Circumstances of Domestic Violence Calls to Police

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Domestic-violence calls to police in the U.S. in 2010 numbered about four million. Based on National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data for 2010, domestic violence incidents know to the police totaled nationally about two million. However, NIBRS tends to under-report relatively minor incidents. Moreover, police calls in which the police officer does not find that an offense has been committed do not support NIBRS reporting. Based on non-NIBRS data on domestic-violence calls to police, about 25% of calls to police for domestic violence result in an arrest. Arrests for domestic violence numbered about a million in 2010. Those statistics imply in 2010 about four million domestic-violence calls to police.

For domestic-violence police calls that are substantiated, NIBRS provides relatively good data on the circumstances. NIBRS incident reports describe injuries to police-identified victims. They also describe whether the reported offender used a weapon. In NIBRS-reported domestic violence arrest incidents in 2010, the reported victim had no injury in 35% of domestic-violence arrests, and “apparent minor injury” in another 60% of domestic-violence arrests. Thus, according to police reports, domestic violence victims had no injuries or only minor injuries in 95% of domestic violence incidents resulting in arrest. In 97% of arrests for domestic violence, the arrestee was unarmed. Domestic violence incidents that result in an arrest are more serious incidents than all domestic violence incidents reported to the police. Among all domestic violence incidents reported to the police, only a few percent involve weapons or serious physical injuries.

Police data reported at the state level also show that most domestic violence incidents involve neither physical injury nor weapons. In California, among roughly 160,00 domestic-violence calls to police per year, 92% involve no non-bodily weapon. Among police-reported domestic violence victimizations in Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, about 90% of victimizations involve no non-bodily weapon, and about 95% involve no physical injury more severe than a minor injury. Domestic violence can mean homicide. However, domestic violence law criminalizes a very broad range of acts. The vast majority of four million domestic violence police calls per year concern acts that would not otherwise be regarded as criminally serious.

Data on circumstances of civil petitions for restraining orders are more sparse. A peer-reviewed study examined all petitions for protection from abuse (petitions for restraining orders) filed in the Gardner District Court in Massachusetts in 1997. These petitions include multiple checkboxes to indicate claims of abuse:

  • Fear: “Placed me in fear of imminent serious physical harm”
  • Attempt harm: “Attempted to cause me physical harm”
  • Harm: “Caused me physical harm”
  • Force Sex: “Caused me to engage in sexual relations by force, threat of force, or duress”

Petitions with only fear checked comprised 41% of all petitions. Petitions with only fear and/or attempt harm checked comprised 64% of petitions. In discursive affidavits accompanying the petitions, the most commonly claimed act of physical aggression was “pushed or shoved.” The most commonly claimed act of psychological aggression was “destroyed something.” In response to this study, the Massachusetts legislature reportedly passed a law restricting study of orders of protection.^ Honolulu restraining-order petitions in 1996 show a similar pattern of relatively mild abuse allegations. Imposing domestic violence emergency law commonly occurs in circumstances not otherwise regarded as indicating an emergency.

Consistent with broad patterns of victimization and criminalization, domestic violence against women has been highly sensationalized, while domestic violence against men has largely been ignored. Some domestic violence incidents are sensationally life-threatening. Life-threatening incidents do not characterized the vast majority of domestic violence incidents that become known to the police. Most persons who commit acts falling within the legal definition of domestic violence are not “batterers.” If an “escalating cycle of violence” accurately characterized the circumstances of four million calls to the police per year, serious injuries from domestic violence would increase enormously over time. “Batterers,” “survivors,” and “cycle of violence” are domestic-violence terms that obscure the characteristics of most incidents of domestic violence. Public misunderstanding of typical circumstances of domestic violence has helped to make domestic violence central to the rise of mass incarceration.

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