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Informed readers already know that indiscriminate, heavy-handed police intervention ruins lives every day across the U.S. Some of the ways in which this happens are subtle but no less damaging.

Evidence is building that “mandatory arrest” in reports of domestic abuse could be causing harm and even death to the very people it is supposed to protect. Mandatory arrest exists in 22 states.

The law…says that police officers responding to a call for help would no longer need to determine whether one person was truly violent or out of control; every time someone reported abuse, the police would simply be required to make an arrest. But research suggests that the law may be intimidating victims from actually calling the police to report an instance of abuse.” - Peralta and Novisky, University of Akron

Survey responses of women in domestic violence shelters show that a woman may not report abuse because she fears retaliation after a mandatory arrest. Or the woman may believe she will be arrested as the aggressor. Data show that mandatory arrest laws result in higher arrest rates of victims, as in cases of “dual arrest” when the victim is unclear but the officer is required to make an arrest.

Domestic abuse is the only situation where mandatory arrest exists. Whatever logic and common sense the officer may be able to apply to the situation is overruled by a mandate to arrest someone. The officer must ignore context, circumstances and desires of the victims.

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After an incident of domestic violence, for example, a woman might wish to call the police and have them come to her home. She might reason that a police officer could diffuse an explosive situation or frighten her batterer into ceasing his abuse. She may engage in a careful cost-benefit analysis and determine that, while police presence would be useful, an arrest would not. A woman may be dependent on the income of her batterer, for example, or she may not want their children to witness their father's arrest. Such a woman, if aware of a mandatory-arrest policy in her jurisdiction, would likely refrain from calling the police at all, and would thereby be deprived of a potentially useful tool in her struggle to end the violence in her life.” - Fedders, New York University

The mandatory arrest movement began after a 1981-82 study in Minneapolis found that mandatory arrest lowered future domestic abuse rates. However, the study was never able to be replicated, and studies in cities with large populations of poor minorities showed opposite results.

It turns out that the same author of the Minneapolis study has changed his view. Lawrence Sherman followed up on a Milwaukee study conducted 23 years ago and found that mandatory arrest can be downright deadly, especially in poor minority communities.

…domestic violence victims whose partners were arrested on common assault charges – mostly without causing injury – were 64% more likely to have died early, compared to victims whose partners were warned but not removed by police.
Among African-American victims, arrest increased early mortality by a staggering 98%.”

Yet another study found that intimate partner homicides are 50% higher in states with mandatory arrest laws, compared to states without mandatory arrest laws. Again, this is most likely due to an unwillingness to report the initial abuse.

…because of psychological, emotional and financial ties that often keep victims loyal to their abusers, the cost of arrest is easily transferred from abusers to victims. Victims want protection, but they do not always want to see their partners put behind bars.

Domestic abuse is a very real problem, and victims should have no hesitation in calling for help. However, is mandatory arrest the answer? The unintended consequences of such non-discretionary, heavy-handed policing may be outweighing the intended benefits.