Police officers are gatekeepers to the criminal court system for those who call on their assistance, including domestic violence victims; as such, police exercise much discretion regarding how to respond to domestic violence. This research paper examines what criteria police officers use to make arrest decisions in domestic violence cases and what community, departmental, and personal factors determine whether they follow laws indicating that officers are required to or may choose to arrest the perpetrator (i.e., mandatory and preferred arrest statues). Dual arrests, where both partners are arrested, have been identified as a problem because such arrests often punish the victims for using physical aggression in self-defense. Some states have implemented primary aggressor laws that encourage officers to arrest only the main perpetrator and not persons who may have used physical aggression to protect themselves. This entry examines how officers interpret conflicting stories to arrive at their decisions regarding whether and whom to arrest.
Three major sections of this research paper delineate how officers interpret, investigate, and respond to domestic violence situations. First, conceptual models describing how officers make decisions are reviewed. These models examine how officers interpret conflicting stories from intimate partners to decide who the primary aggressor is as well as how the police operate when mandatory or preferred arrest laws are implemented. Secondly, research on the criteria officers use to make arrest decisions is discussed. Lastly, this research paper examines whether officers’ gender, experience, or race influences how they interpret and respond to domestic violence situations.
How Officers Think about Domestic Violence Situations
Several environmental characteristics shape how officers think about domestic violence situations: officers’ professional experience, departmental policies, and the extent to which the criminal justice system provides a coordinated response to domestic violence. Police officers have much discretion regarding how to handle domestic violence situations, even though all states have passed mandatory or preferred arrest statutes. Research shows that officers often do not arrest even if state law requires that they arrest when probable cause exists. Probable cause is a legal term meaning that evidence shows that it is more likely true than not true that a person committed a crime. Because there are no clear guidelines on when probable cause is met, mandatory arrest statutes cannot mandate arrest in all cases and do not eliminate police discretion.
Officers may use three overarching philosophies to integrate and interpret information: normative frame; efficiency, or pragmatic, frame; and legalistic frame. Decision frames are a set of rules about how to make arrest decisions and guide what questions are asked, what inferences are drawn, and what criteria receive the most consideration in arrest decisions. Decision frames derive from socialization and are connected to officers’ values, attitudes, and worldviews. The normative frame emphasizes the question: What happened and who is to blame? Using the normative frame, officers examine what happened in the past and evaluate the moral appropriateness of each party’s actions and their moral character. If both are equally blameworthy, officers will arrest both disputants. When the normative frame is used, battered women may be blamed for the violence when they deviate from social gender-biased norms. Research has found that officers’ belief that violence was justified by infidelity reduced the likelihood of arresting the perpetrator (Saunders 1995). Several studies have found that officers place more blame on battered women who have been drinking; however, the effect of women’s drinking on arrest decision varies widely across departments and is determined by how officers interpret it. Moreover, research has found weak and inconsistent effects of officers’ attitudes about women’s role in society in their decisions to arrest, and situational characteristics have much stronger effect on arrest decisions (see Stalans and Finn 1995, 2000).
Using the normative frame, officers assess whether the husband or wife should have acted differently; whereas using the efficiency frame, officers focus on whether the disputants practically could have each acted differently and their potential for future violence. Officers using the efficiency frame are concerned with their own self-interest and how arrest will affect promotions, their time, and job security. Officers may be less likely to arrest if the case occurs close to the end of their shift and they are not allowed overtime pay to complete paperwork or processing of the defendant. Thus, they use arrest sparingly when they believe that arrests are not rewarded on their part. Officers do not attempt to unravel the past, but instead attempt to assess the likelihood of future danger or bad media publicity if an arrest is not made. Officers also judge the credibility of each disputant to determine whether claims can be substantiated and successfully prosecuted in court. Thus, the efficiency frame focuses on the self-interest of the officer and how likely it is that the arrest will lead to a successful conviction or decrease the danger.
