Police Family Violence Services Research Paper

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In recent years a number of programs have been developed in which the initial police response to a family violence incident is followed by a visit from a trained team of officers or by an officer and a social worker. These “second responders” attempt to help victims find long-term solutions to recurring abuse (e.g. see Dean et al. 2000; Mickish 2002).

Second responder programs are based on the premises that family violence often recurs and that victims are likely to be especially receptive to crime prevention opportunities immediately following victimization. That is, there is a “window of opportunity” during the first hours or days after a crime during which victims feel vulnerable and are willing to seriously consider behavioral and lifestyle changes (Davis and Smith 1994; Anderson et al. 1995). The response often takes the form of a home visit but other times consist of a phone call to the victim. The team provides the victim with information on services and legal options and (in some models) may warn those perpetrators present at the follow-up of the legal consequences of continued abuse. The purpose of working directly with the victims is to reduce the likelihood of a new offense by helping them to understand the cyclical nature of family violence, develop a safety plan, obtain a restraining order, increase their knowledge about legal rights and options, and provide shelter placement or other relocation assistance. A secondary aim of the intervention with victims may be to establish greater independence for victims through counseling, job training, public assistance, or other social service referrals. The purpose of conversations with abusers is to ensure that they understand that assaulting an intimate is criminal and that further abuse will result in (additional) sanctions.

Key Issues

History Of Family Violence Officers

The role of police family violence services has evolved over time. Prior to the 1970s, law enforcement’s response to family violence was significantly limited. Departments rarely contained specialized teams to respond to incidents of family violence. Responses by general patrol to family violence incidents were often slow or nonexistent (Ford 1983; Manning 1988). When police did respond to service calls, departmental policies often dictated that officers should only attempt to diffuse the immediate situation and subsequently refer the individuals to social service agencies; arrests of the perpetrator were rarely made and follow-ups to the initial call for service were rarely conducted (Hutchison et al. 1996; Parnas 1967). This lack of attention to family violence issues by law enforcement reflected both societal beliefs about family violence and traditional law enforcement culture. Family disputes were commonly viewed as private affairs, and it was believed that police’s role in handling family disputes should be one of mediators and references to social services (Breslin 1978). As such, police officers often viewed responses to domestic disputes as not “real” police work (Buzawa and Buzawa 2003). Surveys of police officers’ attitudes toward domestic violence, specifically, showed that police believed arrests to be futile because victims would rarely follow through to press charges and that arresting the male head of household would negatively impact the family as a whole. Police also endorsed the commonly held but incorrect belief that responses to domestic disputes placed the officer in greater danger compared to other calls (Buzawa and Buzawa 2003). As a result, law enforcement devoted little attention to family violence issues; even less attention and resources was devoted to taking actions that reduced further incidents of violence.

The law enforcement response to family violence began to become significantly more proactive in the 1970s and 1980s. Several events were catalyst for the change. First, victim’s rights advocacy groups and feminist groups began to challenge the police’s lack of forceful responses to domestic disputes and their failure to protect female victims of domestic violence (Buzawa and Buzawa 2003). Second, a series of legal cases in the 1970s and 1980s ruled that police departments could be held liable and face financial penalties if they failed to protect victims of family violence (Bruno v Codd 1977; Tracey Thurman et al. 1984). Finally, empirical research around this same time began to demonstrate that the actions taken by police had the potential to reduce incidents of family violence.

One of the most influential empirical studies of police response to incidents of family violence was an evaluation of police departments that employed violence family crisis intervention units (FCIU’s) (Bard 1975). Originally developed by psychologists, officers in this program received training in mediating and diffusing domestic disputes. While the officers still responded to all calls for service, they were specifically called in to handle family violence calls. The National Institute of Justice sponsored a training and demonstration program that employed 10 family crisis intervention units in police departments across the country. The evaluation of these programs reported some positive effects of FCIU’s, including decreases in arrests and officer injuries (Bard 1975). Although this evaluation also found that calls for service to family violence incidents increased, this finding was explained as evidence of the FCIU’s increasing victims’ faith in the ability of the police to effectively handle incidents of family violence. As a result of the reported success of these programs, many major US police departments began adopting either FCIU’s or specialized units comprised of law enforcement and social service workers (Liebman and Schwartz 1973). Often funded with federal funds, these officers were specially trained in handling victim needs and problems and in keeping themselves safe during home visits. However, responses to FCIU’s were not all positive. Liebman and Schwartz (1973) reported that New York City’s highly praised FCIU’s program had resulted in increased homicides and domestic disputes. Critical research findings, coupled with strategic difficulties in implementing specialized units, led many departments to completely cut or severely limit the role of family violence response units.

