Role of Police

Last Updated Dec. 26, 2018

Globally, law enforcement officers are the first actors who a victim of domestic violence is likely to encounter. Law enforcement is a well-known and highly visible community authority, provides free services, and is generally one of the few systems actors who can provide rapid 24-hour daily assistance.[1] As first responders, they play an important role in protecting victim safety and enhancing offender accountability. Although law enforcement may be unable or unwilling to rapidly address all incidents of domestic and intimate partner violence at any hour in all locations, its visibility and authority continue to increase the likelihood that a person experiencing domestic violence will come into contact with law enforcement officers. Thus, law enforcement plays a crucial role in addressing and decreasing incidences of domestic and intimate partner violence. Moreover, law enforcement officers act as criminal justice gatekeepers; thus, “problems arise when allegations are made that police do not take domestic violence seriously, consider it a family problem and, therefore, inappropriate for police action.”[2]

In light of their elevated visibility and connecting role to the rest of the criminal justice system—and possibly other assistance—law enforcement officers must be trained to identify domestic and intimate partner violence and act accordingly. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. A 2015 survey of victim in the U.S. discussed sources of women’s fear surrounding law enforcement involvement. The survey found that:

  • Four out of five women who had never previously called the police were somewhat to extremely afraid to call the police in the future, with 59% fearing that police would not believe them or would fail to take any action;
  • 80% of women who had called the police and who were somewhat to extremely afraid to call again specifically feared that police would fail to take action or believe them;
  • One in four women who had previously called the police said they would not call again, and one in three said they felt less safe after they called;
  • 43% felt that the police had discriminated against them, with 46% of those women indicating discrimination due to gender and 24% indicating discrimination due to the police officers’ lack of understanding about DV.

Although many of the women in the survey indicated having negative experiences, some highlighted positive outcomes from police involvement. Two of the most helpful things police have done were to “provide[] information about [her] option including specific safety suggestions and referrals” and “provide[] tangible help like helping [her] get a protective order, transporting [her] to safety or connecting [her] with a victim advocate.”[3] Indeed, providing victims with referrals to resources and information on her legal rights reflects best practice standards.

To best address the needs of victim, law enforcement should work as part of a broader multi-sectoral approach. As part of this interagency approach, law enforcement should “be educated about violence against women and girls and be trained on how to appropriately intervene in cases of violence against women and girls.”[4] It is important to ensure that the victim’s safety is the central priority and to respect the rights, needs, and agency of the victim.[5]

[1] Meg Townsend et al, Law Enforcement Response to Emergency Domestic Violence Calls for Service (Feb. 2005), at 7.

[2] Id.

[3] National Domestic Violence Hotline, Who Will Help Me?: Domestic Violence Survivors Speak Out about Law Enforcement Responses (2015), at 11.

[4] The Multi-Sectoral Model, Virtual K knowledge Centre to End Violence Against Women and Girls, (last accessed Nov. 6, 2018).

[5] UN Development Program, Mulitsectoral Cooperation–Institutional Response to Violence Against Women (2013), at 76.