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(Really) Understanding Domestic Violence


October 08, 2001
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(Really) Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence:
On the Front Lines

by Richard L. Davis, Ph.D.

Add your comments to the discussion on Richard L. Davis's column in the Domestic Violence forum

Concerning the issue of domestic violence many women's rights and men's rights groups continue to insist their view is absolutely right and the other side is absolutely wrong. However, there is one proviso on which both often do agree. They seem convinced that police officers have little real understanding of the issue. In fact many domestic violence "experts" continue to believe that police officers do not have a clue when it comes to domestic violence.

Many of the earnest and honest contributions by police officers are regularly dismissed as nonsense. These "experts" cite as proof of the disinterest of police officers, documentation that police departments in the early 1960s and 1970s had "hands off" policies when it came to intervention into what was then labeled family disputes. Evidence, or so they say, is presented that police officers rarely would make an arrest when they responded to these types of calls. And in fact their data is correct.

What many women's rights and victims' advocacy groups do not understand is that these much criticized "preserve the family" policies and procedures of police departments were not designed and instituted by police departments or individual police officers. In the reams of treatises, studies, and books that are critical of these early police responses to domestic violence the real culprit is seldom revealed. Police officers of those times were responding to "family disputes" as they had been trained.

It was the United States Department of Justice that instituted, paid for and often provided this type of training. This "hands off" or "mediation on the scene" procedure that angered so many women's rights and victims' advocacy groups was a procedure that was instituted by criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists who were the domestic violence experts of their time. Ironically, years later it would be the Department of Justice, because of political pressure from some women's rights and victims' advocacy groups, who would point the finger of blame at the police for not "doing their job." Women's rights and victims' advocacy groups are correct concerning the low numbers of arrests by police officers during this period. It is true that there were few arrests made when the police responded to this type of call. These critics of the police pointed their collective fingers of blame toward the right culprit this time, but for the wrong reason. What critics ignore is the fact that it was not police policies or lack of police officer's concern with victims that accounted for the low arrest numbers.

The majority of domestic violence calls by the police involved misdemeanors and at that time police officers had no powers of arrest for unwitnessed misdemeanors. When the law was changed to allow for arrests by police officers in unwitnessed misdemeanors, many women's rights and victims' advocacy groups would again claim the police officers were still not making enough arrests. They would overlook or ignore fact that police officers can not arrest someone who is not there. The majority of the time the perpetrator had fled the scene before the police arrived. When the police did arrive there were often claims by everyone at the scene that nothing had happened and there was no probable cause or evidence to indicate that something did occur.

At that time many police officers understood there were few resources and little support for the victim's who were assaulted and many of them did not want their spouse arrested. There appeared to be little logic in arresting the abuser only to have that same person return home in a few hours and the victim refuse any assistance or aid. Women's rights and victims' advocacy groups, most often, would again disagree. Many claimed that often police officers who responded to domestic violence calls were men and just like most men, the police officers just did not care if women were beaten or not.

More than two decades after responding to calls where an abuser had brutally pummeled a victim, more often than not a misdemeanor with no powers of arrest, many police officers can still remember how helpless they felt. All that statute civil and criminal laws allowed them to do was to take out a report of the incident and hope for a warrant or at least a hearing before the court.

There is only limited anecdotal evidence presented that when a violent felony occurred in a family violence setting that most police officers would refuse to make an arrest. In fact there is not a single empirical scientific controlled study that can document that the police would routinely ignore this type of violent assault. Yet the myth, presented by many women's rights and victims' advocates, that most police officers are simply hard-hearted savage cretins who do not care that women are beaten and battered continues. To suggest that most police officers don't care if their spouse or daughters do not share equal rights with them or their sons is incredulous and offensive.

The intended purpose of this monthly column is to inject a rational and reasoned law enforcement perspective into the debate that divides so many of us concerning the issue of domestic violence. From my 21 years of experience as a police officer, as a researcher, and as a historian I know that many police officers find personal satisfaction when they make an arrest of a violent abuser, take part in the prosecution, and understand that the victim and the victims children receive the assistance they both want and need.

These pages are designed to allow for an interactive forum for law enforcement professionals to bridge the information gap between those of us who work in the criminal justice field, other professionals, and the community we serve. The interaction here is intended to enable all of us concerned with the issue of domestic violence to make more informed choices and to communicate more effectively with each other. The voices of police officers and victims in particular never seem to be heard or heeded by those who claim "they know best."

If you have information that others need, please feel free to place it here. This is not a site for complaining or criticism with also presenting a remedy. Please, if you are going to write what is wrong, include what is right.

Simply defining the term domestic violence still causes a great deal of debate. How do we accurately provide intervention, study or research the issue if we will not agree on definition. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I hope to start by providing a definition that few can and none should argue with. Until then feel free to add what you want.

Add your comments to the discussion on Richard Davis's column in the Domestic Violence forum


Richard L. Davis is a retired lieutenant from the Brockton, Massachusetts police department. He holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice Management from 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.

He is a member of the International Honor Society of Historians and an instructor for Quincy College at Plymouth. He is the vice president of the Board of Directors for the Community Center for Non-Violence and the vice president of Family Nonviolence, Inc.

He is the author of Domestic Violence: Facts and Fallacies by Praeger publishers and has written numerous articles for newspapers, journals, and magazines concerning the issue of domestic violence. He writes a monthly column for www.nycop.com , his column here for www.PoliceOne.com, and has a Webpage at www.policewriter.com. A most recent work is an article that defines domestic violence in the multi-volume Encyclopedia of Psychology by the Oxford University Press and Yale University.

He lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts with his wife and the two youngest of five children. He may be reached at rldavis@post.harvard.edu.





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