“An Ice-Pack to Reduce the Swelling:” Battered Women and the Police

In the 1970s, battered women built shelters because they had few alternatives to abusive relationships. They also, however, wanted to change police policy with regard to domestic disturbance calls.

In 1976, six lawyers, after observing interactions between the police, court employees, and battered women, formed the Litigation Coalition for Battered Women (LCBW) and began to orchestrate a lawsuit against the New York City Police Department.

They found that police officers refused to acknowledge domestic violence incidents as emergencies, withheld information from battered women about making civilian arrests and filing protection orders, and evaded battered women’s efforts to take action against their husbands.

Many advertisements made light of issues of domestic violence, including this 1970 ad for Mr. Leggs. 

Police officers clearly did not see domestic abuse as a serious or criminal offense. But they also felt as if they did not have the authority to place themselves between husbands and wives in the “privacy” of the marital relationship. Although NYPD training manuals claimed the police were “the only ones” to be able to “go into the home and deal with family violence,” officers were clearly uncomfortable with doing so in practice.

For example, on August 28, 1976, in Brooklyn, NY, when Kathleen D’Amico threatened to call the police after her husband choked her and repeatedly knocked her on the ground, he responded “’they’re not going to do anything. Go ahead and call them.’”

He was right.

As the plaintiff was walking to her local police department, her husband repeatedly knocked her to the ground for eight blocks. Two police officers showed up, but informed her that they could not arrest her husband because she did not have an order of protection. They also told her “’we have emergency calls and can’t spend all day here.’”

In other situations, women testified that police demonstrated tacit approval of domestic violence, joking with husbands and diminishing the legitimacy of the problem.

For example, the Brooklyn-based police officers who responded to Lydia Thomas in September of 1976 “mimicked Mrs. Thomas and … treated the entire situation as a joke.” New York City officers who responded to Jane Doe’s call for help in April of 1976 “joked around with Mr. Doe.”

Officers’ active dismissal and denigration of their calls for help made both Thomas and Doe feel helpless. Thomas claimed, “Now that my husband sees that the police are on his side and don’t care about me, he could kill me,” and Doe concluded that police behavior would “reinforce her husband’s violent behavior.”

Clearly frustrated, Doe gave up on the criminal justice system in August 1976, after enduring months of abuse by her husband and inaction by the NYPD. , “[She] thought about going back to court or calling the police, but she was so depressed by her earlier experiences that she thought it would be more effective to just get an ice-pack to reduce the swelling.”

The LCBW was able to force the New York City Police Department to abandon their informal non-arrest policy. By establishing a pattern of discrimination against married women, the group successfully argued that the NYPD was denying married women equal protection under the law, building on a legacy of civil rights legal cases that used the Fourteenth Amendment.

They also inspired legal challenges to police departments and non-arrest policies around the country. For example, a similar case was filed in Oakland, CA in 1976.

In the ten years after these two lawsuits were filed, the National Coalition against Domestic Violence recorded at least fifteen others that were filed by battered women against police departments across the country.

Mandatory Arrest Policies

The Federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 led to the creation of the Office on Violence Against Women to protect women in the home and other areas like college campuses.

In response to this wave of lawsuits, police departments began implementing mandatory arrest policies for cases of domestic violence.

The first mandatory arrest law was passed in Oregon in 1977. And, when the Federal Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994, it encouraged and rewarded states that adopted mandatory arrest laws.

These laws required law enforcement officers to step into the previously “private” world of the family and to approach domestic violence as public violence.

Activists in the 1970s supported mandatory arrest policies because they had seen how damaging police policies that avoided arresting batterers had been. They wanted to eliminate any ambiguity in the law because they thought it would be the best way to counteract what one court called a “policy of indifference” in the treatment of battered women.

Mandatory arrest policies became controversial in the 1990s, however. Some legal advocates considered these rules to have a “significant deterrent effect on batterers.” But those involved in the shelter movement saw such an approach as too reliant on law enforcement to provide solutions for domestic abuse.

Some feminists also argued that mandatory arrest policies went too far in restricting women’s autonomy, removing from them the choice of whether or not they want to pursue charges against their abusers.

Many feminists, such as legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, also believe that mandatory arrest policies have further discouraged women of color from calling the police. She argues that black women are often afraid they will contribute to the disproportionate incarceration of minority men, because black men in particular are “ stereotyped as pathologically violent.”

Domestic Violence Today

Artist Joel Bergner's mural in Brooklyn, New York, entitled A Survivor's Journey, seeks to bring attention to issues of domestic violence.

The importance of the boundary between private and public remains at the heart of questions of domestic violence today.

Janay Rice, shortly after the release of the elevator video in September 2014, lambasted the media for using what she understood to be a private matter between intimate partners in order to gain better their ratings.

“THIS IS OUR LIFE,” she claimed. “I want people to respect our privacy in this family matter.”

Despite Janay Rice’s refusal to press charges against her husband, he was charged because activists in the 1970s insisted that there be legal consequences for intimate partner abuse.

Ultimately, in May 2015, because he completed his pretrial intervention program, the charges against Rice were dismissed.

Domestic violence advocacy groups, like the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, have been concerned that the treatment of the incident and of Rice might send a message to the public that domestic violence should not be treated as a dangerous crime.

The organization released a statement after the charges against Rice were lifted, saying “The criminal justice system has essentially sanctioned and reinforced the reality that society and systems still do not understand the prevalence and crime of domestic violence. The message sent by these actions is that perpetrators of domestic violence will not be held accountable for their crimes.”

The case involving Ray and Janay Rice illustrates the difficulty in balancing the right to privacy in intimate relationships with the public interest in punishing perpetrators of domestic assaults.

Domestic abuse has historically been a crime that has gone unpunished precisely because of the private nature of intimate relationships. And it is for this very reason that it is important to keep public discussion of the issue alive in a way that encourages victims to come forward.