In the 1980s, police departments shifted focus from specialized family violence policing services to arrest and punishment of those individuals that perpetrate family violence. Several research studies were major forces in changing the manner in which police responded to family violence. The most prominent of these studies was an experimental evaluation of police responses to domestic violence conducted in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Sherman and Berk 1984). In this study, police who responded to domestic violence calls were randomly assigned to handle the dispute in one of three ways: (1) separate the parties (2) mediate the dispute (3) make an arrest. The researchers reported that making an arrest resulted in significantly fewer further domestic disputes between the couple. Although the study received some criticism from the scientific community (Binder and Meeker 1988; Lempert 1989), the results from this experiment were highly publicized and spurred mandatory arrest laws in many jurisdictions and arrest oriented policies in police departments across the country. This focus on deterring future violent behavior through arrest took precedent over employing specialized family violence units or secondary responder programs.

Although the criminal justice system has been largely focused on reducing repeated incidents of family violence through arrest and prosecution, in recent years there has been recognition that these policies may not be enough to effectively address and reduce incidents of family violence. Research studies have not always reported positive effects for pro-arrest policies (Dunford et al. 1990; Hirschel et al. 1992). In addition, despite a strong emphasis on pro-arrest policies, prior research reports a high chance of revictimization for victims of domestic violence, particularly immediately after the original incident of abuse (Lloyd et al. 1994). This research raised recognition that more needed to be done to assist and empower victims of family violence. As a result, a growing number of police departments began to adopt or re-adopt specialized family violence service units that provide secondary responses to victims following the initial call for service. Although the total number of such programs is not known, we do know a number of specialized programs across the United States and Great Britain have been implemented and evaluated. The research examining the effects of these specific programs will be discussed later in this research paper.

In recent years, law enforcement has also become increasingly aware of the need for specific units to address a special type of family violence, elder abuse. Traditionally, elder abuse was not considered a serious criminal problem. Law enforcement officers did not often receive specialized training to handle reports of elder abuse, and departments rarely seriously pursued elder abuse cases (Plotkin 1988). Recent research has demonstrated that incidents of elder abuse are much more prevalent than previously believed (Tatara et al. 1997). As a result, a growing number of departments have established specialized units to handle cases of elder abuse (Heisler 2000). Because cases of elder abuse are often complex, specialized law enforcement often coordinates with local prosecutors and social service agencies to investigate reports of elder abuse and work with the victims.

Training Of Family Violence Officers

Historically, police officers have received very minimal training about how to handle calls to incidents of family violence. A survey of law enforcement’s training practices during the 1970s revealed that most often police officers received a limited amount of training on handling family violence during a half-day to 1 day training on responding to calls with disturbed individuals (Buzawa and Buzawa 2003). This module of training addressed a variety of situations and didn’t solely focus on handling family disputes. Many of the training programs also simply reinforced the idea that police officers should only play a minimal role in handling incidents of family violence. Once on the job, officers rarely received continued training on handling family violence. The most common method of educating young officers came through observations of more experienced officers’ responses to incidents of family violence.

