Domestic violence is one of the commonest crimes. It is present throughout society, usually hidden, but there nonetheless. In any house, on any average street, avenue or road, women regularly experience abuse and violence. Most frequently, it happens behind firmly closed doors. It is worth standing on such an average street — your street perhaps — and trying to imagine the reality of it behind those closed doors. You may not be aware that it is happening, but it is. In the US, there has been a social movement of women against domestic violence for many years.
Even so, in the last decade, domestic violence has been in the public eye as it has never been before. Various governments now tell us that violence in the home is a crime and that it is not to be tolerated. Domestic violence is a widespread reality in American society. A national survey of more than two thousand families in 1990 (Buzawa 1992) found that over 10 percent of all respondents surveyed reported at least one incident of husband to wife abuse or injury during the previous year, and the researchers estimated that over two million women had been severely beaten by their spouse.
Even more disturbing, research on long-term exposure to domestic violence suggests that almost 30 percent of all women will experience physical abuse and injury by a male partner sometime during their lives (Horton and Smith 1988). Finally, research also indicates that domestic violence is rarely an isolated event; once a woman is victimized, she faces a high risk of being victimized again (Home Office 2000). The police departments are the only agencies available 24 hours a day, and the police alone have the responsibility to keep the peace and to prevent crime.
Yet, despite the scale of the problem, and the fact that domestic violence tends to be committed by repeat offenders, arrests are rare (Yearnshire 1996). Typically, officers attempt to resolve the problem by calming the parties to the dispute and suggesting or imposing a practical short-term solution (such as the temporary removal of one of the parties) sometimes accompanied by threats of harsher action if the police are called to the address in the near future. In terms of maintaining order, this is often reasonably successful.
Whether or not violence has ceased before the police arrive, in most cases the determinants of arrest lie in what happens once the police are on the scene. If violence continues or erupts while the officers are present, the offender is likely to be arrested because he threatens the control that officers seek to maintain. Equally, if the offender is disrespectful to the police or non-compliant, then he is likely to be arrested. Even if an arrest is made, it is more likely that it will be justified by the use of a “resource charge”, such as drunkenness, than for assault.
It is very rare that the police make an arrest on the basis of the violence that the offender has inflicted upon his victim (Hague and Malos 1998). Typically, the police avoid the legal implications of what has taken place by placing a particular construction on events that strips them of their obvious criminal characteristics. A brutal beating is thus diminished and transformed into a “civil dispute” in relation to which the officer provides “advice” (Kemp et al. 1992).
Frequently, the victim will be recorded as not supporting the arrest of the offender; but this is a fine illustration of how the desires of the complainant can be manipulated by authoritative police officers. Officers may take the victim aside and point out that if they arrest the male partner he will be kept in the cells overnight, appear in court next morning, possibly be remanded for a future hearing, and either receive a fine or short period of imprisonment—all of which means that the family income will suffer. Thus, officers exploit the economic vulnerability of most women to persuade them not to “press charges”.
Practices such as these are, according to Radford, the reason why women report only a small minority of episodes of domestic violence (Hague and Malos 1998). In general, criticisms of police practice on domestic violence have centred mainly on failure to act: failure to log calls for assistance; failure to respond quickly; failure to take the assault seriously; failure to arrest or charge the attacker, or even to remove him from the home; failure to consider prosecution, or to record the assault as a crime; or a subsequent downgrading of an attack to ‘no crime’ even following charges, if a prosecution was not being proceeded with.
Police also failed to give women advice and support in the majority of cases where they were not going to press charges, and showed little knowledge of what support was available in the community. Occasionally, however, they might remove the man from the house or offer to take the woman and children to a refuge or another safe place. In the case of police departments, research indicates that, at least in the past, many police officers have viewed domestic violence calls as a nuisance, not as real police work.
Studies (Hague and Malos 1998) have shown that a consistent downgrading of the priority given police response to domestic disturbance calls results in slower response time than for other calls of the same order of seriousness (Buzawa 1992). In addition, research indicates that police are sometimes reluctant to arrest suspects in domestic violence cases. Finally, reason sometimes cited for police reluctance to deal with such calls is that they do not feel qualified to handle them effectively (Hague and Malos 1998).
Despite sympathy for police reluctance to intervene because of victims withdrawing charges and traditional ideas about domestic privacy, the police should keep statistics and that Chief Constables should review their policies for dealing with domestic violence. The police should treat assaults in the home as seriously as they do assaults in other places and should be ready to arrest the assailant on the spot where there is evidence of an injury.
Officers have to be taught about effective communication; the ‘social’ aspects of policing; community and race relations; supporting victims; and many other social skills considered necessary for the effective handling of domestic disputes. They have to be taught also about threats and emotional and sexual abuse as well as physical attacks and made to understand the various social and economic factors which prevent some women from leaving abusive relationships.
This training, aimed at breaking down common myths and stereotypes about domestic violence, should be given to all new recruits. The police will only respond more effectively if it begins to adopt a more holistic approach to domestic violence: one which addresses the needs of victims and perpetrators alike. References Buzawa, Carl G. (1992). Domestic Violence: The Changing Criminal Justice. Auburn House: Westport, CT. Hague, G. and Malos, E. (1998). Domestic Violence: Action for change, 2nd edn, Cheltenham: New Clarion Press.
Home Office (2000) Reducing Domestic Violence: What works? , Briefing Notes, London: HMSO. Horton, C. & D. J. Smith 1988. Evaluating Police Work: An Action Research Project. London: Police Studies Institute. Norris, C. , N. Fielding, C. Kemp, J. Fielding. (1992). ‘Black and Blue: An Analysis of the Influence of Race on Being Stopped By the Police. ’ British Journal of Sociology 43 (2, June). Yearnshire, S. (1996). ‘Men of Violence. ’ Police Review (30, August).