The legalistic frame assumes that officers apply policies or statutes using only legal criteria and a strict interpretation of the statutes. There are several legal criteria that officers may consider in assessing the situation: the presence of physical injuries on one party, the use of a weapon, property damage, the couple arguing in front of the police, and third-party witnesses. The legalistic frame assumes a rational decision maker who does not use attitudes or stereotypes to interpret information. Much research refutes that the legalistic frame is an accurate portrayal of officers’ decision making. Instead, research indicates that officers do not automatically arrest when mandatory arrest statutes are enacted and that they consider offender, victim, and personal characteristics that are not criteria specified in the statutes or policies. Research has found that officers were significantly more likely to arrest both parties, even though state laws discouraged such arrests, if their police department had a policy to arrest both parties when both claimed self-defense (see Finn et al. 2004 for a review of research on dual arrests). Officers are clearly selective about following policies and are more likely to follow policies that are consistent with their beliefs and attitudes. Moreover, officers do not consistently use legal criteria and expand their focus to include other situational and disputants’ characteristics.
In summary, officers typically use either the efficiency or the normative frame to interpret information, guide the questioning of suspects, and make arrest decisions. Officers’ use of the legalistic frame has received little support (for additional information, see Hoyle 1998; Stalans and Finn 1995).
Officers also use stereotypes about domestic violence, battered women, and categories of people based on social class, mental illness, race, gender, and other salient categories. Whereas the normative and efficiency frames guide the decision-making process, stereotypes and attitudes help officers to complete missing information, interpret conflicting stories, and make assumptions about likely outcomes or responses. Research has found that experienced officers considered their stereotypic beliefs about battered women’s propensity to use self-defense in arriving at their arrest decisions. Officers also use their stereotypes about domestic violence when the wife is drunk, but stereotypes do not influence arrest decisions when the wife appears to be normal (Stalans and Finn 1995, 2000). Officers infer that men who abuse wives who are hallucinating or drunk are less dangerous and that these wives are more responsible for the violence, suggesting that stereotypes about mental illness guide their interpretations (Stalans and Finn 1995, 2002). These stereotypes thus affect officers’ inferences about the situation and may lead them to provide unequal protection for mentally ill victims or victims who violate social or gender norms (Robinson 2000).
Criteria Officers Consider in Making Arrest Decisions
Numerous studies have examined what situational, offender, and victim characteristics officers consider in their arrest decisions. These studies have addressed several questions about how officers make arrest decisions in domestic violence cases. Are officers less likely to arrest when violence occurs in an intimate relationship than when it occurs against a stranger or acquaintance? What importance do officers place on the victim’s preference for arrest? If the offender has fled, do officers investigate domestic violence cases differently than stranger or acquaintance violence cases? Do officers provide equal protection to all battered women or are they less likely to arrest the perpetrator when the victim violates gender or social norms or is a member of a minority group?
Are officers less likely to arrest perpetrators of intimate partner violence than those of violence against strangers or acquaintances? Research in the 1980s found that both intimate partner crimes and other violent crimes had similar arrest rates. But mixed findings from research in the 1990s, after mandatory and presumptive arrest statutes were passed, have still left the answer to this question unclear. Several studies also have found that arrest is less likely to occur in disputes involving intimate partner violence than in acquaintance or stranger violence, though many of these studies have not included cases where the offender is not present at the scene, have not controlled for situational differences, and have not examined differential arrest rates for only cases where the victim is the only witness, as in the typical domestic violence case (for a review, see Hall 2005). Contrary to these findings, when cases had only the victim as the witness, one study found that officers arrested 45 percent of the time in domestic violence cases and only 25 percent of the time in other violent cases. Moreover, domestic violence victims were significantly more likely to request arrest (42 percent) than were other violent-crime victims (33 percent), and officers placed more importance on victims’ preference for arrest in making their arrest decisions about domestic violence cases compared with other violent cases. Officers also were more likely to arrest when the perpetrator was present at the scene in both domestic and other violent cases, and perpetrators were equally likely to be present at the scene in both domestic and other violent cases when officers arrived (see Eigenberg, Scarborough, and Kappeler 1996). Thus, officers under some circumstances may respond to domestic violence differently than to stranger violence, but future research is needed to determine these circumstances.
