Domestic Violence, Policing, and the Criminal-Legal System
Policing fails domestic violence survivors at every level. We are in desperate need of alternatives (and yes, technologists have a role to play)
When I was first putting together my conference talk, Designing Against Domestic Violence, in 2018, I came across this article from the New York Times, which details the various ways abusers are weaponizing Internet of Things devices for domestic violence. The article is filled with alarming examples of this “new frontier” of abuse, and among all the things to get freaked out about, there was one tidbit that especially freaked me out:
Some people do not believe the use of smart home devices is a problem, said Ruth Patrick, who runs WomenSV, a domestic violence program in Silicon Valley. She said she had some clients who were put on psychiatric holds — a stay at a medical facility so mental health can be evaluated — after abuse involving home devices.
“If you tell the wrong person your husband knows your every move, and he knows what you’ve said in your bedroom, you can start to look crazy,” she said. “It’s so much easier to believe someone’s crazy than to believe all these things are happening.”
At this point, I’ve read and listened to hundreds of stories, but the idea that women would not only not be believed about their abuse, but considered “crazy” to the point that they’re subjected to a psychiatric hold, is something that has always stuck with me. It’s one of the reasons why I urge designers to allow users to access history logs for IoT devices. First off, a history log can combat gaslighting - that is, when an abuser makes things happen (like turning up the heat on his Nest app) but swears up and down he’s not doing it, in an effort to get his victim to question her own reality and feel that his experience is the only one that can be objectively counted on. But second, a history log offers proof of the abuse outside of the relationship, to others - such as the police - that this abuse is really happening, even if the abuser is thousands of miles away. Look, he turned up the temperature 30 times in a single hour. This proof is essential for avoiding survivors of domestic violence being subjected to further trauma at the hands of the police, who are ostensibly there to help them, but often end up doing more harm than good.
This idea - that survivors would need hard proof of their abuse to hand to the police - is an example of how I see this work, and the work that designers and other technologists can do to combat technology-facilitated domestic violence, as being connected to the overall fight for police defining and abolition. While the police can, and certainly sometimes do, help survivors of domestic violence, they often do extraordinary harm, and the mere fact of police violence against Black people and people of color make them an option that’s not even available to many millions of survivors seeking help.
In 2013, I became a certified rape crisis counselor, and would assist survivors seeking ER services after a sexual assault. Part of that work involved insuring the survivor’s legal rights were upheld, as the police who were required to come and interview the survivor couldn’t be counted on to do that themselves. During the time I spent volunteering, I witnessed cops who were uncaring, visibly bored, and even openly hostile. There was only one situation where I felt that the duo of officers - both young men - were truly compassionate, caring, and eager to assist the survivor. This one occasion stands out in my memory as proof of the potential of what legal victims services can look like when done well, as well as proof of the fact that the vast majority of the time, police do not come close to delivering on this potential.
I’ve always known the police were a generally bad option for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and my experience intervening when they harassed survivors waiting for to have a rape kit performed on them in emergency rooms let me witness that option firsthand. When the uprisings against police brutality over the summer happened, I was prompted to dig into what, exactly, we know in terms of statistics in this area. I spent a weekend going down every rabbit hole about domestic violence and the criminal-legal system (a preferred term for many who point out that “criminal-justice” system implies justice, which is often not a reality).
In short: The criminal-legal system often fails to support and protect survivors of domestic violence, and the relationship is often an antagonistic one. In a survey from 2015 by from The National Domestic Violence Hotline, half of respondents felt that calling the police for help after experiencing domestic violence would make things worse, and possibly lead to reprisals such as losing housing or custody of their children. A different study confirmed that at least half of victims never report their abuse to the police, with the fear of mistreatment being a common reason. Two thirds of the people who said they wouldn’t call the police believed the police would not believe them. Of people surveyed who had called the police for help in the past, a quarter said they would not do so again (source).
Things are worse for Black women, who studies have shown are less likely to be believed about being the victim of a crime than white women, and for undocumented women who may risk deportation by engaging with the criminal-legal system. The abusive behavior of US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does little to inspire confidence that the needs of a survivor will be prioritized. Statistics show that many women of color do not view the police as a viable option for help, as the prospect of sending the abuser into the legal system, where men of color are more likely to be sent to prison where they’ll face horrifying and often deathly conditions, is so bad that they’d rather seek out alternative forms of assistance.
