Who Watches the Watchers: Domestic Violence and Law Enforcement (National Sexual Violence Resource Center)

The messaging of most anti-violence organizations includes some variation on the following: “If you are in immediate danger, call 911.”  Embedded in directing a victim of violence to call 911 is a key assumption—that law enforcement will make that person safer.  But the headlines regularly feature stories of law enforcement officers accused of abuse: of their own partners, the victims they’re supposed to be helping, and incarcerated survivors of violence. 

         On December 29, 2022 in Florida, Cocoa police officer Patrick Kelly was charged with aggravated assault after threatening his girlfriend (also a police officer) with a gun.  This wasn’t Kelly’s first arrest for domestic violence.  In 2017, Kelly was charged with felony domestic violence battery.  Kelly admitted to strangling his girlfriend during an argument but was permitted to remain on the police force after the charges were dropped.

         In November 2022, New Orleans Police Department officer Rodney Vicknair pled guilty to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old sexual assault victim he met while escorting her to the hospital for a forensic exam. Between May and September in 2020, Vicknair repeatedly phoned and texted the victim and made unscheduled visits to her home. In September 2020, Vicknair locked the victim into his car and sexually assaulted her again.

         Ray Garcia, the former warden at the federal correctional institution in Dublin, California, was found guilty in December 2022 of eight counts of sexually abusing incarcerated women.  Garcia sexually assaulted at least three women, ordered incarcerated women to strip for him, and kept pictures of the women on his phone. The prison’s chaplain, James Highhouse, also took part in the Dublin “rape club.

         These three examples are the tip of the iceberg. Although the studies are dated, research has found that police officers are more likely to abuse their intimate partners than other people.  Activist and scholar Andrea Ritchie’s book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color documents numerous incidents of police victimizing people who turn to them for help. Sexual abuse similar to the that found in the Dublin facility runs rampant in the prison system; a recent report documented sexual abuse of women in at least 19 of the 29 federal prisons where women were housed between 2012 and 2022.  Abuse of both victims seeking out services and incarcerated people by law enforcement disproportionately affects low-income women of color, who are more likely to be targeted by police and to be in penal facilities.

         Why are acts of sexual and intimate partner violence so prevalent among law enforcement? In my 2015 article Hands Up At Home: Militarized Masculinity and Police Officers Who Commit Intimate Partner Abuse, I argued that law enforcement cultivates a culture of militarized masculinity which attracts combative personalities with a propensity towards violence. Moreover, law enforcement officers are taught to dominate, to be in control at all times, and to punish anything they perceive as disrespect to preserve their authority. The same traits that make someone “effective” as a police or correctional officer make them more likely to use violence against their partners, the victims of violence they were sworn to protect, and the incarcerated people whose care is entrusted to them.

         Yet we continue to rely on the criminal legal system as our primary response to intimate partner and sexual violence, with law enforcement characterized as “protectors rather than…perpetrators of violence against women.” We train officers to be particularly skilled abusers, teaching them to intimidate, to obtain information through interrogation and surveillance, and use force without causing visible injury. We encourage community-based anti-violence agencies to partner with law enforcement, effectively rendering their services inaccessible to those whose partners or perpetrators are police officers. We incarcerate survivors of gender-based violence and leave them vulnerable to further trauma at the hands of law enforcement. None of that will change so long as the criminal legal system flourishes.

         Abolition feminism offers an alternative. Abolition feminism is, quite simply, “feminism that opposes, rather than legitimates, oppressive state systems” like policing and prisons.  Abolition feminists like Angela Davis, Beth Ritchie, and Mariame Kaba have characterized abolition as a form of anti-violence work; for these thinkers, it is impossible to be an anti-violence feminist without also being an abolition feminist.

         Abolition is a long-term project. However, there are steps that we can take along the way to create greater safety and support for victims of officer-involved gender-based violence.  We can have conversations about shifting resources away from status quo systems and how to turn those into preventative services. We can empower non-carceral first responders to address victims’ needs and escort them safely to hospitals or other forms of care. We can build and support community-based transformative justice projects that empower communities to intervene in the aftermath of violence in order to establish accountability without relying on police. We can examine laws like the Violence Against Women Act to reconsider how they require or incentivize anti-violence agencies to collaborate with police. 