Today, more structured training programs focusing on intervention strategies, arrest policies, and attitudes toward domestic/family violence are in existence. The International Chiefs of Police and other national organizations have produced recommended requirements for domestic violence training, and an increasing number of states are requiring their law enforcement officers to receive family violence training (Miller 1997). Although officer training on domestic violence may be more detailed, the amount of training officers typically received has not significantly increased. One survey found that on average officers receive 10 h of initial domestic violence training. Once in the field, most officers are not required to shadow officers who are experienced in handling family violence, and the quality of on-going training programs can vary significantly, from short videos to in-class trainings with role playing activities (Buzawa and Buzawa 2003). A growing number of states are also requiring officers to receiving training on elder abuse (Heisler 2000). Although national organizations such as the Police Executive Forum have distributed recommended practices for training officer on elder abuse, little information exists on the training practices of specific departments. Little information also exists on the typical methods used to train individuals within any specialized family violence or secondary responder units. Because there are not standardized methods for operating specialized family violence service units, methods of training these team members vary by department.

Functions Of Domestic Violence Officers

Redlands, CA Police Department had a robust domestic violence officer program that was the subject of an NIJ-funded evaluation. Consequently, detailed information on what these officers did are contained in the evaluation report. The following description of the functions of family violence officers draws heavily on the report by Davis et al. (2010).

In Redlands, a team of officers, including a trained female domestic violence detective, attempted to visit households within either 24 h or 7 days of a domestic complaint depending on the severity of the incident. According to the officers conducting the second responses, contact was made with the victims at their homes in 84 % of the cases in which it was attempted. In cases where the home visit attempt was not successful, literature was left with information about community services.

The visits typically lasted 30–45 min, depending on the victim’s receptiveness to assistance. The goals of home visits were to ensure that the victim had information about and access to resources and services, to answer any questions they had about the complaint or the justice process, and to encourage a sense of trust in the police and the criminal justice system as a whole.

A written protocol guided the officer or officers making home visits. The visits began by the officer talking to the victim about the recent incident and any immediate safety concerns that she had. The officer discussed with the victim the nature of domestic violence and the very real possibility that the incident she experienced would recur if no action was taken. The officer tried to make the victim understand that the police department took the matter seriously and was there to assist her. She also asked the victim a series of questions about her relationship with the abuser, history of abuse, and the presence of children and weapons in the home.

Once preliminaries were taken care of, the second response officer tried to ensure that the victim had information about resources and services; offered practical assistance; worked with the victim to develop a safety plan; and instructed the victim in how to document future abusive or stalking behaviors. Before leaving, the officer provided the victim with a written description of local resources to assist domestic violence victims, including housing relocation, counseling, domestic violence shelters, medical help, civil legal assistance, information about the criminal justice process, aid in applying for an order of relief, and emergency financial assistance. Referrals were most often made to counseling programs or parenting classes; smaller numbers of victims were referred to shelters, civil legal assistance, assistance in obtaining a restraining order, and district attorney victim advocates.

One concern about conducting second response visits was that the visit might trigger anger in the perpetrator. To avoid this, there was an intentional practice to call ahead to make sure perpetrators were not present when the officers came to the home. However, since officers were not always able to reach victims by phone ahead of time, there were some instances in which the perpetrator was there when the officers arrived. While partners were home during just a handful of visits, nearly half (46 %) of victims said in subsequent interviews that their partners were aware that the visit occurred. Of these, approximately one in four (28 %) reported that their partner had a negative reaction to the visit.

The Chicago Police Department has a similar second responder program for victims of elder abuse. Each Chicago police district has a designated elder abuse officer whose job it is to provide services to those victims. During the course of their home visits, the elder abuse officers ensure that victims’ medical and physical needs (food and shelter) are being met. When they are not, officers arrange for temporary shelter. They make referrals to social service programs, including counseling, independent living services, Meals on Wheels, and programs for Alzheimer’s patients. Officers also enroll victims in emergency identification bracelet program so police responding to future incidents can quickly grasp history and information on victim, assist victims in completing forms to receive state compensation, and provide assistance getting to court. Finally, a report is made to adult protective services.


There have been a number of high quality evaluations of second responder programs yielding conflicting results. Several randomized field trials of second responder programs were conducted in New York City public housing projects. Each tested the same intervention model: persons who reported family violence to the police were randomly assigned to receive or not to receive a follow-up visit from a domestic violence police officer and a social worker. This follow-up visit was not immediate, as is the case with most second responder programs, but occurred an average of 2 weeks later.