We also can’t ignore the fact that a study in the 1990s (the most recent study of its kind) found that between 20 and 40% of police officers are abusers themselves, meaning that police officers are more likely than the general population to domestically abuse their spouses and children. Many survivors rightfully do not trust the police to take their side when the police themselves are perpetrators of the same crime they seek protection from. This of course makes it difficult to trust that abusers in law enforcement can effectively protect survivors within their community. And when one’s abuser is a cop, safety escaping is much harder, since the abuser has access to a gun, knows the locations of local shelters, and understands how to manipulate the system to avoid penalty or even shift the blame onto the survivor.
In this context, where survivors are often not believed and re-traumatized by the police, the need for “proof” of abuse is essential - and for those of us working in tech, the way we help this effort during our workdays is to ensure access to history logs of the devices used for abuse. The bigger picture is that abolishing and replacing the field of policing with something that can properly respond to and support domestic violence survivors is essential, but history logs and other features that work against police not believing survivors and offer materially useful in the meantime. At the bare minimum, user be able to to easily request history logs, so that if they do choose to involve the police and/or engage with the criminal-legal system, they can present it as proof that the abuse is happening from afar and increase the chance of their abuse being taken seriously. History logs of proof would also be useful should the survivor enter into the criminal-legal system for reasons such as divorce or child custody. They should include the username of the person who took the action, what the action was, and the date and time it was performed.
The rest of this newsletter explores domestic violence and policing more generally, without the technology-facilitated violence perspective. I’ve been thinking about this since I did my first domestic violence workshop 7 years ago, and started writing what would become this newsletter over the summer during the initial uprisings against police brutality.
Plenty of people tout domestic violence victims as an iron-clad reason that we need police. Who else can intervene when a woman is being physically assaulted? What other number would someone call who can hear a fight turning physical and is worried that their neighbor is about to be murdered? When it comes to domestic violence, the paradigm shift away from policing and towards a system that’s survivor-focused and aims to rehabilitate abusers is a tough one for many people. But a change is possible, and in some places, is already underway.
Louisville has a unique program called the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee that assesses domestic homicides from all angles, to see if there were touchpoint within city systems where the victim could have been helped. In 2019, the police found the body of a missing woman in her boyfriend’s apartment, and the Committee found that the police had been called to the home a month prior. The victim had told them that her boyfriend had hit her, held her captive within the house, chased her down the street, and taken away her phone. However, the two officers who responded did not arrest the boyfriend; they didn’t even fill out a report. The Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee uncovered this fact, and the officers were charged with failure of law enforcement to provide assistance.
This situation (police failing to follow their own most basic procedures, such as filling out a report) is a common occurrence, but very few cities have programs like the one in Louisville that identify where police messed up. And the ways in which police can be held accountable for failing to protect and serve seem to be narrow: a 2005 Supreme Court case ruled that a town’s police department could not be sued for failing to uphold a restraining order, which led to the murder of a woman’s three children by her abusive estranged husband (you can read more about that gut-wrenching case here).
Generally, when the police do get involved, they often fail at helping survivors of domestic violence. But before that point, there’s the issue that many women, especially women of color, don’t view calling the police as a viable option in the first place, and for good reason. When the police, over and over again, kill unarmed Black and brown people for simply existing, how can they be trusted to de-escalate a tense and violent situation that involves an abuser and a survivor? Many, if not most, survivors don’t want revenge; they want justice. Something I hear over and over again when interviewing survivors is a desire not that their abuser will be punished, but that they’ll get better. Most survivors want their abusers to stop abusing, to reform themselves, to find healthier ways of dealing with conflict. The survivors I know generally don’t want their abuser to be entered in the criminal legal system, where rehabilitation doesn’t exist and where they’ll potentially face horrendous conditions in prison, should they survive their initial encounter with the police.
