If We Want Women to Report Domestic Violence, We Need Different Cops

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Why you should care

Who is on the other end of the 911 call matters.

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The No. 1 reason people in the United States call the police is domestic violence. Depending on the region, such abuses make up 15 to 50 percent of 911 calls on top of the estimated 20,000 calls per day to domestic violence hotlines.

It should be more. Despite the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which put federal muscle behind getting police departments to change the way they respond to intimate partner crime calls, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, just one-quarter of physical assaults, one-fifth of rapes and half of the stalkings perpetrated against women by their partners are even reported. But there might be a straightforward way to change that.

The more female officers there are on a police force, the more domestic violence reporting goes up.

The international study, which surveyed U.S. police force numbers between the late 1970s and early ’90s, found that a 7 percent increase in female officers saw a nearly 14 percent increase in domestic violence reporting. Furthermore, for every percentage point increase in female officers, women’s reporting of crimes, in general, went up by a percentage point. “It shows you the effectiveness of women police officers intervening in this cycle of violence,” says Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which studies the issue through its research arm, the National Center for Women and Policing.

Studies show female police officers are “proven to be more responsive and to take more seriously these [domestic violence] reports as they come in,” says Spillar. Yet, statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that women make up only 12 percent of local police forces, an increase of just 4 percentage points over 26 years. State police numbers are even lower, at 6 percent.

Studies in Britain, Argentina, Brazil and India echo the impact. And, to intervene in the cycle of abuse, a number of countries have invested in all-female police units or stations at a local level, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Kosovo, Liberia, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Uruguay.

A March 2019 report to the United Nations demonstrated the effectiveness of women’s police stations in Argentina. In areas where these exist — and where they’re staffed with lawyers, social workers, psychologists and child care providers — homicides of 19- to 24-year-old women dropped by 50 percent.

In India, “people who work in these [all-female] stations typically receive training to deal with gender-based violence, which is quite different than dealing with other forms of crimes,” says Sofia Amaral, who studies gender-related violence in India, England and Mozambique through the Center for Labor and Demographic Economics at the University of Munich. India opened its first all-female police station in 1974, and now has 479 of them. Eighty-eight percent of domestic violence reports are made at these stations.

Despite the all-female police units, there remains a global domestic violence problem. Nishith Prakash, a development economist at the University of Connecticut and one of the co-authors of the India study, blames societal norms that are taught early. “As a policymaker, you can say, Let’s hire 200,000 women in the police. But that doesn’t solve the deeper problem because, fundamentally, this is about changing the attitudes of men — for example, specifically training them about what’s right and what’s wrong in this context,” says Prakash. “I feel that the best way to change these gender-specific norms is to address it at an early age.”

While Spillar agrees that changing male behavior is important, she believes it’s more complicated than either-or. “There is widespread evidence that women officers are more diligent and effective at enforcing the laws,” she says. “Additionally, women officers change the perceived power dynamics and gender stereotypes, which facilitate changes in male behavior.” Yet, Spillar and others involved in researching women in policing in the U.S. know of no programs or proposals to create women-focused police forces. She doesn’t expect a population or culture change in U.S. police departments until the Justice Department demands it, pointing out that even police tests favor traditional male physicality — and thus keep women out of the field.

Furthermore, there’s a problem within police departments themselves. When self-reporting their own behavior, 40 percent of male U.S. police officers admit to using violence at home, according to two different studies from the mid-1990s. Spillar says her foundation has tried for years to conduct new, comprehensive studies, but has been rebuffed. In non-police families, the reported domestic violence rate is just 10 percent. And it doesn’t stop there: The Citizens Police Data Project shows police officers in Chicago who have been accused of domestic violence are more likely to be named in a lawsuit for use of excessive force while policing. The 1991 Christopher Commission report that looked into excessive force used by the Los Angeles Police Department uncovered radio text transmissions of police officers responding to 911 calls for domestic violence — which, Spillar says, included reports of male officers “saying things like, ‘I’ve had it, I’ll just beat her up myself.’”

“So, when a woman is calling 911,” Spillar says, “there’s a roughly 1 in 2 chance the responding police officer has used violence in an interpersonal relationship.”

If you are in crisis, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or www.TheHotline.org.

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