Law Enforcement Reform Efforts
last updated 3 February 2009


A variety of strategies have been developed around the world with the goal of improving police response to domestic violence. Among the most important efforts is the training of police in the dynamics of domestic violence and how best to protect victim safety and hold offenders accountable. In countries in the CEE/FSU region that have initiated police training programs, some advocates are reporting positive outcomes. For example, in Slovenia, advocates wrote that "[t]he police force is one of the institutions that has contributed significantly to changing attitudes towards domestic violence in recent years. The police are well trained . . . . In general, police awareness of domestic violence has increased enormously which is partly a result of good relationships with women's NGO's." From International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States 421 (2000).

Another strategy aimed at improving the police response to domestic violence is the implementation of policies or laws that change the way in which, or the conditions under which, officers may, should and must make arrests. For example, in cases involving simple or minor injuries, "probable cause" arrest policies allow police officers to make arrests based on the presence of evidence (such as damaged property, visible injuries, or a frightened woman) that would lead to the conclusion that an assault had occurred. Police may make the arrest without witnessing the crime. Mandatory arrest policies take this one step further and require the police to make an arrest at the scene of a domestic assault.

Ontario, Canada has adopted a "mandatory charge" instead of a "mandatory arrest" policy. "A mandatory charge need not involve an arrest, what is required is that a charge is made formally. Charges are issued at the scene (or subsequently) and these take the form of an 'appearance notice' (similar to a summons) specifying a date for court appearance." In part, the adoption of mandatory charge policies was a response to police concerns that in some incidents of domestic violence, the behavior that prompted the call was not an "arrestable offence," thus limiting the ability of the police to respond to the situation. At the same time, however, Canadian women's organizations have criticized this policy, "since it discourages arrest which offers women a limited period of safety in which to make decisions." From Liz Kelly et al., Domestic Violence Matters: an evaluation of a development project, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate 4 (1999).

Pro-arrest policies are seen by many as necessary to combat a long-standing and globally prevalent police attitude that domestic violence is not a crime. See the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women May 2008 recommendations on pro-arrest and pro-prosecution policies in domestic violence cases in the model framework entitled, "Good practices in legislation on violence against women." Research also indicates that arrests may deter future lethal violence. A 2003 study, described in the American Journal of Public Health and reported in a release by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, found that a batterer's prior arrest for domestic violence "actually decreased the risk for femicide" and concluded that "arrest can indeed be protective against domestic violence escalating to lethality."  Another study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in July 2001 discusses the benefits of arrest policies.  The study indicates that arrest was consistently related, although not always in a statistically significant way, to reduced subsequent aggression against female intimate partners.

Other studies have indicated that the effect of arrest is far more complicated. Ellen Pence and Martha McMahon, for example, describe a study conducted by Lawrence Sherman in Milwaukee, in which Sherman found that "employed, married men were less likely to re-offend when arrested but not prosecuted. Unemployed, unmarried men of all ethnic backgrounds, however, were more likely to re-offend when arrested but not prosecuted." From Ellen Pence & Martha McMahon, A Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence, The National Training Project, Duluth, Minnesota.

Linda McGuire emphasizes that any evaluation of new policies, including pro-arrest policies, must evaluate the system's response as a whole. "Isolating one intervention and attempting to link it to future battering fails to take into account that the observed results may have been caused, not by the studied intervention, but by the rest of the system's actions or lack of actions." She explains that the Minneapolis research—which showed that arrest deterred future battering—did not consider the effect that the judge's handling of the case may have had on the batterer's behavior. In the Milwaukee study, she notes, only 37 of the 807 who were arrested were charged with assault. As a result, while the study seemed to show that arrest did not deter future battering, the study did not consider the effect that the prosecutor's failure to charge may have had on the batterer's behavior. From Linda A. McGuire, Criminal Prosecution of Domestic Violence.

Implementation of mandatory arrest policies has, however, also had unintended negative consequences for women. Advocates found that police operating under mandatory arrest polices were increasingly arresting victims. The victim may have used violence in self-defense, or the batterer may claim that she threatened or hurt him. As Avalon explains, batterers became "skillful at using the laws to serve battered women to further abuse them." From Stephanie Avalon, Advocacy and the Battered Women's Movement (October 1999). Required to arrest when there was probable cause to believe someone had used violence against an intimate partner, police were also taking these women into custody, sometimes in lieu of, but more often in addition to, arresting the batterer.

Arrest of the victim has severe consequences. As Avalon explains: "Since the patriarchy neither supports nor condones women's use of violence, women arrested for assault are treated more harshly and often suffer more consequences than their battering partners." From Stephanie Avalon, Advocacy and the Battered Women's Movement (October 1999). Further, the victim who called the police for protection and ended up in jail would not be likely to reach out for assistance a second time.

To address this unintended consequence, advocates began working to modify mandatory arrest polices to require police to arrest only the "primary aggressor" in the conflict—namely, the batterer, and not the victim who had used violence to defend herself or who was alleged by the batterer to have used threats of violence. Initial reform efforts had focused on determining the "initial aggressor," an approach that was abandoned after it became clear that the person who was the "first in time" to use physical violence was not always the batterer.

Pro and mandatory arrest policies can also be problematic in countries with a history of government oppression. As a women's advocate from Bolivia explained, "[i]n times when the state and its instruments have penetrated the bedroom only to repress and pillage, such as during the dictatorships which coerced the law to legitimize their authoritarian regimes, it is quite difficult to publicly debate the problem of domestic violence without appearing to endorse the misuse of power." From Sonia Montana, Long Live the Differences, with Equal Rights: A Campaign to End Violence Against Women in Bolivia, in Freedom From Violence: Women's Strategies From Around the World 213, 225 (Margaret Schuler ed., 1992). Similarly, in the CEE/FSU region, mistrust of police and police corruption may be an obstacle the effectiveness of pro and mandatory arrest policies.

In India and Brazil, NGOs have provided the impetus for the creation of women's police stations. Although such stations help to increase awareness of the issue and to change attitudes that condone domestic violence, the success of such stations in increasing victim protection or the conviction rates of batterers is unclear. The NGO, Promoting Women in Development, notes that women's police stations in India were unable to address the issue of domestic violence effectively

due in part to constraints facing female police officers, such as extremely poor working conditions, disrespect from colleagues, few promotion opportunities, and low salary. In addition, they point to a widespread lack of training, resources, and standardized procedures throughout the police system to handle domestic violence cases.

Isolated changes within the system are unlikely to succeed unless these changes are coordinated with other responses, such as the allocation of resources to various departments. In addition, such stations, like specialized courts, are faced with the danger that they will be marginalized as stations that deal with "family," as opposed to "real," crimes. See the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women May 2008 recommendations on specialized courts (Section 2.H) in domestic violence cases in the model framework entitled, "Good practices in legislation on violence against women."

From Promoting Women in Development, Justice, Change, and Human Rights: International Research and Responses to Domestic Violence 16 (2000); Cheryl Thomas, Domestic Violence, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 219, 233 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds., 1999).

Another approach that has been implemented in Great Britain has been the creation of specialized domestic violence officers (DVOs) within police forces. See the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women May 2008 recommendations on specialized police (Section 2.G) in the model framework entitled, "Good practices in legislation on violence against women." Officers who specialize in domestic violence cases are able to become more knowledgeable about the issues and can serve as a "focal point for inter-agency work." At the same time, however, this approach is also associated with problems. At least one police force had decided not to institute a DVO, fearing that having an officer with specialized knowledge would "become an excuse [for other officers] to pass on problems which responding officers should properly address." DVOs also reported that their work was not taken seriously within the force; in addition, "because the domestic violence response was not seen as a key factor in the force's overall performance, it had a low priority when assigning resources." From Joyce Plotnikoff & Richard Woolfson, Policing Domestic Violence: Effective Organisational Structures (1998).

Improved data collection and storage methods can also improve police response. In Sweden, police have developed a database called Warning Bell that provides responding officers with information that may be relevant to the domestic violence incident, including information about "victims, prior incidents, possible suspects, and any previous enforcement or protective measures taken." With the database, "police officers no longer need to rely on one another's randomly acquired personal knowledge from previous interventions." Data from Warning Bell can aid officers in investigating incidents, which can be useful when victims are reluctant to participate in the investigation. Finally, improved data collection also helps police and prosecutors to track cases through the system and to better assess their response to domestic violence. See the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women May 2008 recommendations on colection of statistical data for domestic violences cases (Section 3.B) in the model framework entitled, "Good practices in legislation on violence against women." From Lars Nylén & Gun Heimer, Sweden's response to domestic violence, Swedish Institute (1 April 2000).

In the United States, advocates brought legal action against the police for failure to protect women from domestic violence by not responding to victims' calls to police and not enforcing criminal assault laws in cases of domestic violence. The first class action lawsuit, Scott v. Hart, No. C-76-2395, was filed against the Oakland, California city police in 1976. Two months later, in Bruno v. Codd, 396 N.Y.S.2d 974 (Sup. Ct. Special Term 1977), activists filed suit against the New York City Police for failure to comply with state laws. Bruno v. Codd, for example, was a suit brought by an NGO on behalf of twelve women who had received no assistance from the police after they were attacked by their intimate partners. One of those women stated that the police did not arrest her husband even after they watched him attempt to strangle her. The lawsuits were settled when both police departments agreed to change their practices in domestic violence cases.

From R. Emerson Dobash & Russel P. Dobash, Women, Violence and Social Change 121 (1992); Cheryl Thomas, Domestic Violence, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 219, 234 & n.69 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds., 1999).

Though the lawsuits in the United States were not based on international human rights law, police failure to enforce laws to protect victims of domestic violence is clearly a human rights violation. Police, as agents of the state, have an obligation under human rights law to apply the laws without discriminating against women and to protect a woman's right to be free from violence. From Kenneth Roth, Domestic Violence as an International Human Rights Issue, in Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives 326 (1994); Dorothy Q. Thomas & Michele E. Beasley, Domestic Violence as a Human Rights Issue, 15 H.R.Q. 36 (1993).