Understanding police response to domestic violence is critical as police are central to our societal response to domestic violence and are often the first point of contact survivors/victims have with the criminal legal system when seeking safety. As police officers have discretion and use professional judgement in their response to domestic violence, the purpose of this research is to understand factors that impact their to make an arrest in these cases. Specifically, this analysis focuses on aspects of a domestic violence incident and officer perceptions, and their influence on the decision to arrest.
This cross-sectional study included sworn police officers from multiple police departments attending 18 purposively sampled training courses. The sample included 225 domestic violence incidents to which officers recently responded. Through a self-administered questionnaire information about the involved parties, circumstances of the incident, their perceptions about the situation, and officer demographics were collected. Logistic regression was used to analyze the relationship between specific incident factors and officer perceptions and the decision to make an arrest or not.
The results of the logistic regression analysis indicate that both incident characteristics and officer perceptions influence the decision to make an arrest. The odds of an arrest of the perpetrator increased when there was an injury to the victim (OR = 5.72 , p < .001) or to the suspected perpetrator (OR = 7.46 , p < .05). Additionally, the victim signing a complaint against the perpetrator increased the odds of arrest (OR = 36.05 , p < .001), as did a neighbor calling 911 relative to other callers (OR = 18.68 , p < .001). The odds of the arrest of the perpetrator decreased when the victim was female relative to male (OR = .22, p < .01). Two officer perceptions were significant predictors of arrest. For every unit increase in officer ratings of the likelihood/risk of future violence, the odds of arrest increased (OR = 1.76, p < .01). Finally, for every unit increase in officer ratings of the demeanor of the victim (indicating a more resistant demeanor), the odds of arrest of the suspected perpetrator decreased (OR = .52, p < .05).
Conclusions and Implications
Overall, these results demonstrate that officers rely on evidence of a crime (injury to the victim or perpetrator), factors that support making a “good case” (victim signing a complaint or a neighbor, as a witness, calling 911), their own perceptions (ratings of risk of future violence and victim demeanor), and the “extralegal” or non-evidentiary factor of victim sex in making decisions to arrest. This study provides context for understanding the complexity of arrest decisions in domestic violence cases. An opportunity for future research is to look specifically at how non-evidentiary factors and bias, such as officer perceptions and victim gender influence arrest, which have implications for policing policy and practice. Domestic violence is an imperative social justice issue and evaluating system responses is essential, as is the need to work to ameliorate any negative impact on survivors with whom we work.