Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Battered Women Add Their Voices to the Debate about the Merits of Mandatory Arrest

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Battered Women Add Their Voices to the Debate about the Merits of Mandatory Arrest

Article excerpt

Laws prohibiting domestic violence have been in place in Canada and the United States for decades; however, for much of that time the laws have not been enforced (Hemmons, 1981; Oppenlander, 1982). In an effort to improve the enforcement of domestic-violence laws, police response to domestic violence shifted drastically in the 1980s, with many jurisdictions changing their policies to mandatory arrest (Gelles, 1993). Under "mandatory arrest," officers who attend a domestic dispute call must arrest the batterer if there is probable cause to believe that an assault has occurred regardless of whether or not the victim/survivor wants the individual arrested. The goal is to make batterers accountable for their violence. However, there is considerable controversy in the academic literature about whether mandatory arrest is helpful or harmful to victims/survivors (e.g., Berk, 1993; Pate & Hamilton, 1992; Sherman, 1992; Stark, 1993).

The main purpose of this research was to examine the controversy over the advantages and disadvantages of mandatory arrest from the perspectives of victims/survivors. A second purpose was to contribute to the existing evidence on the degree to which victims/survivors support the notion of mandatory arrest. The participants were women at a shelter for abused women. Thus in this study, the words "victim/survivor" refers to a woman. Likewise the word "batterer" implies a man.

Pros and Cons of Mandatory Arrest

The debate on the advantages and disadvantages of mandatory arrest has centered largely on three questions: (1) Does mandatory arrest increase or decrease future violence to the victim/survivor? (2) Does mandatory arrest empower or disempower the victim/survivor? (3) Should domestic violence be dealt with by the law in the same manner as other violent crimes?

Increase or decrease in violence. An argument advanced in support of mandatory arrest is that violence is decreased due to a deterrent effect on the batterer. That is, batterers learn to contain their violence to avoid the punishing aspects of future arrest. Sherman and Berk (1984) investigated the deterrent effects of mandatory arrest for cases of domestic violence and concluded that arrest does serve as a deterrent. However, subsequent replications of the Sherman and Berk study yielded contradictory conclusions (e.g., Garner, Gagan, & Maxwell, 1995; Gelles, 1993; Schmidt & Sherman, 1993)/Some researchers even reported an increase in future violence for some victims/survivors, namely those who were unmarried (Sherman, Smith, Schmidt, & Rogan, 1992) or whose batterers were unemployed (Pate & Hamilton, 1992). This evidence led to the argument that mandatory arrest does not work as a deterrent in all cases and may actually exacerbate violence against some victims/survivors.

Empowerment or disempowerment. It is possible that mandatory arrest may disempower the victim/survivor because it removes the woman's decision-making power and gives it to an already powerful judicial system that historically has not been particularly understanding of battered women's issues (Buzawa & Buzawa, 1996). There are many reasons why the victim/survivor may not want the batterer arrested (e.g., fear of retaliation, financial suffering, trauma to children, and stigma). Indeed, a system that assumes the victim/survivor does not know what is best for her family and her own well-being can be perceived as patronizing. Moreover, some authors have been concerned with the increased possibility of dual arrest under mandatory arrest policies (Miller, 2001; Saunders, 1995). Arresting the victim/survivor, of course, is an extreme act of disempowerment.

On the other hand, victim/survivor empowerment also has been used as an argument for the implementation of mandatory arrest laws (Stark, 1993). According to this view, the victim/survivor is empowered by having her complaint taken seriously (i.e., she perceives the police as being on her side). …

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