         For every case of law enforcement gender-based violence that becomes public, there are hundreds that we never hear about. Law enforcement officers are part of a structure that gives rise to and fosters violence. The problem is not simply one of “bad apples”; law enforcement sits in a deeply racist, sexist, and violent culture. Criminalization cannot be an effective response to gender-based violence when those policing the crime and those committing it are often one and the same.

 Community-Based Response to Intimate Partner Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic (from Harvard Law Petrie Flom Center's Bill of Health)

Intimate partner violence has been called “a pandemic within the pandemic.”

study of fourteen American cities found that the number of domestic violence calls to law enforcement rose 9.7% in March and April 2020, compared to the previous year. A hospital-based study spanning the same time period found significant increases in the number of people treated for injuries related to intimate partner violence. And a 2021 review of 18 studies relying on data from police, domestic violence hotlines, and health care providers found that reports of intimate partner violence increased 8% after lockdown orders were imposed.

Although almost half of people subjected to abuse never call the state for assistance, our responses to intimate partner violence are largely embedded within the state and rely heavily on law enforcement. A disproportionate amount of funding under the Violence Against Women Act — by one estimate, 85% — is directed to the criminal legal system. A growing number of activists skeptical of state intervention are arguing that responses beyond the carceral state are essential.

The pandemic showed that community-based supports, like pod mapping, mutual aid, and community accountability, originally developed by activists critical of law enforcement responses to violence, can foster safety and accountability without requiring state intervention. The pandemic could spur advocates seeking to distance themselves from state-based responses to expand their services.

Putting aside the question of exactly what increased — violence, or reporting of violence — there are several reasons why intimate partner violence might have risen during the pandemic. Some are fairly obvious: being forced to quarantine with an abusive partner, isolation from sources of support, and the stress of caring for children were widely cited as causes.

But advocates have called for increasing the focus on the other correlates of intimate partner violence that may be responsible. Economic stress, for example, is linked with the perpetration of intimate partner violence, and the pandemic has caused substantial economic stress, particularly for those who were already struggling. With workplaces shuttered, unemployment jumped in the early part of the pandemic. Low-wage workers experienced the most job loss.

One piece of evidence supporting the economic stress theory: intimate partner violence decreased temporarily in mid-April 2020, after the first stimulus checks were issued. Even as the economy has begun to rebound, significant numbers of adults are still reporting economic hardship — insufficient food, inability to pay for housing, and difficulty covering expenses — which is likely contributing to the continued elevation in reported violence.

Trauma may also be responsible. Trauma and the perpetration of intimate partner violence are correlated. Living under the existential threat of being infected with a life-threatening illness, actually contracting COVID-19, and experiencing the illness and death of loved ones are all sources of trauma that could be contributing to increases in violence.

The pandemic limited the options for addressing intimate partner violence. Calling a hotline or searching for information on the internet became exponentially more difficult when sharing space with abusive partners. Many shelters and service providers were shuttered for close to a year, if not longer. Providing off-site housing in hotels strained organizations’ already tight budgets. People feared contracting the virus if they sought medical attention from hospitals and medical centers, and treatment was not always available in emergency rooms overrun with COVID patients.

The pandemic also forced some people to reconsider calling law enforcement as a first response. With the virus rampant in jails and prisons, calling the police to stop violence became a much more complicated decision. For some, concerns about their partner’s well-being may have caused them to pause before dialing 911; for others, the knowledge that their partners could be exposed to COVID during the booking process and then bring the virus back to their homes — regardless of court orders requiring them to stay away from their victims — was a concern.

But the pandemic also fostered practices that could hold enormous promise for the way that we approach intimate partner violence in the “after times.” For too long, organizations have struggled with the question of what to do for people who wanted to maintain their relationships with their partners — who weren’t interested in leaving. Being forced to help people develop safety plans for sheltering in place could provide a new way of thinking about how to meet the needs of those who stay.

