Survivors of Domestic Violence Report Feeling Less Safe After Contacting Law Enforcement

The Hotline finds that survivors of violence fear that contacting police will make things worse, might result in their arrest or loss of custody of children

AUSTIN, TX — The National Domestic Violence Hotline (The Hotline) recently released the results of a survey of survivors’ experiences with law enforcement. In 2015, The Hotline first conducted a survey on the experiences of survivors with law enforcement. The survey results were leveraged widely to highlight the experiences of survivors and their evolving needs.

In 2021, The Hotline conducted a follow-up survey to gain additional data and insights. As with the 2015 survey, the results underscore the need to reexamine the criminal legal system’s role in intimate partner violence and reimagine survivor-centered responses to domestic violence. The Hotline surveyed survivors who reached out to its chat line and website between March and May of 2021, with more than 1,500 survivors responding.

Of those 1,500, approximately 82% of survivors had contacted police about intimate partner violence or sexual assault and 12% did not. Both groups shared concerns about turning to the police for assistance and were also concerned about contacting them in the future.

“What this survey lays out with painful clarity is that the main reason domestic abuse victims reach out to law enforcement is because there is no other alternative,” said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. “It is a powerful reminder that we need to look beyond the criminal legal system for responses to violence that actually meet survivors’ needs for justice and safety, including social services, mental health supports, community interventions, housing resources, financial assistance and more.”

Survivors who were hesitant to call the police, frequently cite fear of reprisal, eviction, arrest, embarrassment, immigration status and fear of losing custody of their children as reasons for not calling law enforcement. All these factors present huge obstacles for survivors trying to seek safety.

  • 71% feared the police would do nothing if called
  • Half believed the police might arrest their partners but that their partners would not ultimately be punished
  • Almost a quarter of survivors surveyed feared that the police would arrest them, and more than half were concerned the police would not believe them and 21% believed that they would be threatened by the police or would be reported to Child Protective Services
  • Other findings from the survey include:

  • Of those who reported never having called the police, 92% were very or somewhat afraid about how the police would react
  • Of those who had called the police, 55% believe they were discriminated against in some way
  • Of those who had called the police, 25% were threatened with arrest
  • When asked if other resources had been available, would the survivors have chosen an alternative over police, 71% answered “yes”
  • Respondents overwhelmingly expressed a desire for different kinds of interventions—one that did not rely on police. Respondents also expressed frustration at the lack of options and the information available to them. Currently, the criminal legal system is the primary intervention response to intimate partner violence and sexual assault in the United States. Research suggests that the criminal legal system does not necessarily deter or reduce intimate partner violence or sexual assault, contributes to the conditions that are associated with violence, and has serious unintended consequences for many it was meant to protect.

    This survey makes clear that there is much more work to do to fundamentally transform the response to violence into one that materially improves the lives of those who are harmed.

    “Police have never helped—not when I was being stalked, harassed, or abused,” said another survivor who responded to the survey. “That kind of violence—police and incarceration—only escalates a situation and makes it less safe for me and my family.”

    “This report contains powerful information from survivors who voluntarily gave insight into their experiences through answers to our questions and in their own words,” said Ray-Jones. “They did so with the hope that the criminal justice system would hear them, believe them and effect change.”

    If you have any questions about The Hotline’s survey or would like to speak to someone at The Hotline about the report, please contact The Hotline’s media team at [email protected] or (202) 713-5503.

    ###

    The National Domestic Violence Hotline envisions a world where all relationships are positive, healthy, and free from violence. If you or someone you know needs help, call The Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or go to thehotline.org