And, of course, there’s also no guarantee that survivors themselves will be safe if the police show up to a domestic violence situation. In September, some neighbors of a woman in Williamson Count Texas called 911 when they became concerned about what seemed to be a violent fight between the couple next door. When the police arrived, the man was gone and the woman told the police she was fine and wanted nothing to do with them. The officers attacked her without warning, slamming her to the floor of her front porch and threatening to tase her when she screamed. The handcuffed her and fruitlessly searched her home for her boyfriend, and later admonished her for not cooperating.
An article about the incident explains that in fact, the law does require that in a situation involved potential domestic violence the police are required to ensure that no one is in danger, and are legally allowed to enter a home without a warrant. Ironically, these rules are meant to both ensure that everyone involved is safe, while also protecting the police from accusations that they failed to provide assistance, such as the officers who were charged in Louisville. But all too often, the police fail to explain why they need to enter the home to look for the perpetrator, fail to build any kind of trust or rapport with the survivor, and often inflict even more violence. This is all especially alarming within the context of domestic violence, where survivors have had relationships where power and control is exerted over them, and the police are repeating an abusive pattern that re-traumatizes survivors.
Then there’s the fact that plenty of women, especially women of color, are arrested for defending themselves against domestic violence (see: Marissa Alexander, Aylaliya Birru, Tomiekia Johnson, Shajia Ayobi, and Chrystul Kizer, who are reminders that the right to bear arms and self defense are for white men only). This further erodes survivor’s trust in the police and the criminal legal system in general. And the fact is that women of color, especially Black and Native women, face some of the highest rates of abuse: Native women face the highest rates of domestic violence, with Black women coming in at a close second. Black women are four times more likely than white women to be murdered by a significant other and seven times more likely to be murdered while pregnant (experts agree that this is not because Black men are more violent; rather, Black women are more vulnerable due to the intersecting issues of systemic racism, poverty, and lack of access to resources for survivors).
Despite all this, Black women are more likely to recuse themselves from criminal-legal proceedings and a system they understand doesn’t serve their best interests and disproportionally harms Black communities. Beth Richie, a professor of African American studies and gender and women studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains: “There is a feeling in black communities that the only time violence against black women is taken seriously is when it cane used to feed the arrest and detention of a black man.”
Considering these statistics, you’d think the police would make a special effort to build trust with and assist Black and Native survivors of domestic violence, but this is not the case. In the end, all of these factors add up to only 45% of intimate partner violence ever being reported to the police (that’s according to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report).
It’s also worth noting that police officers themselves suffer by not serving the needs of domestic violence survivors before the situation turns deadly: more police die responding to calls about domestic violence than any other type of call. Typically, by the time worried friends or neighbors call the cops to the scene of a violent incident, the abuser is at the breaking point, have lost control over the survivor, and seeks to regain ultimate control through the act of murder. This is when survivors become victims, and the abuser has little left to lose, making them more likely to turn their guns on approaching police officers. These deadly encounters are often preventable; if police were the trustworthy source of aid and protection they claim to be, people would go to them sooner; if cops properly responded to survivors during less violent incidents and enforced restraining orders, fewer abusive situations would escalate to violent shootouts where everyone involved - abuser, victim, and cop - ends up dead. It’s in the police’s own best interest to fix this, which makes it strange there isn’t more of an emphasis on early intervention and assistance; but in a profession that has a higher-than-average percentage of abusers, and draws in people who are drawn to jobs that involve exerting power over others, it’s not surprising.
The groups filling many of the gaps left by the police also have a role to play in the relationship between police and survivors. Survivor-focused organizations themselves are not blameless in the problem of policing, over-criminalization of people of color, and the prison-industrial complex. An article (which I highly recommend taking the time to read) titled A Reckoning Inside the Domestic Violence Movement, from The Nation details how organizations in the domestic violence and sexual assault space are having tough conversations about their “unholy alliance” with the criminal-legal system. Part of this uneasy partnership was foisted upon them by the Violence Against Women Act, which committed enormous federal resources to victim’s services and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, but the bulk of the money went to criminal responses. According to the article from The Nation, as of 2013 only 15% of grant money from VAWA went towards social services, and in 2017 the act’s two largest grant programs gave $266 million to the criminal-legal system but just $30 million to housing, despite the fact that housing is the single greatest needs for survivors. But organizations are now pushing back on their partnerships with law enforcement, grappling with how they’ve failed Black survivors, and looking for new ways forward (read this letter, signed by several coalitions across the country, to learn more about what they’re doing). In light of the criticism against police offers, some police departments have severed ties with the local domestic violence organizations they used to refer survivors to, which makes it pretty clear that their commitment to survivors was never one of substance.
