By Jean Reynolds
Criminal justice experts are asking important questions about police procedures for dealing with domestic violence. For more than 30 years, arrests have been the preferred approach for dealing with batterers. The 1994 Violence against Women Act is one important reason; another is that in 1984, sociologists Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk presented data that suggested that arrests were an effective tool for preventing domestic violence. A third factor was a shift in attitudes about domestic violence, which used to be considered a private matter beyond the reach of the law. Jurisdictions today consider battering a criminal matter, and they often regard arrest as the best prevention tool.
But two recent developments are prompting some criminal justice experts to seek additional tools. One problem is that domestic violence rates—after dropping for many years—are beginning to rise. Although most violent crime rates have been dropping since 1994, domestic violence homicides increased 19% between 2014 and 2017.
Second, many Americans are concerned about the enormous costs associated with arresting and imprisoning offenders. Taxpayers are asking why—if crime rates are dropping—states keep building more prisons and locking up more people. As a result, many states are looking for cost-effective alternatives to locking up lawbreakers—including batterers.
Jurisdictions are talking about a number of strategies for dealing with domestic violence:
1. We can direct more resources to prevention. The root causes of domestic violence are well known, including stress, trauma, substance abuse, childhood abuse, and poverty.
2. We can do more to protect the victims of abusive relationships. The homicide rate for women who get restraining orders or try to leave their abusive partner is more than 30%.
3. We can provide better services to children who grow up in a violent or abusive home, since they’re a population that’s statistically highly likely to become violent themselves.
4. We can follow the lead of some jurisdictions that are using GPS tracking devices to prevent offenders from committing further violence. Counties in Connecticut that use these devices have reported no domestic violence homicides since 2004.
In addition, police officers are ideally suited to direct victims to services that can protect them and help break the cycle. Knowing the phone number for a shelter, a counseling service, or a youth program can make a huge difference to a desperate victim. And many police officers have prevented future violence by connecting a child who’s headed for trouble with a sympathetic minister, coach, or scout leader.