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Right Now | Abuse Miscue

Litmus Test for a Law

January-February 2008

Photograph by Shepard Sherbell/Corbis Saba


Photograph by Shepard Sherbell/Corbis Saba

Until the mid 1980s, victims of domestic abuse who called the police could expect the officers to do little more than tell the abusive spouse to walk it off. But then two things happened. In 1984, a Connecticut woman successfully sued her city’s police department after her husband stabbed her and then, in sight of an officer standing idle in the house, kicked her in the head. The same year, police in Minneapolis released a study showing that arresting abusers, rather than counseling them or sending them away for a few hours, greatly reduced the risk of future violence. As a result, many states began adopting mandatory-arrest laws that require police to take perpetrators (who are mostly men) into custody. Today 22 states, plus Washington, D.C., enforce either mandatory or pro-arrest laws, which have generally been seen as a boon for abuse survivors.

But are they? According to a recent study by economist Radha Iyengar, the murder rate between intimate partners is more than 50 percent higher in states with mandatory-arrest laws than in those without. Iyengar, a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in health-policy research at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, analyzed homicide data across the country from 1976 to 2003, a period during which murder rates—including homicides among non-intimate family members such as parents and children (which fall under the jurisdiction of mandatory-arrest laws)—dropped overall. “For months I thought I must be coding something wrong,” she says, but her analyses ruled out other possible expla-nations, including increased unemployment rates, cuts in police funding, and spikes in other types of crime. After speaking with representatives from domestic- violence organizations across the country, Iyengar began to suspect that the laws aren’t necessarily helping victims, in part because victims may not like the laws.

“A big problem is that victims didn’t want to call the police after the laws were implemented,” she says. The reasons for this are unclear, making it harder to find solutions. If victims stay quiet because of psychological ties to their abusers, harsher punishments won’t entice them to call, but more support services might. Victims may also know that, if they don’t take the further step of pressing charges, their partners will return home within a day, possibly raging even more. In some states, like Connecticut, where the first mandatory-arrest laws were passed in 1986, police frequently arrest both the victim and the abuser because they’re unsure who’s who. If there are children in the household, parents who know there’s a risk of dual arrest may decide a call isn’t worth potentially losing the children to social services.

After Iyengar published her findings in a New York Times op-ed last summer, several domestic-violence advocates criticized the study, saying that it didn’t account for the complexities of spousal abuse. Iyengar, who has volunteered with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, acknowledges the criticism, and offers recommendations few would argue with: more police training to help eliminate dual arrests, and more support services (such as housing and counseling) for abuse victims. But she also points out, “At the same time, we need large-scale evaluations of policies. The solution is not to keep bad laws on the books. If we think these laws need more teeth in the criminal-justice system and more bite to be effective, then let’s do that.”

       ~Katharine Dunn