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Impact of Police Behavior on Victim Reports

Impact of Police Behavior on Victim Reports

Portland State University

Synopsis: Victims who get the outcomes they desire from police are more likely to utilize the police in the future than victims whose preferences did not match the outcome.


Community Need

Although it is perceived by many that police are the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, victims - who decide whether to officially report crimes - actually control mobilization of the criminal justice system. Since victims serve as the first major decision maker in the criminal justice process, understanding the factors that influence victim reporting behavior is an important criminological endeavor.


The study explores the issue of victim reporting in the context of domestic violence victimization. Of particular interest is whether a relationship exists between the victim’s assessment of police behavior during a previous domestic violence encounter and the likelihood that she will report subsequent victimizations.


Primary Research Question(S)

The study examines two common hypotheses about how police behavior may impact victim attitude or expectations, which in turn impact reporting.

  1. Process Hypothesis: Police demeanor toward victims increases or decreases future reporting behavior.

  2. Outcome Hypothesis: Victims who get the outcome they want from police (i.e., an arrest or an order of protection) are more likely to utilize the police in the future than victims whose preference did not match the outcome.

Research Design

The researchers selected the Metro-Dade County (Florida) Spouse Assault Replication Program (SARP) as the source of data for this analysis. (Portland, Oregon participated in SARP and is mentioned throughout this research report.) In the SARP experiment, cases were randomly assigned an “arrest” or “nonarrest” outcome when they were reported to the Metro-Dade Police Department. The authors of this study used the victim interview data collected at the time of the experiment to examine how perceptions of police behavior may impact official reporting.


The present sample suffers from a large amount of missing data that plagues the Dade County victim interview data. As a result, the study’s sample may underrepresent high-risk victims.


Research Findings

Results indicate that victims were more apt to call police upon further victimization when police had acted in a manner consistent with their preferences (i.e., the outcome hypothesis was supported). Conversely, the researchers found no support for the process hypothesis. Instead, they found that victims who felt unfairly treated by police were more likely to call them in the future, compared to victims who felt fairly treated. In exploring this surprising result, the researchers found that victims who felt more satisfied with police rated procedural fairness higher than victims who felt less satisfied. Satisfaction was not related to victim reporting and did not explain the counter-theoretical findings.

Main Implications

This work calls into question untested assumptions about victim reporting behavior. Theoretical work should focus on why unfair, rather than fair, treatment by police may be positively associated with domestic violence victim reporting or whether this is a spurious relationship explained by other factors. The policy debate has largely centered on the impact of mandatory arrest policies that restrict police discretion in the use of arrest in domestic violence cases. Continued empirical examination is vital to the understanding of how police may influence the reporting behavior of domestic violence victims and whether such influences may account for counter-theoretical findings in other domestic violence research.


Hickman, L. J., & Simpson, S. S. (2003). Fair treatment or preferred outcome? The impact of police behavior on victim reports of domestic violence incidents. Law & society review, 37(3), 607-634.