A Call to Strategize for Survivor-Centered Solutions: Stop Defaulting to Law Enforcement as a Response to Intimate Violence

When sexual or domestic violence happens, the default response is often to call 9-11. Law enforcement is dispatched under the promise that they are there to “protect and serve.” Under ideal circumstances, some semblance of justice and safety would happen for survivors when they reach out for protection. A long history of documentation from survivors, advocates and community members tell a different story. What history shows time and time again is that policing in America, above all things, is designed to protect and serve systems of power at the expense of the historically marginalized. This history tells survivors that the state does not care about them.

Dynamics of rape, abuse and trafficking in the United States have strong roots in imperialism, settler colonialism, and slavery[1]. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a product of that ugly history, reinforces the scripts fed to us via capitalism, and white supremacy – dictating the ways we perceive and execute institutional power. It is no surprise that law enforcement, a large muscle of this system, would perpetuate the same cycles of abuse – using coercion and fear tactics to “correct” and control in the same way rapists, people who use abuse and traffickers do.

Systems of racist patriarchy interlock, and influence the ways survivors are often mistreated, ignored or criminalized. Survivors of color, especially Black and Brown women, transgender survivors, poor survivors and immigrant survivors are disproportionately impacted by these intersections[2]. Accompanied by criminal/legal systems, law enforcement has a history of perpetuating this violence in a multitude of ways. First, there so many instances in which laws are enforced to criminalize people for their own survival. “Mandatory arrest laws” which require police to make arrests at domestic violence calls often lead to upticks in survivor arrests – BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & Person of Color) survivors are nearly always the targets of these wrongful arrests. In a 2000 New York City study, 66% of survivors who were arrested along with their abusers (e.g. dual arrest) or arrested due to a 9-11 call from the abuser (e.g. retaliatory arrest) were Black or Latinx[3]. Queer & transgender folx are also disparately impacted by dual-arrests as responding officers struggle to determine who the person using abuse is. Failure to Protect (FTP) laws, which have also shown to disproportionately impact BIPOC communities, punish survivors attempting to access criminal/legal systems for support. Too often, taking legal action against abusive partners has backfired on survivors for “failing to protect their children” despite their efforts to take steps toward safety (i.e. filing for restraining orders, fleeing to a domestic violence shelter, filing police reports etc.[4]) Additionally, undocumented survivors already fear reaching out for support to avoid the very real threat of detainment/deportation. ICE/law enforcement collaborations exacerbate fears of incarceration & offer more power to the partner using abuse. Not only does this make survivors hesitant to reach out to the police, it also prevents them from reaching out for medical, legal and mental health support.

While one side of the coin shows how law enforcement often punishes survivors, the other side of it shows the system’s ambivalence to them. On October 9th, 2014 in San Francisco, CA, Cecilia Lam, called the police nine times to report her abusive ex who was stalking her. He was arrested for public intoxication and released a few hours later even after Cecelia shared that this was a domestic violence situation. Her ex shortly returned to her apartment, broke in and took her life and his own. Finally, research shows that law enforcement has high rates of intimate violence perpetrated by officers in the force. While these numbers are hard to capture, and likely underreported, some studies suggest that at least 40% of law enforcement officials have histories of domestic violence[5]. In April of 2003, the active Tacoma Police Chief murdered his ex-wife, Crystal Brame, in front of their children. This occurred a day after the Tacoma Police Department tried to quiet the journalist who published an article on his domestic abuse charges.[6] All of this considered, how can society trust the law enforcement to be trustworthy responders to survivors of intimate and gender-based violence?

Survivors deserve better long before their stories are published in grizzly newspaper headlines. This paper calls for a comprehensive movement to strategize for survivor-centered responses to violence that are not reliant on law enforcement. On a state level, governing bodies should push for the immediate release of incarcerated survivors of domestic and sexual violence. In addition to immediate release, the costs of imprisonment can be repurposed to support adequate mental and medical health, and practical support for survivors who need it. More funding should be directed toward community level interventions that provide survivors a safe place to access care and invest in the work to make sure survivors are not criminalized in the first place. Divesting from criminalization models and investing in transformative and restorative models may make it easier for survivors to feel good about reaching out for support. Afterall, we know that survivors typically reach out to their friends, family members and neighbors long before they call a hotline or even consider calling the police. On an organizational level, domestic and sexual violence agencies should reconsider their collaborations with police. A lot of resources are spent “reforming” police response to intimate violence, but efforts to educate a system predicated on punishment offers small concessions to survivors, especially those from historically marginalized communities. Organizations can be proactive in building transformative responses to violence that tap into strength inherent in survivors’ own communities. On an individual level, service providers and community members can do the work to learn about community-based approaches to violence. Perpetuating cycles of subordination and domination via law enforcement is not a strategy for long-term safety. People need access to safe housing, economic security, access to health care, community care, and support to self-determine what healing and justice means to them. Society needs sustainable, transformative solutions, not retribution and prison expansion.

[1] Smith, A., (2003). Not a native tradition: the sexual colonization of native peoples. Hypatia 18 (2).

[2] Survived and Punished. (2020, January 21). Analysis. Retrieved January 2020, from https://survivedandpunished.org/analysis/

[3] Haviland, M. Frye, Rajah, Thukral, & Trinity. (2001) “The family protection and domestic violence intervention act of 1995: examining the effects of mandatory arrest in New York City.” New York: Urban Justice Center.

[4] Mahoney, A.  (2019) How Failure to Protect Laws Punish the Vulnerable, 29 Health Matrix 429.Retrieved from : https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/healthmatrix/vol29/iss1/12 

[5] Friedersdorf, C. (2014). Police have a much bigger domestic-abuse problem than the NFL does. The Atlantic.[6] ABC News (2006). Kids saw police chief shoot wife, kill self. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=125208


Learn about transformative justice & abolition praxis:

The Revolution Starts at Home

Creative Interventions Toolkit


Thinking About How to Abolish Prisons – Mariame Kaba & Chris Hayes

Support organizations who are doing the work to address the intersections of intimate & state violence:

Survived & Punished

Project NIA


Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective


For funders:

The Crisis of Criminalization: A Call for a Comprehensive Philanthropic Response

For researchers:

Research Across the Walls: A Guide to Participatory Research Projects & Partnerships to Free Criminalized Survivors

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