What criteria are most influential in officers’ decisions to arrest, and do officers consider others than the legal criteria that should guide their decisions? Based on numerous studies, it is clear that officers consider several extralegal criteria in their decisions to arrest, such as suspect’s alcohol use, presence of children, and marital status. These extralegal criteria have not been consistent predictors of arrest decisions, which indicates that other environmental circumstances may determine their influence. Legal criteria that have been found to consistently increase the likelihood of arrest include: disrespectful attitude toward the police, presence of witnesses, presence of a weapon, presence of the perpetrator, and a violation of an order of protection. Suspects flee the scene before the police arrive in about half of domestic violence cases, and officers are less likely to arrest perpetrators who have fled compared with those who are present at the scene, even though the absconded perpetrators could be easily located (Hall 2005).
Officers typically make an arrest in only 20 to 50 percent of the cases where there is clear evidence of a violation of an order of protection. This finding indicates that officers use their discretion and interpret the dangerousness and risk to the victim in determining whether to make such an arrest. Several studies have found that violation of an order of protection increases the likelihood of arrest, but its effect on arrest is no greater than other situational criteria. Moreover, other research found that violation of an order of protection did not increase the chance of arrest when weapons were present, and officers arrested in 76 percent of these cases. When weapons were not present, officers placed more importance on the violation of the order of protection and arrested in 44 percent of the cases compared with 12 percent of the low-risk cases that did not involve a violation of an order of protection (Kane 2000).
Other criteria have been inconsistent predictors of officers’ arrest decisions: suspect’s gender or race, victim’s or suspect’s use of alcohol, marital status, presence of children, presence of injuries, and victim’s preference for arrest. Research based on police reports from actual cases has found mixed results for the suspect’s gender. Moreover, based on two studies that manipulated the suspect’s gender and mental state, officers were more likely to civilly commit and less likely to arrest female mentally ill perpetrators than male mentally ill perpetrators of domestic violence (Finn and Stalans 2002).
Research has found that arrest rates for cases involving visible injuries vary from 30 to 73 percent across police departments. In archival and vignette studies from the early 1980s through 2005, the presence or seriousness of visible injuries was not sufficient to invoke arrests, and its influence on arrest decisions depended upon other situational characteristics. For example, visible injuries increased the chance of arrest only when the perpetrator was present, and had no effect when the perpetrator had fled the scene before the police arrived. Officers also were more likely to use the presence of visible injuries in their arrest decisions when departments had clear policies to arrest when the victim had injuries or when the jurisdiction had a coordinated response to domestic violence (for a review, see Finn et al. 2004; Stalans and Finn 2000).
The importance of the victim’s preference in arrest decisions clearly varies across departments, studies, and cases. Police officers often do not write in the police report the victim’s preference even when it is a standard part of the police form, which suggests that it is not an important criterion. Thus, victims’ preference for officers to arrest is not sufficient to prompt them to do so; for example, in one study, only 44 percent of the time did officers arrest when the victim requested it. Studies generally find that victims’ preference for arrest has modest impact, accounting for 4 to 5 percent of variation in officers’ decisions to arrest or not. Officers often are not persuaded by victims’ preference because they think that most victims will drop charges, do not know what they want at that time, or are not providing an honest account of what happened. Officers’ stereotypes about battered women and domestic violence also may affect how they interpret the victim’s preference for arrest (see Stalans and Finn 2000).
Police officers do not provide all battered women with the same protection. As noted earlier, several studies have shown that police officers are less likely to arrest perpetrators who attack women who are drunk or having affairs. Officers who use a normative frame are more likely to arrest the husband if the battered wife is mentally ill because they believe that he is more blameworthy for hitting someone who cannot control her actions, whereas officers using an efficiency frame are less likely to arrest in this circumstance because they see the mentally ill wife as less credible and more dangerous (Stalans and Finn 1995). Thus, the guiding decision frame and stereotypes will determine which victims who violate social norms are more likely to receive protection.
Interview studies have found that police officers are less likely to make an arrest involving minority victims compared with white victims. Research based on domestic violence police reports found that after controlling for situational differences, the police were equally likely to arrest perpetrators on behalf of African American victims compared with other victims. However, police officers considered different criteria in arriving at their arrest decisions. Officers were less likely to arrest when the case involved an older African American battered woman compared with other older victims. Police were less likely to arrest the perpetrator if the African American victim had been drinking or taking drugs or had children present at the scene, whereas other victims’ drug or alcohol use or the presence of children increased the likelihood that the perpetrator would be arrested (Robinson and Chandek 2000).
