Police and prosecutors' domestic violence strategy puts burden on victims, not abusers

By focusing on what survivors should or shouldn’t do, we're blaming them for their own abuse and placing the onus for justice on them. There's a better way.
Image: Portrait of a man with half of his face hidden in shadow.
Outsiders looking in at cases of domestic abuse don’t understand that victims who call the police often do so to stop the violence, not necessarily to end the relationship. Vitaliy Piltser / Getty Images

“Why do they stay?” That’s usually one of the first questions asked when someone in a romantic relationship is abused. The expectation is that the victim should immediately call the police, take out a restraining order and leave the abuser.

We don’t ask store owners who’ve been robbed at gunpoint why they chose that line of work, or why their store didn’t have a high-end security system; we go after the robber.

But by focusing on the victims and what they should or shouldn’t do, we are essentially blaming them for their own abuse and placing the burden of a solution squarely on their already overburdened shoulders.

Instead, we should be asking: “Why should an abuse survivor be forced to give up their whole life, past and present, to be safe?” It’s currently National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and one of the best things we as a society can do to raise awareness is to become aware ourselves how our flawed thinking about this scourge — and the way that informs how we approach it — contributes to its perpetuation.

Right now, outsiders looking in at cases of domestic abuse don’t understand that victims who call the police often do so to stop the violence, not necessarily to end the relationship. And, in part, because engaging with law enforcement can be so stressful and traumatic, they often don’t call at all — in fact, less than half of intimate partner violence is reported to law enforcement. As a result, abusers often don’t fear consequences for their behavior, and the system unwittingly allows the violence to continue.

Abusers can also believe that they are beyond the reach of the law and therefore have done nothing wrong because the prosecution’s case is often built on the consistency of victims’ statement about the incidents and their willingness to testify, as additional evidence frequently isn’t collected. Abusers essentially are taught that intimate partner violence will be ignored by police and prosecutors if the victims change their mind.

So, though it isn’t up to the victim to decide whether or not a prosecutor’s office will “press charges,” the victim’s unwillingness to cooperate often makes the difference between charges being filed or the abuser returning home. This puts a further undue burden on the victim for justice to be done — a burden that should be put squarely on the state.

There’s a better way: When someone whose name we know is abusing someone else whose name we know, we should make the abuser stop.

We don’t ask store owners who’ve been robbed at gunpoint why they chose that line of work, or why their store didn’t have a high-end security system; we go after the robber. Criminal justice authorities and communities must do the same in domestic violence cases.

First, they need to communicate to perpetrators that abusive or violent behavior is absolutely unacceptable and carries serious repercussions — and then actually follow through in holding them accountable when they refuse to stop.

Research demonstrates that offenders are more likely to be deterred from offending behavior if they know they'll be held accountable, and research also shows that the best deterrent isn’t a harsh sentence, but the certainty that there will be any sanction at all. This “deterrent effect” has been studied for hundreds of years, with leading scholars concluding that the certainty of punishment is more consistent and convincing in stopping someone from committing a crime than the punishment itself.

At the National Network for Safe Communities, we have developed an Intimate Partner Violence Intervention program that does exactly this, focusing on offender accountability. We based this on similar approaches we developed that have produced dramatic results with gang violence, gun violence and drug markets.

The intervention is a partnership among law enforcement, victim advocates, community members and social service providers through which police and prosecutors clearly communicate to the abuser that intimate partner violence is violence, and violence won’t be tolerated in their community. The intervention identifies serious and dangerous abusers and stops them by any legal means available, while communicating directly to less serious abusers what will happen if they continue their behavior.

The authorities also make a genuine offer of help and tell the abuser to stop hurting the victim, and advise how they will hold the abuser accountable even without the cooperation of the survivor if the abuse continues. That might mean prosecutors proceeding with a victimless prosecution, or asking a court for community supervision or monitoring.

The survivor is given the same information and connected to victim advocates who reinforce the message that the abuser is the one responsible, not them, and that they do not need to “press charges” or do anything they don’t want to do. Working with a counselor to create a personalized plan for staying safe while living with abuse becomes the focus, so the survivors can make the choices that make the most sense for them.

Not only do abusers understand they can no longer intimidate their way with impunity, but criminal justice participants also give them a serious offer of help: Mental health, drug addiction and education programs are among the possible interventions, which provide both practical assistance and lets perpetrators know that the community is there to support them in breaking the cycle of violence.

Not only do abusers understand they can no longer intimidate their way with impunity, but criminal justice participants also give them a serious offer of help.

A 2016 evaluation of the pilot implementation of our program in High Point, North Carolina, found dramatic reductions in intimate partner homicides, repeat offending and injuries. Homicides dropped to zero in the first year of implementation; in the seven years prior, there had been 18. Arrests and calls to police dropped by 20 percent, while abusers re-offended at a quarter of the rate of which other interventions have shown.

As we uplift survivor narratives and honor those who work to keep victims safe during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we must also take steps to ensure that abuser accountability becomes normal, institutional and certain. As long as abusers believe they’ll be able to get away with intimate partner violence, the violence will continue. But it doesn’t have to be that way.