The University Record, September 12, 1994

Arrest of domestic violence victims of concern

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Police officers who tend to arrest victims of domestic assaults believe that violence is justified in some situations, according to a U-M study. “The arrest of victims of domestic violence occurs at an unexpectedly high rate and is a problem of growing concern,” says Daniel G. Saunders, associate professor of social work. “One concern is that victims arrested for disorderly conduct or violence used in self-defense would not call police again.

“Although arrest of some victims may be appropriate because they are also perpetrators, the majority of these arrests do not seem justified.”

In Saunders’ study, more than 100 officers in 10 city and small-town police departments in Wisconsin were presented two scenarios of domestic violence in which the woman sustained visible injuries. In the first instance, the couple continued to argue in a summoned officer’s presence, while in the second, they did not. The officers were then given 10 possible actions that they could take in response and were asked to indicate the likelihood of using each.

The study found that 15 percent of the officers said there was a good chance they would arrest the victim— mostly for disorderly conduct—if an argument continued, while 2 percent said they probably would arrest the woman even if arguing had stopped.

Saunders speculates that a woman may be viewed differently in the first scenario because she and her husband continue to argue in front of the officer, thus showing disrespect for authority. In the second situation, the man angrily tells officers that “our fights are none of your business.”

The study, to be published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found that officers with a willingness to arrest victims tend to believe that domestic violence is warranted in cases of infidelity and that victims stay in abusive relationships for primarily emotional reasons. Also, these officers feel less comfortable talking with victims.

The results show no correlation between a tendency to arrest victims and an officer’s general attitude about women, rank in the department, marital status, age or education.

Saunders believes officers need proper training to clarify such policies as mandatory arrest—resented by some officers for the limits it places on their discretion—and may need training directed at changing attitudes.

“Hearing from survivors of domestic violence may reduce stereotypes and help officers understand why survivors are sometimes agitated or angry when they arrive on the scene,” he says. “They could also hear firsthand about the reasons that women sometimes stay in abusive relationships, and understanding external forces keeping victims in relationships can increase sympathy for them.

“For those unconvinced that intervening in domestic violence cases is truly ‘crime-fighting,’ they can be given evidence to show that violence in the home today will lead to violent crime inside and outside of the home in the next generation.”