Why Police Are So Good at Busting Pot Smokers and So Bad at Keeping Women from Getting Murdered

Law enforcement is allocating more money than ever to domestic violence cases, but they're doing it all wrong.

On February 18, 26-year-old Houston resident Takita Mathieu was shot dead by her ex-boyfriend at her place of work. He attempted, and failed, suicide just after.

The murder, horrendous as it is, was not a surprise. Mathieu had reported her ex’s threats to the police 140 times after she ended the relationship, but police did nothing.  

Tragic stories like this are common throughout America and highlight many of the most despicable features of our law enforcement system. While officers are expert at jailing minorities for possessing marijuana, they rarely seem to muster a sympathetic or helpful response to domestic violence victims when they, their neighbors and loved ones, reach out for help.

Many pundits, feminists among them, have argued that if only police were better-trained and better-funded they would produce “acceptable” responses to this violence. But more money is being allocated to police departments for the purpose of handling domestic violence than ever before, but it’s being shunted toward initiatives that prioritize arrests (including arresting survivors), over healing and protection.

“I think there’s actually a significant amount of money that is allocated for policing domestic and sexual violence because of the Violence against Women Act,” says Alisa Bierra, a member of INCITE! and Free Marissa Now.

“The problem is that survivors are sometimes criminalized through policing supported by those funding sources, as well as policing supported by drug war resources,” says Bierra. “I don’t think the answer is to shift the attention of police from their destructive response in the so-called war on drugs to increasing their destructive response to gender violence.”

As stories like Mathieu’s demonstrate, domestic violence is also more visible than ever before, frequently discussed in public and  in private. However, visibility can sometimes blind us to understanding what is real progress and what is just rhetoric.

Are Domestic Abuse Laws Working?

Domestic violence is typically defined as violence in the home, between or directed at family members, partners, or former partners. Nearly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience domestic violence in their lives. Still, these numbers are an improvement from a decade or two ago. Between 1994 and 2010, the rate of domestic violence in the United States dropped 64%, according to a recent Department of Justice report. A different DoJ report shows that between 2003 and 2012 domestic violence accounted for 21% of “violent victimizations.”

Domestic violence is also one of the most underreported crimes in the country. It’s estimated that a quarter of all physical assaults, one fifth of rapes, and half of stalkings perpetrated by intimate partners against women are reported to police. This number doesn’t include domestic violence perpetrated by family members, former partners and co-inhabitants.

When it comes to domestic abuse, the laws on the books are stronger than they’ve ever been and arrests are way up. Throughout the country, cops are better than ever at making arrests for domestic violence conflicts. In New York City, for example, there’s been a tough crackdown on domestic violence. According to an article published around the same time in the New York Daily News on rising domestic violence rates in NYC public housing, “The NYPD says the steady rise in domestic violence arrests is a key factor in the alarming 31% spike in major crime at city Housing Authority developments over the past five years.”

The biggest push for punitive justice has been mandatory arrest laws. Twenty-three states, including New York, have laws on the books requiring officers to arrest offenders, usually because police have found probable cause to believe that physical abuse is taking place. Written reports are also often required from officers who are called in on domestic violence complaints, but decline to make an arrest.

Laws that require courts to consider a family’s history of domestic violence when making decisions regarding custody and visitation are also on the rise. Law enforcement is receiving more specialized training in how to handle domestic violence complaints and assist victims.

However many of the actual consequences of such policies remain uncertain. Several studies and investigations suggest that mandatory arrests for intimate partner abuse don’t work, or even exacerbate the violence. A recent ABC news segment reported that 70% of domestic violence calls do not result in prosecutions.

Studies have also suggested that arrests are rising because victims, usually women, are being swept up in the carceral craze to get offenders behind bars. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that this legislation (mandatory and preferred arrest in domestic violence cases) raises arrest rates, and that “part of this increase can be attributed to an increase in the arrest rate of females in cases of domestic assault.” The study goes on to conclude that some of the arrested women are single offenders, but many are also being booked as part of a “dual arrest”—cases where police arrest both parties involved in the incident, because they believe both parties are at fault or can’t determine a primary aggressor.