In summary: the police often fail survivors who go to them for help. Survivors who are Black and women of color often don’t even view the police as an option in the first place, and when law enforcement does become involved, they often resist engagement in the criminal-legal system. Criticism from domestic violence orgs has resulted in police refusing to work with them, at the expense of harming the survivors who do go to them for help. We are desperately in need of an alternative to policing when it comes to domestic violence, both in terms of survivors receiving support and perpetrators being rehabilitated. What might these alternatives look like? There are some promising programs in the works, such as Denver’s new Support Team Assistance Response program, which diverts 911 calls about things like people behaving erratically, and sends a mental health professional and paramedic to the scene rather than a police officer. So far, they’ve helped people who are having suicidal thoughts, who are slumped over and unresponsive, who are acting strangely, who are setting up a tent near the caller’s house, and a woman who someone called the cops on for indecent exposure, when in reality she was unhooked and had nowhere to chance clothes except the quiet alley where the caller saw her. A program like this - which sends trained mental health professionals rather than police officers to nonviolent situations - is an incredible step towards actually meeting the needs of people in distress and keeping out the violence that cops often bring to nonviolent situations. Not to mention, if every white woman who called the police over Black people jogging, driving, barbecuing, birdwatching - existing in the proximity of white people in general - got a mental health professional without the power to make arrests or inflict violence rather than a cop, well, maybe they’d finally stop using 911 as a personal concierge service.
Then there’s the power of restorative justice, which has been used in activist spaces, community groups, and schools for years, and aims to repair the harm caused by crimes and emphasizes the victim having a say in the process and the perpetrator taking accountability and making amends. When I was an AmeriCorps member serving in a high school in Milwaukee, where poverty, desperation, and gangs turned standard teenage fights into something more sinister, one of my teammates, a future social worker, helped the guidance counselor set up a peace circle, which used the tenants of restorative justice to help students talk through their problems with each other rather than punishing students with detentions and suspensions. When scaled up to a societal level, the impact is transformational.
Mariame Kabe, an anti-violence activist and prison abolitionist, believes community accountability is key, and that everyone should know how to safely intervene when they see harm happening in their own communities. “The prison industrial complex has actually de-skilled everybody in intervention,” she says. “It makes it so easy to pick up the phone and call 911 as your form of action.” She argues that the shift has to happen on a societal level, with communities addressing their internal violence themselves.
What would it look like to implement programs like the one in Denver to help people in need of help rather than punishing them for being poor or mentally unwell, and to treat more serious crime with restorative justice, helping victims heal and perpetrators make amends stop being criminals? What if communities held domestic violence perpetrators accountable to unlearning their misogyny, taking accountability for their actions, making amends to their victim, and never abusing again? These are the types of futures I’m dreaming about a lot lately. I think that’s a really key part to police abolition: dreaming about what’s possible when we take police out of the equation. I’m intentionally saying “abolition.” I think that “reform” at its best might look like the program in Louisville that identifies where the police and other agencies went wrong and holds them criminally accountable for failing to do their jobs; but this is still a reactive solution, something that happens only after the literal worst-case outcome (the survivor being murdered and becoming a victim). We need something new, something proactive, something that imagines a world where root causes are identified and addressed rather than the endless application of band aids we have now.
And while it might seem that designers and other technologists don’t have a role in police abolition and this dreaming about better futures, we do. When we design for safety at our day jobs, we’re working towards a future where survivors have proof of their abuse, where law enforcement and the criminal-legal system is forced to recognize that their abuse really happened, where survivors have more agency and are less likely to be committed to psychiatric holds, and where we’re able to have conversations with our co-workers about police and how they harm survivors, and why we need to replace them with something better. It’s all connected, even if by difficult-to-see strings.
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