Crime and (coerced) punishment in domestic violence cases

—Leigh Goodmark

Worried that your complaining witness won’t follow through with her domestic violence complaint? New York police have a new weapon to use in such situations: running criminal checks on women who allege abuse in order to have “leverage” if they decide not to press charges.

On March 5, NYPD Chief of Detectives Phil Pulaski ordered officers to perform criminal background checks on complaining witnesses as well as alleged perpetrators in domestic violence cases. A police source told the New York Post that reminding women of their open warrants “force[s] them to remain cooperative.” Don’t want to prosecute your partner? You can go to jail instead. Advocates for women subjected to abuse are predictably outraged by the policy, arguing that it will prevent women from seeking assistance from the police. I’m outraged, too, but not surprised—this kind of policy is just another manifestation of the legal system prioritizing its needs and goals over those of women subjected to abuse.

For years, advocates for women subjected to abuse have sought to increase police involvement in domestic violence cases.  Reacting to police directives to essentially ignore domestic violence, advocates fought for mandatory arrest policies, which required police to make arrests in domestic violence cases whenever they had probable cause to do so.

New York City’s new background check policy is the logical outgrowth of such measures. If police are required to intervene, they want those interventions to be “meaningful” in the way that meaning is measured in police practice—that is, through arrest and prosecution.  When women subjected to abuse decline to press charges, they keep police from fulfilling the function that they’ve been asked to play for the last thirty years.

It’s not surprising that police would look for ways to ensure that their efforts come to fruition in some way. And in a system that routinely marginalizes women subjected to abuse by refusing to allow them to decide whether (and how) they want the state to intervene in their lives, it’s not surprising that a policy such as this one emerges.

Leigh Goodmark is Professor of Law, Director of Clinical Education, and Co-Director of the Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She is the author of A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System (NYU Press, 2011).

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