Police Response to Domestic Violence: The Influence of Individual and Familial Factors

By Stith, Sandra M. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

Police Response to Domestic Violence: The Influence of Individual and Familial Factors


Stith, Sandra M., Violence and Victims


Although police officers are often the first group outside the family to intervene in domestic violence situations, little is known about how individual and family characteristics influence the male police officer's responsiveness in these situations. This study addressed this issue with data from 72 midwestem male police officers. The officers were asked to respond to vignette scenarios in which husbands had assaulted their wives. Three variables previously related to spouse abuse (sex role egalitarianism, approval of marital violence, and marital stress) and the officer's use of violence in his own marriage were entered into a path model to predict three different possible police responses (i.e., mediating response, arrest, and antivictim response). The model predicted significant variance in the officer's hostile response to victims of domestic violence but not to his likelihood of arresting abusers or mediating between the abusive couple. Implications for understanding domestic violence and police response are presented.

When battered women call for help, police officers are likely to be among the first to intervene. Although a critical link to the prosecution process and to victim community services, police traditionally have been reluctant to make arrests for domestic violence (Berk & Loseke, 1981). However, research has found arrest to be the most effective among the three standard methods police use in responding to domestic violence: arrest, temporary separation of the couple, or mediation. When arrest was not used, approximately twice as many suspects were involved in repeat incidences (19% compared to 35%) (Sherman & Berk, 1984). An increasing number of police departments (about 25%) encourage arrest as the preferred response (Sherman, Cohn, & Hamilton, 1986).

Historically, legal constraints have prevented police from making arrests unless they had actually witnessed the assault (Buzawa, 1982). By 1983,33 states had empowered police to arrest in domestic abuse cases (Lerman & Livingston, 1983). These laws allow, and in some cases demand, that police arrest upon probable cause that assault has occurred or serious injury is threatened. Yet surveys (Buzawa, 1982; Crane et al., 1985) indicate no increase in arrests of battering spouses. In fact, a Michigan study found that arrests declined after the Michigan Domestic Violence Act was enacted (Buzawa, 1982). Why police have not changed their approach to domestic abuse and what factors might intervene in decision making on family violence are issues of important theoretical and practical consideration.

Most previous research has focused on situational characteristics rather than on characteristics of the male police officer that influence his response to domestic violence. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to develop and test a multivariate causal model employing theoretically and conceptually relevant characteristics of police officers as predictors of police response.

Police work and family stress have been linked (Niederhoffer & Niederhoffer, 1978; Terry, 1981), but no empirical research has addressed the impact of family functioning on the officer's job performance. This study is designed to examine the impact the male officer* s marital relationship has on his job performance. It may also give a stronger theoretical basis for developing training programs and methods to reduce police officer stress and support police families. Thus, this investigation is designed to meet an important gap in the police literature.

Stith (in press) reported relationships between specific attitudes or family situations of male police officers and their self-reported tendency to respond with hostility to victims of domestic violence. However, research has not been reported that examines the impact that officers' attitudes and family situations have on police response to both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.

POLICE RESPONSE

When police arrive at the scene of a "domestic disturbance," they have many options. …

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