Finally, the most common legal redress for domestic abuse remains some sort of protective order, usually ranging from three months to three years. There’s a huge gap in our understanding of such measures—studies put their efficacy in preventing further assault at anywhere between 15% and 85%. As Rebecca Solnit put it in her 2012 essay "Men Explain Things To Me," “Even getting a restraining order—a fairly new legal tool—requires acquiring the credibility to convince the courts that some guy is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Restraining orders often don’t work anyway.”

Criminalizing Survivors

The burden of these policies, which often prioritize arrest numbers, even if the arrestees are also victims, over substantive support, often falls on women of color who are generally at higher risk for domestic abuse. Black women are three times as likely to be killed by their partners than white women are. Domestic abuse is one of the leading causes of death for black women in America. 

This is due in part to inequality and economic segregation. According to Tonya Lovelace-Davis, CEO of Women of Color Network, Inc “violence is increased within lower-income communities as economics is one of the factors that can cause an increase in power and control responses. Violence is also associated with unemployment and particularly since unemployment is high among black men, there is an increased prospect for IPV [intimate partner violence] occurring.”

Nearly half of all Native American women have been stalked, beaten or raped by an intimate partner. Al Jazeera reported that, “on some reservations, women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.”

Studies suggest that transgender people experience domestic violence at rates well above the national average. A 2011 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study found that nearly a fifth of transgender and gender non-conforming people suffer domestic violence at the hands of a family member. According to a 2012 NGLTF study, transgender survivors were twice as likely to receive threats and intimidation within violent relationships and nearly twice as likely to experience harassment within such relationships.

Dual arrests, mandatory minimums, background checks on domestic violence victims (like those implemented by the NYPD) all work against America’s most vulnerable populations.

“People of color, particularly black people, are less often perceived as activating a lawful ‘self-defense,’” says Lovelace-Davis, “and are most often seen as being either mutually violent or the aggressor. Black women are tagged with this misperception and denial of justice as often if not more than black men, particularly within the context of intimate partner violence.”

The case of Marissa Alexander has crucially underscored ways in which women of color are criminalized for defending themselves against abusers. In 2012 the Florida mother of three was found guilty on three counts of aggravated assault. She received a 20-year sentence, due to mandatory minimum laws, for firing a warning shot in the direction of her estranged ex-husband, Rico Gray, and his two children. Gray has admitted to threatening Alexander’s life in the past. After three years of imprisonment in Jacksonville, Alexander was released in January, and is now serving a two-year sentence under house arrest.  

Studies on the intersection of female incarceration and domestic and violence are few and far between, but here’s what we do know. In New York, 67% of women in jail for murder were abused by the person they killed. A California state prison study found that 93% of surveyed women who had killed their partner had also been abused at their hands, and that 67% indicated that they had killed in an attempt to protect themselves or their children. The United States incarcerates around 201,200 women, one third of the world’s incarcerated female population. In 1970, around the time domestic violence resistance started garnering national attention, 5,600 women were imprisoned.

Alternative to Policing

Ty Black, a community leader from East New York and local hip-hop artist, has seen firsthand the damage that can be done when police respond to domestic violence tips in Brooklyn, specifically in public housing, where police patrol constantly. “They don’t take their time to actually check out and investigate what’s going on,” says Black. “A lot of time these are police that aren’t even from Brooklyn. A lot of time they put rookies in these communities, so they don’t identify with the people who live there.”

Black, in her capacity as an organizer for Justice for Akai Gurley, has been helping residents of the Pink Houses project in East New York resist calling the police. “We need stronger communities instead of so much policing. Because when police come they use excessive force or are insensitive to situation.”

Alisa Bierra also suggested empowering communities to create their own responses to domestic violence, “so that they are not forced to rely on violent systems as a strategy to address the violence in their lives…. relying on police to have a supportive response to survivors of color does not make sense given the ongoing pattern of police brutality against black women, immigrant women, native women, queer women of color, and trans people of color.”

Black says she and fellow organizers are pushing to get more funding from the tenants association.

“Instead of putting that money into the cops,” she says, “put it in these communities that are defunded.”

I asked Black if she thought Pink House residents were generally supportive of handling domestic violence cases within the community. She responded that, “right now they don’t know anything other than the police, they haven’t experienced it. We want to offer them alternatives.”

Hannah K. Gold is a journalist, creative writer and former intern at the Nation. She lives in Brooklyn and blogs here and on Twitter @togglecoat