2 minute read

Domestic Violence

Arrest Policies

Prior to 1984, most police could not legally make a warrantless arrest unless a misdemeanor occurred in the officer's presence, or the officer had probable cause to believe that a felony had taken place. Since most domestic violence cases involve simple assault and battery—a misdemeanor—the police could not make an arrest at the scene. Advising the husband or boyfriend to "take a walk around the block" was often the extent of police intervention.

In 1984, the U.S. Attorney General recommended arrest as the standard police response to domestic violence. This recommendation resulted from a landmark Minneapolis controlled experimental study that compared the deterrent effects of arresting the suspect, mediating the dispute, and requiring the batterer to leave the house for eight hours. The study found that arrest more effectively deterred subsequent violence than did the other courses of action. The results were widely publicized.

That same year, Tracy Thurman received a $1.9 million settlement from the Torrington, Connecticut, Police Department for its policy of nonintervention and nonarrest in domestic violence cases. After the Thurman case, police departments concerned about similar lawsuits began to rethink their policies. All fifty states now provide for warrantless arrests in domestic violence cases.

Since arrest statutes have been broadened, many jurisdictions have adopted mandatory or pro-arrest policies. Under these policies, an arrest is either required or preferred if the police officer has probable cause to believe that a domestic battery has taken place, regardless of the victim's wishes. These policies have received mixed reviews. Some advocates maintain that mandatory arrest not only substantially reduces domestic assaults and murders, especially when prosecution follows, but also provides police officers with clear guidelines on how to proceed, correcting the "take a walk around the block" mentality. Opponents argue that these policies fail to account for the criminal justice system's historic mistreatment of minorities. Furthermore, when officers are either unable or unwilling to discern who was the initial aggressor, mandatory arrest policies can result in both parties being arrested. Thus, these pro-arrest policies have the unintended consequence of penalizing rather than protecting victims. Others argue that police ought to have more discretion to handle domestic violence situations on a case-by-case basis.

Does arrest work? The research is inconclusive. For example, when the Minneapolis study was replicated in other jurisdictions, the results differed significantly. Specifically, arrest consistently deterred employed batterers, but increased repeat violence among unemployed batterers. Yet, these findings were largely ignored. Furthermore, between 1992 and 1996, while the police responded to 90 percent of calls for assistance, in only 20 percent of the cases was the alleged abuser arrested immediately (Greenfeld). These findings raise questions as to how effective arrest policies have been in reducing recidivism or changing police practices.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawDomestic Violence - Who Are The Abusers? Who Are The Victims?, The Causes Of Domestic Violence, Federal Approaches To Domestic Violence