Officers’ Personal Characteristics and Decision-Making about Domestic Violence
Research has investigated how police officers’ race, gender, academy training, and professional experience shape their interpretations and handling of domestic violence situations. Studies find that minority and white officers do not consistently differ in their interpretations or handling of domestic violence and that academy training also has little influence. However, men and women officers do have different stereotypes about and responses to domestic violence and consider different criteria. Rookie officers, with less than one year of actual law enforcement experience, and experienced officers also arrive at arrest decisions in different ways. These differences are further discussed in the following paragraphs.
Several studies have examined whether women officers are more empathic toward battered women and more likely to enforce the law. Women and men officers hold different stereotypes about domestic violence. Based on research, female officers responding to domestic violence calls, compared with their male counterparts, perceive that wives acted more often in self-defense and are more likely to be the only party injured, and that husbands acted more often intentionally and without justification. These gender differences in stereotypic views are related to the extent to which male officers support male-dominating relationships. Experienced male officers who are basically supportive of such relationships believe that a lower percentage of cases involve wives acting in self-defense, whereas female officers’ attitudes toward male-dominating relationships are not related to their domestic violence stereotypes (Stalans and Finn 2000).
Despite these different attitudes, women and men officers have similar arrest rates in domestic violence situations, but they consider different criteria in making the decision to arrest. Women officers consider the battered woman’s preference for wanting to settle the argument and are less likely to arrest if the victim is also willing to do so, whereas men officers do not consider this criterion. Thus, women officers tend to act in accordance with traditional feminist views and are more willing to arrest when the victim is unwilling to settle the argument. Both men and women officers consider the likelihood of severe injuries if the husband remained in the home and the presence of injuries on the victim in arriving at their arrest decisions. Moreover, men and women rookie officers typically recommend marriage counseling and only in one out of five cases refer the battered woman to a shelter. These similarities reinforce research that shows that women and men officers hold similar views about their job and do not favor involvement in domestic disturbances. Thus, through professional socialization, women officers develop similar perceptions about their law enforcement role relative to men officers. However, once women officers achieve more experience in their profession and can defend their views, they may act on different stereotypic views of domestic violence. Research shows that experienced women officers are less likely to recommend marriage counseling and more likely to refer a battered woman to a shelter than are experienced men officers. Research also shows that women victims are more satisfied with women officers; thus, although women officers do not arrest perpetrators more often, they are more likely to provide support and information to victims and are less likely to hold gender-biased attitudes or stereotypes (see Stalans and Finn 2000 for a review).
Research has found that novice and experienced officers employ different frames for making decisions. Novice officers focus on normative considerations, such as the blameworthiness of each party, in making arrest decisions, whereas experienced officers focus on pragmatic considerations such as the ability to substantiate claims and the risk of future violence. The shift in focus from judicial norms to pragmatic issues occurs relatively swiftly, after one year of service. Inferences about dangerousness and wrongfulness predicted experienced officers’ decisions to refer battered women to shelters much better than novice officers’ referral decisions (for a review, see Stalans and Finn 2000; Stalans and Finn 1995).
Effective training to increase uniform enforcement of domestic violence statutes requires moving beyond officers’ decisions to understanding what questions guide their investigations and how they interpret information and use stereotypes to make inferences. Effective training must begin to focus on the decision-making process rather than the final decision; research shows that officers still receive inadequate training in domestic violence, with most jurisdictions not requiring domestic violence training as part of their regular in-service training for experienced officers. Officers consider both legal and extralegal criteria in their arrest decisions, and their reliance on stereotypes may produce unequal protection; thus, future research focused on the decision-making process will be able to inform training curricula. Several departments have created specialized domestic violence units and have begun to offer more comprehensive services at the time of the initial response. Response units that consist of teams including service providers have improved the services and options available to victims. Moreover, police officers are increasingly relying on technology to obtain better information, and many jurisdictions now can obtain prior arrest histories on the suspect. Some jurisdictions are using phone bugs, silent hostage alarms, GPS tracking systems, and cellular phones to gather incriminating information against stalkers (see Hoyle and Sanders 2000; Roberts 2002; White et al. 2005).
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