New York Times

November 23, 1999

Spouse Abuse Crackdown, Surprisingly, Nets Many Women

by CAREY GOLDBERG
New York Times

BOSTON -- Defenders of battered women long struggled to persuade authorities to crack down on brutal men who reigned by the fist at home. But those crackdowns have produced an unexpected consequence: in some places, one-quarter or more of arrests for domestic assault are not of men but of women.

In Concord, N.H., this year nearly 35 percent of domestic assault arrests have been of women, up from 23 percent in 1993. In Vermont, 23 percent of domestic assault arrests this year were of women, compared with 16 percent in 1997.

And in Boulder County, Colo., one-quarter of defendants charged in domestic violence cases through September were women.

Those are simple statistics. But women's advocates, law enforcement officials and academic experts say that little else seems simple about numbers they find surprisingly high -- except that they seem to have emerged as an unintended result of mandatory arrest laws and tougher police rules meant to help women who were the victims of domestic violence.

Advocates for battered women and many social scientists say that most of the women arrested in these cases were acting in self-defense and that to punish them is unjust and even dangerous because the victims will be unlikely to call the police again.

Other social scientists and the police say that the arrest numbers reflect a real level of violence by women, even though women cause far fewer injuries than men do and that the finer nets set at women's urging to catch more domestic abuse naturally sweep up some women as well.

Nearly one million cases of "intimate partner violence" are reported in America each year, according to the Department of Justice, with female victims outnumbering males by more than five to one.

A different federal poll, the National Violence Against Women survey, which uses a smaller sample and different methodology, found the gender gap was less pronounced: it estimated last year that 1.5 million women and 835,000 men annually were raped or assaulted by an intimate partner, a ratio of just under two to one.

The issue of women's arrests sometimes takes on a gender-wars edge. Some women's advocates see a backlash among predominantly male police officers. Some men's advocates see a silent epidemic of domestic abuse of men by women, and call the arrest numbers further proof. But virtually no one claims to fully understand the phenomenon, which mystifies because it so diverges from the widely accepted estimate that 95 percent of batterers are men. Officials say efforts are under way both to study the phenomenon and improve training for the police, who must wade daily into "he said, she said" battles.

"I just wish I could tell you what the cause of it is," said Bonnie J. Campbell, director of the Violence Against Women Office, which oversees the $1.6 billion allotted by Congress for five years under the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. "My instincts tell me some of it is the need to fine-tune and do a lot of training. I suspect one piece of it is backlash, but that's just my instinct."

In addition, she noted, "We are seeing numbers that suggest that young women are getting more aggressive."

Scholars and advocates say that they are giving more attention to the arrests of women. The high numbers have been cropping up for years in spots, but lately, said Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, "it's become a bigger problem."

She continued, "I just think it's happening to more women in more communities."

In Concord, the police joined women's advocates and others this summer to try to learn what was going on. But after examining 67 arrests of women for domestic assault, there was no single easy answer, said the city's police chief, Bill Halacy.

"We had all these hypotheses, most of which didn't turn out to be true," Halacy said. One theory was that the arrests might be "dual arrests" -- the arrest of both partners in a fight -- but that was true in only 22 percent of the cases, Chief Halacy said. Then, he said, "We started looking at: 'Is she a former victim and this is like catch-up time?' " They found that 21 percent of the defendants had earlier come to police attention as victims. And among the victims, 16 percent had previously been defendants.

Among the clear points that emerged, Halacy added, only three of 67 assault victims had to go to a hospital, where they were examined and released, illustrating that violence by women causes far less injury than violence by men. In 24 percent of cases, Halacy said, both parties in the assault were women, including six cases of mothers assaulted by their daughters.

Grace Mattern, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said that some officers said they needed "better training on making that on-the-spot decision on who's the primary aggressor."

