Cuff 'em?

Do mandatory-arrest laws actually increase domestic violence?

Published August 8, 2007 9:00PM (EDT)

Let's say, God forbid, that you've been assaulted by your partner. Let's say you know for sure that if you call the cops, he or she will be arrested -- and you, at least for now, will be safe. Obviously, you drop a dime.

Or do you? Research by Harvard health policy analyst Radha Iyengar suggests that mandatory-arrest laws for domestic violence incidents, designed to keep victims safe, may be backfiring. They may actually deter victims from reporting assaults -- and may thus only put them in more danger. According to Iyengar's data -- which she discussed in a provocative opinion piece in yesterday's New York Times -- states with mandatory-arrest laws have 50 percent more intimate partner murders than those that do not.

Mandatory (or at least, let's call them, "highly recommended") arrest laws are on the books in 22 states and Washington, D.C.

Why would these laws stop someone from calling the cops? Because of the complex "psychological, emotional and financial ties that often keep victims loyal to their abusers," says Iyengar. "Victims want protection," she writes, "but they do not always want to see their partners put behind bars." They also may fear -- especially if there are kids at home -- that they, too, will be arrested for defending themselves (a problem called "dual arrests").

"It makes no sense," Iyengar concludes, "to keep following a strategy that discourages victims from reporting abuse."

Iyengar's article, as it turns out, got mixed reviews from the domestic violence advocates whom Broadsheet contacted for comment.

The article "does not address the many complexities of domestic violence, arrest policies and domestic violence homicides," Sue Else, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said in an e-mail. "Any conclusion about arrest law or the cause of domestic violence homicides must consider a wide array of factors. The policies and practices of local law enforcement agencies along with the availability of services such as emergency shelter, legal advocacy and affordable housing impact victim safety as much as the existing arrest policies in a community.

"In the past 20 years since mandatory arrest laws were first implemented, the domestic violence community has worked to train law enforcement, judges and prosecutors to create coordinated community responses to domestic violence. This work has been greatly informed by survivors and their own experiences with the criminal justice system, and has helped put an end to violence in homes across the country. But working with the criminal justice system is just one part of the solution. More work needs to be done to ensure that we are able to meet victims' needs for safe, affordable housing, create viable economic opportunities for survivors to support themselves and their children, and change public attitudes so that we can end domestic violence."

Some said they were not 100 percent convinced by Iyengar's data; Lisalyn Jacobs, V.P. for government relations for Legal Momentum, cautioned against confusing cause with correlation, noting as well that there are many reasons victims of crime do not rely on the cops as a recourse. Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, went so far as to charge that Iyengar "implied" that victims should not call the police at all. (I do not see that implication anywhere; on the contrary, Iyengar's argument is, in part, that we need to create conditions that will encourage them to.)

When contacted by Broadsheet, Iyengar said she was aware that some advocates were concerned that her piece could bolster arguments against aggressive law-and-order responses to intimate partner violence.

Still, she said, "it would be a misinterpretation to say we don't want to arrest abusers. We want to arrest abusers. We just have to do it in a way that doesn't put the victim in danger or in fear of calling the police."

In a separate e-mail, she also explained the means by which she did determine a causal link between mandatory-arrest laws and intimate partner homicides. Long story short, it's a method called "differences-in-differences" that compares states both pre- and post- and with and without mandatory-arrest laws, controlling for other factors affecting intimate partner homicides and other types of homicides.

No matter what the particular data, advocates are at least willing to say that mandatory-arrest laws are not perfect. "I do think that mandatory-arrest laws have created a lot of problems that we either weren't anticipating or failed to see," Rita Smith told Broadsheet. They have certainly had "unintended consequences," added Lisalyn Jacobs, among them the problem of "dual arrests." When the Violence Against Women Act was authorized in 1994, she says, a lot of money flowed to the states to train law enforcement to (among other things) make accurate on-the-scene calls about who was perp and who was victim. Newer, untrained officers, she says, may be more likely to throw up their hands and cuff 'em all. Knowing that could happen, she says, could certainly deter reporting.

Iyengar does agree that law enforcement is only part of the picture. She, like the others, says that what we need is a punitive system with even sharper teeth -- protective orders that work, sentences that stick -- along with expanded and improved services for victims, which (for one thing) could help lower resistance to reporting in the first place.

Overall, it's clear that this discussion is part of a long, ongoing process. It wasn't that long ago, of course, that this whole ugly business was considered a family matter, not a crime. Now that we have the relative luxury of processing the particulars, this -- when it comes to domestic violence -- strikes me as the healthiest kind of dispute.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

MORE FROM Lynn Harris

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Health Love And Sex