Lobbying for Mandatory-Arrest Policies: Race, Class, and the Politics of the Battered Women’s Movement


During my three years as a volunteer with a community-based organization for battered women, we tried, through education and grassroots organizing, to convince police departments to implement policies that wouldlead to more arrests of men who perpetrate domestic violence. We believed that the problem of violence between intimate partners persisted in part because the police viewed it as a personal problem inappropriate for criminal sanction.

While we assumed that a battered woman would feel relief if not elation when her batterer was taken to jail, none of us knew whether an arrest would actually make a batterer stop being violent. Our support for a tougher arrest policy, however, was not based only on the deterrence effect it might have on an individual batterer. Criminalization, we trusted, expressed societal condemnation of domestic violence and thus could both force would-be batterers to reconsider the appropriateness of using force and intimidation and empower women in abusive relationships.

Contrary to our beliefs, recent research suggests that arrest actually may be ineffective in deterring domestic violence among low-income men, and that women of color may have reasons not shared by white women for being dubious about tougher arrest policies. Yet many white, middle-class feminists who consider themselves advocates for battered women continue to support such policies, including mandatory-arrest laws. These laws typically require police officers to arrest a man who violates an order of protection or whom police have probable cause to believe has committed acriminal offense against an intimate partner.

In congressional hearings on the Violence Against Women Act, white, middle-class advocates for battered women lobbied for a federal provision on mandatory-arrest laws. Their lobbying illustrates a central tension that this article attempts to explore: although typically representing them-selves as advocates for the needs and interests of all battered women, mandatory-arrest advocates are from a limited demographic base, ascribe to a narrow theoretical framework, and have an advocacy agenda that reflects this homogeneity.

In Part One of this article, I briefly discuss the forces that have motivated mandatory-arrest advocates–the enormity of the problem of domestic violence and the historic reluctance of police officers to intervene in domestic violence cases. I trace the political development of the battered women’s movement, which informs today’s advocates, contrasting its explicitly feminist theory of the causes of and remedies for domestic violence with that of social scientists.

In Part Two, I explore the ways in which this particular theory has spawned a rhetoric which essentializes battered women. I detail the aimsof advocates in supporting policies mandating arrests of batterers and suggest that these aims may not reflect the experiences of low-income womenand women of color. I will explain how, through its advocacy, advocates and the battered women’s movement more generally emphasize the universality of domestic violence and minimize the significance of race and class differences, to the detriment of many battered women.

In Part Three, I critically examine the benefits of advancing a race-and class-blind theory of the causes of and remedies for battering and then identify the costs for the battered women’s movement of its current theory and practices. This article concludes with practical suggestions toward amore inclusive battered women’s movement.

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