Impunity In Our Own Backyard

Amy Lauricella, Global Rights for Women staff attorney, addresses the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission about the critical importance of the first interaction between law enforcement and victims of domestic violence.

I am deeply troubled that while we at Global Rights for Women (GRW) have been sharing Minnesota’s legacy on domestic violence legal reform with the rest of the world, women in our home city have been left without meaningful access and support from the criminal justice system. Don’t get me wrong. I have never been a police officer and I know from those I have worked with that their jobs are dangerous and challenging. But I also know from my work with victims that the interaction between a first responder — often law enforcement — and a domestic violence victim is absolutely critical. During that contact, the system should be designed to get victims the support they need to stay safe and ensure that abusers knows there are swift consequences for their behavior. Advocates know how difficult it is for victims to successfully leave abusive partners. Victims know from experience that they are most at risk for severe harm when they flee. Being met with indifference or disbelief by law enforcement colludes with the batterers’ threats that, “no one will help you.” The conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) is reinforcing this message.

At the direction of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC), the Office of Police Conduct Review (OPCR) investigated how the MPD responds to 911 calls reporting domestic violence. The outcome was a PCOC Report uncovering a devastating trend of non-intervention.

According to the report, MPD officers are not making arrests or even writing reports as required by department policy in the vast majority of domestic violence calls — those that entail assault, threats, or fear of harm. MPD officers are arresting and/or writing reports in only 19.98 percent of calls to 911 for help with a domestic violence incident. Imani Jaafar, one of the authors of the report, has noted that the arresting rate was even lower. Minnesota law affords broad protection to officers who believe they have probable cause to make an arrest in a misdemeanor domestic assault case, but clearly the MPD is not communicating to its officers that they should be availing themselves of this protection in order to better serve victims.

The 19.98 percent Minneapolis arrest/reporting rate stands in stark contrast to other Minnesota cities. In Duluth, Maplewood, and St. Paul, for instance, the rates of arrest and report writing are significantly higher. Domestic violence practitioners, victims, and abusers alike understand that a call to the MPD for domestic violence is unlikely to result in an arrest. Many in Minneapolis know that people can commit domestic abuse with impunity. When one man moved from Minneapolis to Duluth, his mother remarked to an advocate that “you take this a little too seriously up here” when discussing his criminal sentence. There have been cases in Minneapolis where it takes multiple calls to 911 to warrant adequate police response, a lack of which can contribute to homicide.

In Minneapolis, domestic violence victims are left with little protection or recourse when police fail to write a report. They are also likely to experience other negative impacts, including distrust of the criminal justice system, problems with family court proceedings, lack of access to advocacy and resources, and even employment consequences. The lack of a police report also leaves the criminal justice system with no history of the incident and, therefore, unable to respond effectively later on in the likely event that the victim is suffering a pattern of abuse. Safia Khan’s important work at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women highlights the fact that early and effective intervention by law enforcement in domestic violence cases in collaboration with community advocacy programs reduces the “repeat victimization or even homicide.”

Chillingly, the Minneapolis rate of 19.98 percent for arrests and/or reports in domestic violence calls does not differ from the rate at which arrests and/or reports are made in other types of assaults, evidencing a dangerous culture of apathy among the MPD ranks. According to the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, one in three women have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. While I do not know the likelihood of getting assaulted by a non-partner during the course of ones’ life, I am certain it is significantly lower than one in three. And despite this smaller group of victims, the MPD’s response rate is exactly the same.

This concern about apathy is buttressed by the report’s finding that the only factor determining whether a victim receives an adequate response from law enforcement is the identity of the officer. “Report or arrest rates differed by as much as 25 percent based on which officer responded. Differences in rates could not be explained by response time, time of the call, or the time spent on the call.” Ryan Patrick, co-author and lead data analyst for the report, confirmed for the PCOC that taking officer demographics into consideration, such as time on the force, race, and gender, was inconclusive.

This culture of failure to arrest or at least write a report is unacceptable, especially given Minnesota’s rich legacy of leadership in responding to domestic violence.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that even in those cases where officers do follow MPD policies in responding to domestic violence cases, the policies themselves are inadequate. Policies are in place throughout Minnesota, such as the Duluth Police Department, that make it difficult for officers to avoid writing reports for all domestic 911 calls. Additionally, it is an accepted best practice for policies to state that offenders “shall be arrested” when an officer has probable cause to believe that domestic violence has occurred, in contrast to Minneapolis’ “may arrest” standard. Additional written guidance discouraging dual arrests and accurately identifying the predominant aggressor would be another improvement. The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training Domestic Abuse Model Policy is a place to start.

GRW is proud of Minnesota’s leadership in responding to domestic violence. So we are disappointed, to say the least, that the best practices that we promote around the world are not being followed in our own backyard. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that this report will result in MPD partnering more closely with domestic violence advocates and victims to adopt and implement more effective policies and practices. The leadership within the MPD, along with other city leaders, has a real opportunity to uphold and advance Minnesota’s legacy. Increasing the rate at which officers write reports and make arrests will go a long way towards ensuring that our state lives up to its international reputation. Most importantly, women in Minneapolis will be safer and have meaningful support when domestic violence occurs.

We can and must do better for the 66,000 women living in Minneapolis who will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. I am hopeful that the MPD will embrace the report and work with the OPCR and Minneapolis advocates to ensure that for those women who do make the hazardous choice to reach out for help, they get it.