Study finds link between abuse victims’ deaths, abuser arrests

By Ashley Luthern, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

March 3, 2014

A study released Monday that followed up on a 1980s report about mandatory domestic violence arrest policies in Milwaukee found an increased death rate among victims when suspects were arrested, rather than merely warned, by police.

“The foundational question being begged by this research is an important and understudied one: Is the criminal justice system the best societal response to non-felonious domestic assault?” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said Monday.

Researchers highlighted the findings that victims were 64% more likely to have died of all causes, such as heart disease, cancer or other illness, if their partner was arrested rather than warned, and noted that among African-American victims, arrest increased early mortality by 98% while white victims saw mortality increased from arrest by 9%.

Victim advocates in Wisconsin, however, described the study as “flawed” for attempting to apply old data to present-day policies.

“Thankfully for victims of domestic violence, we don’t live in the 1980s anymore,” representatives with End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin said in a written statement. “Twenty-five-year-old data cannot be used to conclude that domestic violence arrests are dangerous to victims.”

Advocates also praised the state laws that mandate arrest on probable cause of misdemeanor domestic assault because they provide accountability.

“It says to victims and perpetrators that domestic violence is not acceptable and takes the initial burden off victims from being seen as holding abusers accountable themselves, which can also not be a safe state for a victim to be in,” said Antonia A. Vann, chief executive of Asha Family Services in Milwaukee.

Follow-up to ’80s study

The study was a follow-up to the Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment from 1987-1989 and undertaken by the same primary researcher, Lawrence W. Sherman, a University of Maryland professor and director of Cambridge University’s Police Executive Program. The 2014 study was co-authored by Heather M. Harris from the University of Maryland and will be published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.

Sherman acknowledged that a problem with examining long-term effects is that societies don’t stay the same and conditions can change, but he said he hopes the research prompts more attention about whether these policies are good for victims and if so, which victims.

Flynn will join Sherman to present the findings Wednesday at the Society of Evidence-Based Policing in London. The original trial was funded by U.S. National Institute of Justice grants, and the follow-up study was funded by the University of Maryland.

The original study was based on a sampling of misdemeanor domestic violence assault cases in Milwaukee and a random outcome, either an arrest or a warning, of what happened to each suspect.

“I think we have to accept the facts as they are, rather than as we would like them to be and then to figure out where we go from here,” Sherman said.

Those facts raise interesting questions but do not lead to clear conclusions, Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families, a research and health policy institute, said Monday.

“The point is you can’t conclude anything from these data,” said Zuckerman, who has a doctorate in psychology. “It raises interesting questions, but it doesn’t give you any answers. What you’d really want to look at is what’s happening to the victims after their abuser is arrested that might make matters worse for them instead of better.”

The research team plans to interview the surviving domestic violence victims and attempt to measure their post-traumatic stress levels to see if that might be associated with factors related to the mortality rate, Sherman said.

Researchers are following up with a similar sample in Charlotte, N.C., to see if the mortality results are comparable to those found in Milwaukee, he added.

It also would be useful to compare a mandatory arrest policy to one of a victim’s preference policy — meaning the victim decides if the suspect is arrested or not, Sherman said.

Noting that many misdemeanor domestic violence charges are dismissed when a victim-witness fails to appear in court, Flynn said it’s possible that victim preference is represented in the current system in the prosecution stage.

Like the victim advocates, Flynn also acknowledged how much has changed since the late 1980s.

Mandatory arrest “became the proxy by which society would now take notice of the issue of domestic violence,” Flynn said, and since then, a “robust array of public and private services” have emerged to address domestic violence.

“It’s dangerous to either overstate the meaning of research findings or to dismiss scientific review for being imperfect,” Flynn said.