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A Better Way to Deal With Intimate-Partner Violence

Procedural justice can improve victims' perceptions of police and help law enforcement make communities safer.

A woman at a police station
Violence against women often isn't reported to law enforcement.
One in three women and one in four men in the United States have been physically abused by an intimate partner, and intimate-partner homicides account for 40 to 50 percent of femicides. Violence against women ranks among the top calls for service to police departments nationwide, yet over half of these types of crimes -- including four-fifths of rapes -- go unreported to law enforcement.

There is no mystery as to why this is the case. The trauma that victims experience from intimate-partner violence (IPV) can make them particularly reluctant to engage with the criminal justice system. They fear being re-traumatized by the system's response, or that there will be no response at all. Indeed, the majority of IPV victims cite a belief that the police will not or cannot do anything to protect them.

Yet this belief, this lack of trust in the criminal justice system, further endangers victims -- not only by discouraging them from accessing available public-safety resources but also by leading them to withhold crucial information from law enforcement. That undermines the ability of the criminal-justice system to properly investigate, prosecute and deter these crimes.

There is a well-documented solution to this crisis of trust. A growing body of research shows that "procedural justice" -- an approach grounded in the concept that law enforcement's interactions with the public shape the public's view of and willingness to reach out to police -- can make significant strides in reconciling these trust gaps.

Procedural justice focuses on transforming interactions between community members and all practitioners in the criminal-justice system, with the goal of improving individuals' perceptions of law enforcement, their willingness to obey the law, and their desire to collaborate in crime-solving and ultimately reducing crime. These goals are achieved through five critical tenets:

Voice: giving members of the community an opportunity to be heard and empowering them to speak up.

Fairness: demonstrating neutrality toward community members while addressing implicit biases.

Transparency: clearly explaining law-enforcement actions and why they are being taken.

Respect: treating community members with dignity and courtesy.

Helpfulness: expressing a genuine interest in individuals' needs and personal situations, while connecting them with available resources.

Every partner in the criminal-justice system -- from an officer responding to a domestic-disturbance call to a prosecutor conducting interviews with a victim to a judge presiding over a criminal-court case -- is in a position to send a message to IPV victims that the system is trustworthy, fair and a place to seek help. But while procedural-justice training can dramatically improve effectiveness in this effort, there are many small steps that can be taken immediately to achieve a powerful impact. It can be as simple as a police officer listening empathetically to a victim, offering information about services available, connecting the victim with a counselor, consistently enforcing protective orders, or clearly communicating to a sexual-assault victim what happens after a rape kit is completed and who will follow up about the case.

Research strongly supports the connection, regardless of the case outcome, between enhanced procedural justice and improvements in a victim's experience and long-term recovery. When victims perceive fairness, respect and a sincere offer of help, they are more likely to engage meaningfully with police, prosecutors and the court system. By integrating procedural-justice practices into law enforcement's response to IPV, criminal-justice practitioners create the opportunity to re-frame how these crimes are handled, enhance victim safety, improve case outcomes and repair a vulnerable community's trust in the system.

Furthermore, this trust could provide the foundation for a new vision of public safety: safer communities that are empowered by positive, ongoing and successful cooperation with law enforcement. Increased confidence in criminal-justice practitioners improves victim participation and offender accountability, and it provides law enforcement with the resources it needs to address and ultimately reduce these violent crimes. Procedural justice enables law enforcement to better help not only IPV victims but also communities as a whole.

Director of the Intimate Partner Violence Intervention program at the National Network for Safe Communities
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