As law enforcement’s response to domestic violence evolves, officers face a critical challenge: Many women are afraid to call police.
And when police do finally respond, an already dangerous situation often is laced with peril for everyone involved.
A 2015 survey by the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that a quarter of women who had called police to report domestic violence or sexual assault would not call again in the future.
“Between the police and the criminal I’m dead already,” one survey participant said.
Police response is under the spotlight as law enforcers continue to die responding to domestic disturbances.
In 2017, more officers were shot responding to domestic violence than any other type of firearm-related fatality, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. From 1988 to 2016, 136 officers were killed while responding to domestic disturbances such as family arguments, FBI data show.
Linda Pope’s husband was a police officer killed in 1997 while delivering a warrant in a domestic violence situation.
And in just the first few months of this year, six officers already have died in domestic violence-related shootings.
Eighty percent of the participants in the 2015 hotline survey who had called police were afraid that if they called again in the future, officers would not believe them or wouldn’t do anything about the violence, the survey reported. A majority of the participants feared that calling law enforcement would make the situation worse, resulting in a slap on the wrist for the abuser and potential negative consequences for the victim.
“I do think that many people measure a survivor’s credibility by whether or not she called the police,” says Julie Goldscheid, professor of law at CUNY Law School in New York. But, she says, it’s important “not to use whether someone called the police as a proxy for whether or not they’re abused.”
A domestic violence survivor could have many reasons for not calling police, including fear of getting arrested themselves if they have a history of drug abuse or sex work, fear of deportation if they are an undocumented immigrant or fear of losing custody of their children, their housing or their job.
From 2006 to 2015, 56% of non-fatal domestic violence incidents were reported to the police, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Police departments across the U.S. have different approaches to combating problems with law enforcement’s response to domestic violence. Some departments emphasize victim services and coalition-building between domestic violence advocates, detectives and prosecutors.
In Indianapolis, Deputy Police Chief Valerie Cunningham says the city’s facility that houses all these services in one location, including a nearby shelter, makes navigating the legal process and potential separation from the abuser more comfortable for victims.
“Is it successful all the time? No. Is it a step forward rather than just having a police report filed, an arrest made and no follow up? Absolutely,” she says.
By Natalie Schreyer, The Fuller Project for International Reporting