Domestic Violence: Background

When a family or household member commits a violent act against another member of the family or household, it is referred to as domestic violence. One 1986 statistical estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Justice was that over 50 percent of the violent attacks upon women and 33 percent of the attacks upon men were committed by family members or acquaintances.

The legal definition of domestic violence is generally delineated by the relationship of the parties and the nature of the abuse. The abuser may be a spouse or an ex spouse, family member, parent, dating partner, cohabiting partner and a person offering refuge. The law recognizes that victims of domestic violence are not just women and domestic violence can take place even between gay and lesbian couples. Besides physical attack, the other forms of domestic violence include sexual attacks, destruction of property, harming of pets and psychological abuse.

History of Police Responses

The existing social norms have dictated how police have responded to domestic violence cases over the years. Historically the wife was seen as the property of the husband and as such the husband had the right to do things required to keep her in line. Disputes between couples were considered as private and were to be kept within the household.

Until the late 1970s, domestic violence calls to the police were accorded low priority and even if officers visited the scene, they would leave quickly without any meaningful intervention. The police departments tried to use mediation as a method of dealing with domestic violence calls but more often than not, only one spouse would be present at the mediation. Some famous court cases made the government sit up and bring changes to the law. The family of Ruth Bunnell who was killed in 1972 because the police did not intervene filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of San Jose. Though the case was dismissed, it brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront. In 1985, a court in Connecticut ordered the City of Torrington to pay $2.3 million to Tracy Thurman after the police failed to arrest Thurman’s husband despite repeated calls to the police. She had suffered serious bodily injury. In 1996 California resident, Maria Macias called the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department seeking help on 22 occasions after her estranged husband violated an order of protection. She was subsequently killed by her husband. The trial court held that women are entitled to safety and equal protection and that the Sheriff’s Department failed to provide sufficient protection to her. The appeal against the trial court’s judgment is pending in the Appeals Court of California.

Towards the end of the 1980s efforts were made to bring changes to the police response to domestic violence calls. Police departments across the country started adopting a mandatory arrest policy. This was seen as an acknowledgment that the society looks at domestic violence as a crime and that victim will be provided with immediate protection.

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