The sample for one of the studies (Davis and Taylor 1997) included instances where someone had called the police in response to a family violence incident (this could be violence between romantic intimates, sibling violence, elder abuse, or other forms of violence between persons related or living under the same roof). The incidents were minor in nature (only 7 % of the incidents resulted in arrests and just 14 % of victims reported any form of injury). Four hundred and thirty-five victims were randomly assigned to receive a home visit as a follow-up to the patrol response. The control group received only the initial police patrol response. Additional calls for police services were tracked for both groups over the next 6 months. At the end of the tracking period, researchers interviewed victims to ask about new abuse, about satisfaction with the police response, and about victims’ knowledge and use of social services.

According to law enforcement records, households that received the home visit intervention were more likely to call the police during the subsequent 6 months than households that did not receive the interventions. Yet, according to victim survey data, there were no differences between the two groups in abuse during the 6 months following the trigger incident. In the literature on the effectiveness of arrest on curbing violence, victim reports and calls to the police usually are both treated as imperfect indicators measuring an underlying construct of actual violence. However, the two measures clearly are not synonymous. Many family violence victimizations are not reported to the police. Davis & Taylor interpreted this pattern of results to mean that the experimental interventions did not affect actual violence levels but did increase victims’ confidence in the police and made victims more willing to report violence when it occurred.

A second experimental investigation (Davis and Medina 2001) of the same intervention was conducted several years later, this time using a sample of 402 public housing residents who had reported elder abuse incidents to the police. Like the cases in the first field test, incidents in this study were also relatively minor (5 % of the abusers were arrested, just 4 % of victims reported any injuries, and in only 22 % of the cases was a crime alleged to have occurred). Once again, law enforcement records for these households were tracked for the next 6 months. As in the first experiment, it was found that victims who received the home visit intervention called the police sooner and more often than controls.

Pooled analyses of these and a third unpublished experiment indicated that the interventions were associated with an increase in reporting of new abusive incidents not only to authorities (which could indicate simply greater confidence in the police), but also to research interviewers (Davis et al. 2006). The New York field tests suggested that second response programs might actually increase the likelihood of new abuse.

Going into these studies, it had been assumed that the effects of the interventions would be to empower victims through information about their situation, available services, and legal options. The program logic model posited that new abuse would decline as victims extracted themselves from self-defeating relationships or worked with social services and criminal justice staff to develop strategies to end the abuse while staying in the relationship. However, researchers in the New York studies found no evidence that those who received the interventions were more likely to avail themselves of social or legal services, so the intervention could not have worked – at least not in the way intended.

Some evaluations of other second responder programs found results similar to the New York field tests. A subsequent study by one of the authors of the New York evaluations, this one conducted in Redlands, CA, found that households that received a second response had worse outcomes on seven measures of new abuse, although the results were not statistically significant (Davis et al. 2010). Two studies conducted in New Haven, CT by Stover and her associates (Stover et al. 2009, 2010) found between them that persons who received a second response were more likely to call the police again, but less likely to report new abuse on victim surveys. A study by Hovell et al. (2006) found more reports of abuse to the police among victims who received a second response.

Other studies however, reported a positive effect of second responder programs. Greenspan et al. (2003) found that victims who received a second response in Richmond, VA were less likely to report victimization on a subsequent survey. Pate et al (1992) also found a decrease in subsequent violence reported on a survey following a second response in Dade County, FL. Casey et al. (2007) reported fewer calls made to the police among victims who received a second response in New Haven, CT.

Davis et al. (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of second responder programs. The analysis concluded that the odds of reporting new abuse to the police were about 1-1/4 times higher for households assigned to a home visit treatment. The meta-analysis found no difference between treatments in reports of new abuse on research surveys (see Fig. 1 below).

Police Family Violence Services Research Paper

In sum, then, the weight of the evidence does not indicate that second responder programs reduce new instances of abuse and may, in fact, increase subsequent calls to the police – possibly because the intervention generates more actual abuse or possibly because people who receive a second response have more confidence in the police.


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