And, like COVID-19, the best way to prevent violence is to immunize against it. Focusing on prevention and attacking the correlates of violence — like unemployment, financial strain, and trauma — rather than relying on ineffective, after-the-fact law enforcement interventions, is the best way to stem the pandemic of violence.

How Representing Victims of Domestic Violence Turned Me Into a Prison Abolitionist

If you had told me 25 years ago that I would eventually call myself a prison abolitionist, I would have called you crazy.

In 1995, I was a brand-new lawyer representing victims of domestic violence.  I was convinced that all people who used violence were monsters and that swift and harsh intervention by the criminal legal system was essential to stop that violence. 

My clients quickly taught me to look at domestic violence in a much more nuanced way.  They reminded me that they loved their partners, that they were co-parenting with their partners, that they didn’t always (or even often) benefit from the criminal legal system’s intervention. 

The more I represented people subjected to abuse in court, the more I came to doubt how effective those interventions were.

In 2018, I published a book called Decriminalizing Domestic Violence (a title certain to prompt responses ranging from curiosity to distress to outrage).  By then, I had amassed enough evidence to make a serious case that the criminal legal system wasn’t deterring or lowering rates of intimate partner violence. Instead, I found that it was exacerbating the conditions that led to intimate partner violence, and that it had serious unintended consequences for the people it was meant to benefit.  I had studied how that system harmed different groups of people, particularly people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, the partners of police officers, and women who fought back against their abusive partners.  I had thought about how the anti-violence movement’s choices about law and policy bolstered the system and how we could spend policy dollars differently. 

And yet, when I got to the end of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, I wavered.  Although I argued that “[o]ne could make a credible, even strong, case for decriminalizing intimate partner violence,” I concluded that “complete decriminalization of intimate partner violence is unlikely, and probably unwise,” citing the lack of support for such a move, the role that criminalization continues to play for some people subjected to abuse, and the symbolic value

of the criminal law.  I went on to offer reforms to the carceral system that I argued could make it more just and less likely to create the kind of trauma that spurs intimate partner violence when incarcerated people return to their communities and relationships.

Over the last two years, I’ve talked about this book hundreds of times.  But the backdrop for that conversation has changed.  The continued police killings of Black people have brought #DefundthePolice and abolitionism to the fore in ways that are different for those of us not previously steeped in it.  Over those two years, I read.  I learned from people like Angela DavisBeth RichieMariame Kaba, and Andrea Ritchie, who have been doing abolitionist feminist work for decades, as well as from newer voices I encountered on Twitter and in other spaces.  And I represented victims of violence imprisoned for acts related to their own abuse, which has profoundly changed my perspective.

I am proud of the book that I wrote.  Its thesis—that the criminal legal system is not an effective response to intimate partner violence—is sound, and I believe deeply in the alternatives that I explore.  But I would end the book very differently now.  I would argue that the criminal legal system serves no useful purpose in addressing intimate partner violence.  I would acknowledge that victims of violence continue to be invested in using that system—in part, because it is the only justice that we offer them.  I would contend that justice can be so much more than retribution and suggest that we explore what justice really means to people subjected to abuse so that we can deliver the justice that they need.  And I would conclude that whatever benefits one might argue result from criminal system intervention can be replicated and provided outside of that system, and that “reform” simply means allowing an unjust, ineffective, destructive system to continue to harm those it is meant to help. 

Violence will never solve the problem of violence.

The question frequently asked in response to calls to defund the police is “what about gender-based violence?”  Many people are recommending my book in response to that question, and I appreciate that.  But I also know that the book has been disappointing for those who came to abolitionism before I did because at the very end, it fails to follow through on the argument it has been making all along.

I hate that one part of my book does not reflect my commitment to non-carceral solutions to intimate partner violence and to abolition more generally.  But many, maybe most, of us didn’t start out as abolitionists.  We have the capacity to change how we see this problem, and, more broadly, how we see the world.  I’m excited about the conversations I’m having about the book now and hopeful that it can play a role in the change that is coming to our communities.