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Domestic Violence: History of Police Responses

Police responses to domestic violence have historically been clouded by notions, for example, the idea that a wife is the "property" of a husband and he has the right to carry out whatever behavior is necessary to "keep her in line." This idea and others like it reflect attitudes held by the greater society. Further aggravating the situation was the perception that domestic violence is not "real police work," and such disputes are private matters that should be kept within the household. Prior to 1980, when domestic situations were brought to the attention of police, calls were often diverted by dispatchers, given a lower priority, or officers responded to the scene and departed again as quickly as possible without achieving any type of meaningful intervention. Laws such as the "rule of thumb" (whereby it was legal for a husband to beat his wife with a stick not wider than his thumb) were still on the books until very recent times.

Prior to the 1980s, the practice of police agencies was to use mediation in domestic incidents. But ironically, much of this so-called mediation was done only when only one spouse was present. Several prominent court cases helped change legislation. In 1972, Ruth Bunnell was killed as a result of police non-intervention. The case of wrongful death against the City of San Jose was dismissed in the California Court of Appeals but received much publicity. In 1985, a jury verdict awarded $2.3 million in favor of plaintiff Tracy Thurman who sued the Torrington, CT, police department after they repeatedly failed to arrest her abusive husband (Thurman v. City of Torrington, 1985). Her husband eventually caused her serious bodily injury.

Another landmark case is currently being heard in the California courts system. In 1996, Maria Macias was killed by her estranged husband after an order of protection was not enforced by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. The victim had requested help from the department on 22 occasions. The lower courts held that women have a constitutional right to safety and equal protection, and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department provided inadequate police protection based on the victim's status as a woman and a victim of domestic violence. The case is due to be heard in April, 2002 in the Appeals Court of California (99-15662).

Beginning in the late 1980s, there were many attempts to change the way police departments intervened in domestic violence situations. Inspired by Sherman's Minneapolis experiment, many police agencies adopted preferred or mandatory arrest policies. Arrest both acknowledges that society views domestic violence as a criminal offense and also provides immediate safety for the victim. Accompanying these new arrest policies were civil proceedings (discussed below).

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