Domestic Violence: History of Police Responses

Domestic violence became an increasingly popular issue in the 1970s and 1980s. As awareness for violence between intimate partners grew, so did criticism on the manner in which police were responding to the issue. Many believe that police don't take domestic violence calls seriously because police intervention would be inappropriate in what some may deem a family matter. However, others contend that because police are important authority figures and are the first point of contact when violence occurs, they should see it as priority and respond in a timely manner to cases of domestic violence.

Police Responses in the Past

According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), in the 1980s, police were trained to screen domestic violence calls and it became common practice to delay any response to them in hopes that the problem would resolve itself at home, or that the assailant would leave before police arrived.

However, thanks to women's rights groups speaking out on this issue and pushing to make battering a criminal offense, there has been significant reform on the way police deal with domestic violence. It wasn't until the landmark case, Thurman v. City of Torrington, that police started paying more attention to their liability in domestic violence cases, and were made aware that they could pay a severe financial penalty if they failed to do so. In this case, plaintiff Tracy Thurman was awarded $2.3 million when she sued the city of Torrington, CT police department after they repeatedly failed to arrest her abusive husband.

Police Reform Throughout the Years

Over the years, police departments all over the country have made an effort to reform their practices. Some states have established a set of guidelines for law enforcement to abide by when responding to domestic violence. For example, by January 1986, California implemented supplemental training in domestic violence for police and sheriffs, and started compiling statistical data from calls received.

Many departments decided to take advantage of their power to arrest abusers and developed pro-arrest policies which allowed warrantless arrests as long as there was probable cause. In fact, studies in multiple jurisdictions have shown that arrests by law enforcement are more successful in deterring repeat abusers compared to citizen arrests.

Many larger police departments have now established domestic violence units that gather extensive evidence on abusers and their history of violence. This includes having department call takers obtain more information over the phone while having the victim stay on the line until police arrive, asking about any present restraining orders, or inquiring about whether the assailant uses alcohol and drugs, for example.

Some jurisdictions have implemented a program called "coordinated community responses" in which multiple social service and criminal justice agencies work together to respond to domestic violence. These communities contain not only law enforcement representatives and police, but also church leaders and community leaders who can provide a safe climate for victims.

Police response in domestic violence cases has come a long way since the 1970's, as domestic violence is now rightly seen as a serious crime against society in which victims should be provided the maximum protection from the law. The reforms put in place have significantly improved police response and in turn, have saved the lives of a greater number of victims.

Getting Help

If you are a victim of domestic violence or know someone who is, contacting your local law enforcement department is always a good first step. You may also refer to FindLaw's Domestic Violence Victim Resources page for more information on organizations in your state who are working to stop domestic violence and where to get help.

Get Professional Help With Your Domestic Violence Concerns

Domestic violence is nothing to take lightly as it can cause both physical and emotional harm for years to come and can rip a family apart. There are ways to protect against it and to learn how to detect warning flags. If you or a loved one are concerned about domestic violence, you can always speak with an experienced and local family law attorney to learn more about your rights and options.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified family law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution