seemed reluctant to seek out the available resources for fear of being traced by the abuser.

When victims did choose to contact such crisis intervention services as shelters, counselors, and legal aid, these agencies could be reached only during business hours. This often meant a time lag of as much as 72 hours existed between the violent act and the delivery of ancillary services to the victim.

Due to the complex psychological dynamics underlying domestic abuse, the emotional and economic loss associated with family violence,(6) and the potential lethality of future violence, these communities needed a multilevel response delivered within a critical window of time. …

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