It also seemed, Ms. Mattern said, that many of the women arrested were involved in violent relationships that did not rise to the level of battering. In classic battering, one partner seeks to control and terrorize the other. In these cases, she said, "when the couple gets angry, they push each other, they shove each other, one slaps the other, but no one's a victim or a batterer." It's more a "you hit me, I'm calling the police" situation, she said. Throwing things, shoving and hitting, "in this day and age, can get you arrested," she said.

In the last two or three decades, there has been a growing movement to defend battered women that has fought for tougher laws concerning what many had long considered "family matters." A more recent wave of laws and policies has shifted the focus in some places to identifying and arresting the "primary aggressor," but the upshot has remained the same: a great surge in domestic violence arrests.

The trouble is that officers face a difficult task when they enter a house where both partners are disheveled, bruised and furious. Officials and experts emphasize that the police must have the time, training and willingness to investigate thoroughly enough to determine whether a woman is a victim or an abuser.

But in some cases, said Bob Moyer, executive director of the Family Violence Council of Lancaster County, Neb., an officer is wont to say: "I can't sort this out so I'm just going to arrest both parties."

One Vermont woman described the process that led to her arrest and conviction for assaulting her boyfriend this year. The man had been beating her on and off for five years, she said, including during her two pregnancies. After she got a restraining order, and the man was warned not to hit her, he would smash her head into a wall, or body-slam her, often in front of their small daughter, who would lie on the floor and cry with her.

One night as she was being beaten, she said, she grabbed a knife and cut an artery in the man's arm.

The police took her in, she said, but the man was not arrested.

"The police didn't look at him," she said, "didn't care about the violence he had done to me."

Vermont officials say they are trying to determine why 23 percent of their domestic assault arrests are of women. Jeri Martinez, an educator for the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said that a look at a few cases indicated that women were largely being arrested for minor assaults like scratching and slapping.

"People want to look at this data and say women are beating men," she said, "but the data doesn't tell you that." There are too many other variables, she said, like a recent expansion of the law.

Ms. Martinez was referring to people like Bert H. Hoff.

Hoff, who runs MenWeb, a men's issues Web site that has an extensive collection of articles on battered men, said that the arrest numbers were not surprising, considering various studies that indicate widespread domestic violence by women against men.

"Men are finally coming forward and are finally being believed," Ms. Martinez said.

Murray A. Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire whose research has shown high levels of domestic assaults by women, said that to him, the arrest numbers show that "the pendulum is starting to swing back toward more equal treatment." It was terrible, he said, when men were getting away with beating their wives, but then the emphasis "swung to the other extreme" when new laws and policies made it sound like only men could commit domestic violence.

But some wonder whether the pendulum has swung back too far. Margaret Martin, an associate professor at Eastern Connecticut State University who has looked at the Connecticut arrest rates, blamed "a kind of over-routinized enforcement of the law" for the fact that one-third of the state's domestic assault arrests are dual arrests.

As study of the numbers proceeds, so do attempts to improve police training like a program recently begun in California, where the state Justice Department reported that almost 17 percent of domestic assault arrests in 1998 were of women.

Alana Bowman, deputy city attorney of Los Angeles and the point person on domestic violence, said, "I think training is the key component to allow law enforcement to see domestic violence in a context" -- a context, she said, that requires thorough investigation to look for things like power and fear that may not be immediately obvious.

State-level training, began this month, she said, but was introduced in Los Angeles at the start of this year and has reduced by one-third the arrests of women compared with last year. High arrest rates of women, she said, seem to reflect confusion among the police about new laws.

Eve Buzawa, a domestic violence expert at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, said that her research suggested that it would also be wise to return more discretion to the police on whom to arrest.

"When you think about community policing," she said, "in every other area they're trying to teach the police to use discretion properly."

The high rate of arrests, particularly of women, raises a basic policy question: Has the bar been set too low on domestic violence? Should a couple that scuffles really be vulnerable to arrest?

Chief Halacy of Concord said he had asked himself that question and concluded that even if the violence was minor, "Our hope is that this takes on sort of the flavor that Driving While Intoxicated did in years past -- that it's no longer socially acceptable."


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