II. Violence against women

Domestic violence in High Point, North Carolina

Mapping a problem-oriented approach on to domestic violence

Some five years after the initial implementation of the Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire in 1996, and with the recognition that it represented a different way of thinking about and addressing violence, program officers from the Family Violence Prevention Fund, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, asked me to produce a paper on whether those lessons held any implications for addressing domestic violence, one of a series it was commissioning (Rosewater, n.d.). I knew next to nothing about domestic violence, but a review of the domestic violence literature, and some quick but fascinating consultations with public safety professionals working on domestic violence, suggested that the answer might well be “yes.” That was a surprise to me; it turned out to be more than, or worse than, a surprise to quite a lot of other people. This chapter is a meditation on that experience.

Operation Ceasefire and the “focused deterrence” approach that emerged from it were based on the finding that homicide in Boston was heavily concentrated amongst a small, identifiable number of extremely active groups, comprised largely of high-rate criminal offenders with high rates of violence victimization and representing a very small fraction—about one-quarter of 1 percent—of the city. Direct communication to these groups by a partnership of law enforcement, service providers, and community figures and spelling out the carefully developed and focused formal consequences that would fall on groups for continued violence, community standards against violence, and opportunities for support and services rapidly and dramatically reduced homicide and gun violence. On the face of it, there was little similarity between that violence and domestic violence. The former involved group members and group dynamics, was tightly linked to drug dealing and other economic crimes, was more or less public, was concentrated in poor urban minority neighborhoods, occurred among individuals who often had weak and even no personal relationships, and was overwhelmingly gun violence. Domestic violence involved largely individuals, was not directly connected to economic offending, was largely private, was relatively rarely gun violence, involved individuals who overwhelmingly knew each other and often had sustained relationships, and was broadly distributed among men without a connection to chronic offending, economic status, or place.

Or so was the conventional and advocacy wisdom and much of the public policy discussion. As I did my literature review, 1 found to my surprise that the research strongly suggested otherwise: the literature largely presented a fact pattern of concentration of particularly the most serious violent domestic abuse by race, ethnicity, and neighborhood, with victimization concentrated among poor women of color and with the most serious offenders displaying not only repeat domestic offending with the same and serial victims but also chronic offending across a wide range of offense categories. It is worth quoting at length from a paper reporting the findings (citations omitted):

We should begin by recognizing that the dominant perception of domestic violence offenders as “anyone”—as distinct from other violent offenders and from their patterns and dynamics—is often, and perhaps largely, wrong. Domestic violence offenders tend to be serial offenders in two ways. As is well-known, they tend to commit multiple acts of domestic violence within a given relationship and across multiple relationships. But beyond that, despite the widespread belief that domestic violence offenders are uniquely “specialized” and that domestic violence is evenly distributed across society, research suggests that offenders tend to have robust criminal histories including a wide range of both domestic violence and non-domestic violence offenses, and that domestic violence homicide victims are quite disproportionately poor and minority. A review of individuals arrested for assault in Lowell, Massachusetts, found that “domestic offenders are commonly thought to be ‘specialists’ who do not pose a threat to the community at large. Our data indicate that this is not the case. The domestic offenders [studied] were just as likely as the non-domestic offenders to have committed non-domestic offenses in the five years prior (46 percent of each group had been arraigned for nondomestic offenses). Additionally, the two groups had statistically equal proportions of high-rate offenders."

Similarly, a study of more than 18,000 Massachusetts men with restraining orders found that three-quarters had some sort of prior criminal history: nearly half had an arraignment or conviction for a violent crime, more than 40 percent for a property crime, more than 20 percent for a drug offense, one-quarter for driving under the influence, and nearly half for other offenses. Qualitative work gives similar results. Unpublished research on the Quincy, Massachusetts, Probation Project, based on victim interviews, found that

55 percent of batterers had prior criminal records of which the victim was aware. Another study that examined reports from 270 women in intervention programs found that nearly half of spouse abusers had previously been arrested for violent crimes and that those who had been arrested for violence against strangers were more frequently and severely violent at home.

Additional research shows other parallels. Violent and chronic offending tends to be concentrated among poor and minority populations. This is also true with domestic violence. One study found that “marital violence is found across all social classes, but rates are higher in lower socioeconomic status, blue-collar families, especially those marked by underemployment and unemployment”; a study cited in the article shows a two-to-one proportion of lower to higher economic status among offenders who commit family violence. One study of female victims of domestic homicide in New York City between 1990 and 1997 found that victims were disproportionately black: half of all victims were black, relative to about a quarter of the population. Victims were also somewhat disproportionately Latina and came primarily from the poorer boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

(Kennedy, 2004)

All of that was in the available literature. As compelling was the knowledge of frontline practitioners. One of the most important aspects of the violence the Boston Gun Project had addressed was that it was very well understood by the police officers, probationers, outreach workers, and the like who dealt with it every day. They knew what was going on, including who the most violent groups and group members were and often when they were likely to act. I put together a meeting in Boston of police department domestic violence investigators, victim services providers from prosecutors’ offices and outside agencies, advocates, shelter operators, and the like. As part of it I asked them, “Do you know who the most dangerous [domestic violence] offenders in Boston are, and to which victims?” The room said no. “We’ve tried to predict it,” they said. “We’ve looked at criminal records, violations of restraining orders, all kinds of things. We don’t know how.” “That’s not what I asked,” I said. “This is what you do every day. Do you know?” The room said yes. “We deal with the most threatened, frightened women every day, and the guys who do this to them. Mostly, yes, we do know.”

Framing a different kind of domestic violence strategy out of those facts was remarkably easy. Put together a partnership of law enforcement, advocates, service providers, and community figures. Make a concerted effort to address the most dangerous men, whom we can designate our “A” offenders. When necessary incapacitate them by any legal means, including by “pulling levers”: using their nondomestic legal exposures—an outstanding warrant, a drug case, a gun charge, an assault-on-a-stranger case—when indicated. Market that back to the next round of likely prospective violent offenders, whom we will call our “B” offenders, through direct communication. Organize the system actors to ensure meaningful consequences for the most dangerous offenders and focus with particular care on services for and the safety of their victims. The latter was a very serious concern; this was a problem of people in sustained contact, and taking the wrong kind of action with abusers could get people killed, so very close monitoring of victim safety and sentiment would have to be an essential part of any intervention.

There was more to it than that, but the strategic outline was clear. There were even some field experiences to draw on; authorities in several Massachusetts cities were pursuing trial programs that focused on the most dangerous offenders, put them on notice, and maintained a high degree of contact with both offenders and victims. The results were apparently good. And there was a paper on an action-research project in Killingbeck, England, inspired by criminology’s repeat victimization framework, that came remarkably close to what I was thinking about (Hamner, Griffiths & Jerwood, 1999). It reported that most offenders were much more easily deterred than had been thought; that when put on notice, they greatly overestimated the actual capacities of the authorities; and that victims welcomed the new approach. Evaluation found that early intervention with abusers reduced repeat victimization, putting abusers on notice reduced recidivism, those who did reoffend took longer to do so, and that the process both identified and reduced the number of chronic offenders, encouraged victims and those supporting them to ask for assistance, and identified risk factors for repeat victimization and repeat police visits. Something like this seemed worth working out and trying.

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