In 1989, the Portland Police Bureau adopted and committed to implementing community policing. In 1992, extensive discussions with community representatives identified the need to break the cycle of family and domestic violence, in order to decrease victims and ultimately benefit at-risk youth. In collaboration with others, the police developed a plan to reduce domestic violence. The plan had two goals: to increase the formal consequences for batterers and to empower victims.
To implement the plan, the Portland Police Bureau created a special police unit – the Domestic Violence Reduction Unit (DVRU) – to focus exclusively on misdemeanor domestic crimes. The DVRU had two goals: to increase the sanctions for batterers and to empower victims. The first goal would be achieved by prosecuting all misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, regardless of the victim’s desire to prosecute. The second goal would be implemented by helping victims successfully negotiate, seek, obtain, and use the resources of the criminal justice system.
Primary Research Question
With respect to the DVRU, the study was designed to answer the following questions:
- Do DVRU interventions increase prosecutions of misdemeanor domestic violence cases?
- Do DVRU interventions increase victim empowerment?
- Do DVRU interventions lead to reductions in domestic violence?
The study also permitted the testing of the following research hypothesis: Arrest followed by prosecution, conviction, and sentence for the offender and support services for the victim reduces the recurrence of domestic violence more effectively than arrest alone.
A double-blind randomization design was used to assign eligible cases to a DVRU treatment group or to a control group, i.e. one that did not receive a DVRU intervention.
Treatment cases were then made available to DVRU officers and control cases were set apart for the duration of the study. Information comes from two sources: the Portland Police Data System (PPDS), a computerized data bank maintained by the Portland Police Bureau; and from initial and follow-up interviews with victims. The sample was selected from domestic violence cases that came to the attention of the Portland Police Bureau between March and November, 1996. Initial treatment and control group sizes of about four hundred each were determined to yield adequate sampling precision and statistical power for the project purposes.
The study had some limitations. First, the six-month follow-up design was probably too short a time period in which to assess the impact of court imposed sanctions. Second, the treatment as it was designed differed from the treatment as it was implemented.
- Cases with DVRU treatment resulted in prosecuting the batterers significantly more often (44 % vs. 37%) than cases without DVRU intervention. In addition to more prosecutions, treatment group batterers were significantly more likely than control group batterers to be convicted (24% vs. 17%) and sentenced (27% vs. 18%).
- Regarding victim empowerment, significantly more treatment group victims than control group victims (64% vs. 52%) sought assistance from the criminal justice system. Treatment group victims were more likely to call the police upon revictimization (19% vs. 10%).
- Although fewer treatment group than control group victims reported any new violence to the interviewers, police reports of further victimizations and reports of alleged reoffending were associated significantly more often with the treatment group than the control group. The researchers reason that victim empowerment might be responsible for this seemingly contradictory effects: an empowered woman is more inclined to enlist outside help.
From a policy perspective, the DVRU represents an important step in approaches to reducing domestic violence in our society. The study demonstrates that police responses that go beyond arrest and include services for the victim are more effective in reducing domestic violence than arrest alone. Police activities on behalf of domestic violence misdemeanor crimes are a crucial element in community-wide efforts to reduce violence. With respect to batterers, the police hold the key to whether or not batterers will be held accountable for their criminal conduct; with respect to victims, the police confirm the reality of battering and help provide the legitimacy and the support needed to disengage from or change a violent relationship.