Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges

Published June 2009

Chapter 2. Reporting and Arrests

Section 1 — To what extent is domestic violence reported to law enforcement and what percentage actually reaches the courts?

As with any crime, not all incidents of domestic violence are reported to law enforcement, not all incidents reported to law enforcement are forwarded to prosecutors, and even fewer are prosecuted.

Both the older NVAWS and the more contemporary NCVS reports agree that victims do not report all cases of their victimization to police. According to the NVAWS, only 27 percent of women and 13.5 percent of men who were physically assaulted by an intimate partner reported their assault to law enforcement. Less than 20 percent of women victims reported intimate partner rapes to police. Reporting rates for stalking were higher, with 52 percent of women and 36 percent of men reporting stalking incidents to law enforcement. A succession of NCVS surveys over the past several decades find much higher reporting rates (but for far fewer victimizations). According to these surveys, reporting to police of nonfatal partner victimization has increased for all victims (male and female) to more than 62 percent, with no gap between male and female victim reporting rates. The highest reporting rate is for black females (70.2 percent) and the lowest is for black males (46.5 percent). [27]

Comparing hundreds of police domestic violence incident reports with victim statements at four sites in three different states, researchers found that a proportion of victims deny abuse documented by police. Researchers found 29 percent of victims reported "no assault," contradicting police findings. Ironically, their alleged assailants were more likely to admit to the assaults, with only 19 percent reporting "no assault." However, suspects were more likely than victims to minimize the severity of the assaults. [63] Researchers also found that some victims do not report repeated incidents of abuse to police. A review of NCVS data from 1992 through 2002 found that, although 60 percent of the victims had been assaulted by their intimate partners before, only half of the latest survey assaults were reported to police, and these included reports made by persons other than the victim. Prior unreported domestic violence may be more serious than the incident actually reported. [63]

Reasons given in the 2005 NCVS for not reporting abuse incidents included a belief that the abuse was a private or personal matter (22 percent for females, 39 percent for males), fear of reprisal (12 percent for females, 5 percent for males), a desire to protect the suspect (14 percent for females, 16 percent for males), and a belief that police won't do anything (8 percent for females and for males). [27, 63]

Once reported, police arrest rates vary, depending on the jurisdiction and how each defines domestic violence. Arrests for domestic violence per 1,000 persons ranged from 3.2 in Omaha, Neb. (2003), to 12.2 in Wichita, Kan. (2000). [135]

Prosecution rates similarly vary. A review of 26 domestic violence prosecution studies from across the country found prosecutions per arrest ranged from 4.6 percent in Milwaukee in 1992 to 94 percent reported in Hamilton, Ohio, in 2005. The average rate was 63.8 percent, and the median rate was 59.5 percent. [71]

Implications for Law Enforcement and Prosecutors

Performance Measure: On the basis of victim reporting rates to law enforcement alone, law enforcement officers should be responding annually to at least 4 to 5 incidents per 1,000 females (12 and older) and 1 to 2 per 1,000 males (12 and older). On the basis of actual rates as determined by victim surveys, law enforcement officers should be responding annually to 8 to 9 incidents per 1,000 females, and 2 to 3 per 1,000 males. Therefore, if the incidence of domestic violence reported in victim surveys is significantly above the level that victims actually report to law enforcement, greater community outreach and barriers to reporting must be addressed. Law enforcement officers must encourage the rest of the community to do its part, and prosecutors must work with law enforcement if incidents are not making it into the courts. (Research basis: Confirmed by multiple national surveys over past decades, although exact rates [as opposed to the national average] may vary by region, population density, ethnicity of population, and so on.)

Implications for Judges

Judges typically see only a small minority of domestic violence cases that actually occur. (Research basis: Multiple studies across the country based on victim surveys, police arrest records and court cases.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009