Prevention versus protection: Law enforcement, homicide, and domestic violence

Perpetrators bent on violence in our homes and on our streets are often not deterred by the threat of arrest or the arrest itself


Violence starts and ends in the home, even though the most visible effects typically play out in the streets. A story in the Boston Globe, Some laud new antiviolence effort, reveals what many people, for a variety of different reasons, continue to ignore. Violence most often begins in the home, not on the street. We need to ask families, neighbors and educators, not law enforcement for violence prevention efforts. Please read the above hyperlinked story before continuing.

Reams of criminal justice data clearly document that a small number of violent people can wreck havoc in our homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities. It is the responsibility of law enforcement to intervene when called, to stop the ongoing violence, and to make an arrest when there is probable cause to do so. It is then the responsibility of the courts to keep whoever is convicted of violent behavior out of our homes and off the streets for as long as possible.

However, arrest and incarceration are reactive procedures and not preventative programs (the deterrence theory is a theory, not a fact). Perpetrators bent on violence in our homes and on our streets are often not deterred by the threat of arrest or the arrest itself. It should be clear to private citizens, public officials, and the media that we are not going to arrest nor incarcerate our way to safer homes or neighborhoods.

Because of a growing number of homicides, a group of Boston ministers claim that the mayor is not doing enough to protect them, their homes, and their neighborhoods. Public policy makers do have a role to play. However, the preventative answer is not law enforcement. Criminal justice data in general and homicide data in particular suggest that socio-economic educational demographics are primary avenues we must explore for causal factors.

Homicide as an Example
For as long as I can remember, I have heard complaints that law enforcement is not doing whatever it is law enforcement should be doing concerning the prevention of homicides, inside and outside the home. Complaints such as:

“There are not enough officers”
“There are not enough homicide detectives”
“There are not enough patrols”
“There police simply do not care enough about some members or segments of society”

The belief seems to be that if law enforcement only had more officers, more homicide detectives, more patrols, or expressed more concern for all the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect, the number of homicides would drop like a rock from above.

However, as the data below demonstrates an increase in the number of police officers has little to nothing to do with a decrease in homicides. In 2004, Baltimore had 3,160 officers and 278 homicides. Seattle, with a far smaller department, 1,161officers had only 24 homicides.

The homicide data below documents what many private citizens, public officials and the media are unable or unwilling to recognize. It is not law enforcement that primarily governs how many citizens will be murdered in their homes or on the streets each year.

CityPopulation# of OfficersHomicides (2004)
Baltimore631,0003,160278
Boston590,0001,96161
Milwaukee573,0001,94688
Seattle583,0001,16124
Washington, DC581,0003,800198

It also appears that individual police policies and procedures are also not the answer. If the Seattle police department had some magic policy or procedural formula that could or would account for the dramatic difference in homicides, why would Seattle refuse to pass their magic formula along to Baltimore and why would other cities not replicate it?

It seems more logical that we explore, as reams of criminal justice data suggest, that it might be the socio-economic, educational and cultural differences between communities that primarily account for the dramatic disparity in violence between individuals and neighborhoods.

The Solution
The ultimate solution is the content, character, and compassion of individual parents and the collective citizenship of a neighborhood. Long term safety in our homes and on our streets will come only when individuals and neighborhoods understand that they must point the finger of responsibility at themselves!

Reducing all forms of violence, from homicide to minor physical assaults, is a multidimensional and complex task that must begin in the home before children attend school. Everyone does not have an equal chance or opportunity to succeed. Health services and early infant care providers must recognize inequalities and react to individual family characteristics and specific needs and they need to assist with resources when and where necessary.

However, parental prevention efforts cannot begin with reactive law enforcement interventions. Role modeling and childhood education are the two most important steps toward more peaceful homes and neighborhoods. The home environment, family dynamics and parental role modeling are free and are available to most everyone. Violence prevention begins at home and it is, first and foremost, a parental responsibility.

About the author

Richard L. Davis completed studies in criminal justice management at LaSalle University. He has a graduate degree in criminal justice from Anna Maria College, and another in liberal arts with a concentration in history from Harvard University.

Contact Richard Davis.

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