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Domestic Violence: History of Police Responses

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Domestic violence doesn't have racial, ethnic, or economic boundaries -- it can affect anyone. Domestic violence became an increasingly public issue in the 1970s and 1980s. As awareness for violence between intimate partners grew, so did criticism of the manner in which police were responding to the issue.

Many believe that police don't take domestic violence calls seriously because intervention would be inappropriate in what some may deem a family matter. However, others contend that since police are important authority figures, and often the first point of contact when violence occurs, they should treat cases of domestic violence as a priority and respond in a timely manner.

Read on to learn about past police responses to domestic violence as well as how their response has been reformed throughout the years.

Past Police Responses to Domestic Violence

According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), in the 1980s, police were trained to screen domestic violence calls and it was common practice to delay any response to them. The reason for this practice was the hope 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 battery 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 active 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.

The police response to 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 responses and in turn, have saved the lives of a greater number of victims.

Questions About Police Responses to Domestic Violence? Talk to an Attorney

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 local family law attorney to learn more about your rights and options.

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