Law Enforcement Reform Efforts

Last updated Dec. 26, 2018

“An effective law enforcement response to intimate partner violence must include the adoption of a comprehensive policy that (1) holds perpetrators accountable, (2) supports victims, and (3) is consistently applied. Any comprehensive policy must be part of a developed, coordinated community infrastructure that can provide support to maximize victim safety, implement sanctions against perpetrators, and offer rehabilitation opportunities for perpetrators.”[1]

Arrest Policies

Increasing law enforcement officers’ powers of arrest has been characterized as the “most powerful” reform, one that can have both positive and negative repercussions.[2] The United Nations has advocated for the provision of pro-arrest policies in domestic violence where there is probable cause[3] to believe that a crime has occurred.[4]

Mandatory arrest policies have created some controversy, particularly when the policies result in an increase of victim arrests. Some research indicates “while the number of victim arrests has increased, the use of violence by victims has remained constant, suggesting greater manipulation of the justice system by defendants and lack of police training in the intricacies of domestic violence dynamics.”[5] In order to address this problem, law enforcement officers should undergo training to aid in determining the predominant aggressor.

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.”[6]

Instead of purely focusing on arrest as the principal response, advocates have recommended that law enforcement officers undergo domestic violence training and expand resources for victim-survivors, all while ensuring that these women can exercise agency regarding their cases.[7]

Domestic Violence Training

A recent survey in the U.S. revealed high numbers of women experiencing domestic violence who feared calling police in the future, in part due to law enforcement officer’s lack of cultural competency regarding DV. This was a common response by women who had called the police in the past as well as women who had never called the police.[8]

One of the best methods to address this lack of knowledge and skill is to provide comprehensive training for law enforcement officers regarding domestic and intimate partner violence. A key component of this training should be to educate law enforcement on how to properly identify and speak to victims. For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police advises that when questioning a victim, responding officers should not ask her leading questions, push for a chronological account, or ask questions that place the blame on her.[9] Another key component of domestic violence training is to increase awareness of the rates and kinds of domestic violence, and ensure that law enforcement officers are aware of the risks that accompany domestic violence.

Training law enforcement to properly handle domestic and intimate partner violence cases has been shown to have greater effects on attitudes towards domestic violence in the community at large. 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.”[10] As law enforcement is a prominent public service and officers carry great authority, when they visibly change the way they respond to domestic violence and their treatment of victims, it sends a message of zero tolerance for domestic violence to the community.

General Legislative Reform

In addition to reforms regarding arrest policies and law enforcement trainings, general legislative reform also has the potential for a wide impact. The United Nations has a list of requirements for legislative law enforcement reform, stating that legislation should require that law enforcement officers:

  • respond promptly to every request for assistance and protection in cases of violence against women, even when the person who reports such violence is not the complainant/survivor;
  • assign the same priority to calls concerning cases of violence against women as to calls concerning other acts of violence, and assign the same priority to calls concerning domestic violence as to calls relating to any other form of violence against women; and
  • upon receiving a complaint, conduct a coordinated risk assessment of the crime scene and respond accordingly in a language understood by the complainant/survivor, including by:
    • interviewing the parties and witnesses, including children, in separate rooms to ensure there is an opportunity to speak freely;
    • recording the complaint in detail;
    • advising the complainant/survivor of her rights;
    • filling out and filing an official report on the complaint;
    • providing or arranging transport for the complainant/survivor to the nearest hospital or medical facility for treatment, if it is required or requested;
    • providing or arranging transport for the complainant/survivor and the complainant/survivor’s children or dependents, if it is required or requested; and
    • providing protection to the reporter of the violence.[11]

[1] International Association of Chiefs of Police, Intimate Partner Violence Response Policy and Training Content Guidelines 4 (2017).

[2] Meg Townsend et al, Law Enforcement Response to Emergency Domestic Violence Calls for Service 12 (Feb. 2005).

[3] Probable cause exists where there is a reasonable basis for belief.

[4] UNODC, Division for the Advancement of Women, Good Practices in Legislation on Violence against Women: Report of the Expert Group Meeting 42 (2008).

[5] Women Prosecutors Section, National District Attorneys Association, The National Domestic Violence Prosecution Best Practices Guide 19 (2017).

[6] 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).

[7] Townsend, supra note 2, at 12.

[8] National Domestic Violence Hotline, Who Will Help Me?: Domestic Violence Survivors Speak Out about Law Enforcement Responses (2015).

[9] International Association of Chiefs of Police, supra note 1, at 14.

[10] 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).

[11] UNODC, Division for the Advancement of Women, Good Practices in Legislation on Violence against Women: Report of the Expert Group Meeting 39–40 (2008).