THIS CITY has now joined a number of other jurisdictions in revising procedures governing police response to domestic violence. Assaults at home, of which some 7,000 a year are reported in the District, have traditionally been treated by law enforcement authorities as private affairs. Often victims are reluctant to complain, fearing retribution, and neighbors don't want to get involved in situations where they could be injured themselves. When the police are called, the practice has been to break up a fight and then refer the parties to counseling and mediation.
In 1983, the Police Foundation reported on a study it had funded in Minneapolis which demonstrated that these conciliatory responses were not working in most cases. In fact, they made it easy for chronic wife beaters to continue these violent patterns with little fear of punishment. The Minneapolis police undertook a pilot program in which abusive spouses were immediately arrested, and the incidence of domestic assaults dropped dramatically. Because this sort of abuse occurs at all income and social levels, many men who had never been arrested in their lives were faced with a penalty they found intolerable, and they changed their behavior.
Last week, the D.C. Police Department issued new guidelines for dealing with these cases. Officers are instructed to consider arrest if there is any indication that violence has occurred during a domestic dispute. They are to look for visible injury to one of the parties, need for medical treatment, eyewitness corroboration of an attack, weapons, furniture in disarray and other signs of physical conflict, and they are to take into account threats made while they are on the scene. Women's rights lawyers, who sought more aggressive police response, urge officers to use their discretion to make more arrests. They have cited recent cases in this city where inadequate responses to domestic violence led to murder.
Even where lives are not at stake -- though they often are -- these new police policies are important. Society, obsessed by violence in the street, is not indifferent when it occurs behind closed doors.