Tuesday, July 14, 2020
In response to widespread demands to “defund the police,” a specific question repeatedly crops up: “What about domestic and sexual violence?” These “what about” questions imply that defunding, reducing, and reforming the aggressive street policing currently under public scrutiny will leave people without vital protection and trigger a tidal wave of crime.
As prominent prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba has explained, the police have never been the solution to violence against women. Few women actually report rapes to police, and when they do, officers disbelieve and mistreat them. Kaba and others point out that police officers frequently commit domestic and sexual violence themselves, often using their authority to get away with it.
Still, some argue that this reality calls for more policing. Laws and policies could require officers to believe women and make arrests in their cases. This may, in turn, increase reporting and victim satisfaction. Some policies like this already exist in the form of special victims units where officers are trained to be victim-centered and trauma-informed and to pursue cases to arrest. One letter to the editor responding to Kaba suggested that we could change the face of policing: “I disagree that we should abolish the police. Instead, we should simply replace male policemen with more women.”
It is tempting to see aggressive rape and domestic violence policing as the solution to violence against women, especially as the coronavirus lockdown is increasing such violence. But we have been down that road before, and it just led to more harm for marginalized people, including women.
Beginning in the late 1970s, battered women’s activists launched a remarkably successful campaign for states and police departments to adopt laws and policies that encouraged, even required, police officers to arrest in domestic violence cases. Before the policies, officers who responded to “domestic disputes” often did not arrest, instead choosing to mediate between the parties or temporarily remove the suspect from the scene. Department policies even encouraged police not to arrest.
In the early days of the movement, many feminists also rejected strict law enforcement. Black activists within the movement vociferously opposed increasing police presence in the lives of people of color. Social scientists warned that arrest “initiates a judicial process which, experience tells us, has little chance of a productive outcome,” as researcher Morton Bard observed.
Consequently, much of the early battered women’s movement was oriented not around policing but around services like helping women obtain housing, employment, and public benefits