Why Domestic Violence Survivors Fear Turning To The Police

By Meg Aprill 

In recent weeks, police brutality and violence have sparked discussions among policy makers about defunding the police and allocating more funds to community resources. Opposers of this idea have used domestic violence as a reason for why the U.S. still needs the police at its current capacity. However, a variety of factors, including one’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic class, make calling the police to respond to domestic violence a difficult decision. Before reaching out to the police, it is important to know what to expect.

According to a National Domestic Violence Hotline survey, 80% of sexual assault victims are somewhat or extremely afraid of calling the police. Survivors of domestic violence often don’t trust the police because they risk losing privacy, being discriminated against, retaliation from their abuser, police brutality toward their abuser or themselves, being victim blamed, and putting their children in danger. Calling the police could also make the situation worse for a victim if officers don’t take them seriously, allowing them to remain trapped with their violent abuser. A study done by RAINN says that for every 1000 sexual assaults, approximately 995 perpetrators will walk free. When a police officer on the scene is unable to assess which party is the primary aggressor, a survivor may even be arrested alongside their abusive partner. 

The NDVH survey also reports that about 24% of domestic violence survivors who have contacted the police say they wouldn’t do it again, and another 62% are unsure. Approximately 2 of 5 survivors say they felt discriminated against after reporting sexual assault to the police. Survivors claim they are treated differently by police because of their race, socioeconomic standing, sexual identity, immigration status, or gender. One survey participant said, “I am a black female so I felt like they automatically saw me as dumb, poor and ignorant… I didn’t have any marks besides a swollen lip, so I felt like they didn’t take it as an immediate threat.”

Since many survivors face discrimination from the police, many also worry that prejudice could turn into police brutality and violence. The Women of Color Network says that minority victims fear subjecting themselves and their loved ones to a criminal and civil justice system that is sexist, and racially and culturally biased. 

Another obstacle survivors find is that police who respond to domestic violence calls aren’t always educated on partner abuse and sexual assault. A lack of understanding regarding domestic violence often results in officers blaming the victim. One study found that a group of 10 police officers who were involved in domestic violence investigations were prone to treat victims with skepticism immediately. In the NDVH survey, a survivor said, “I am the victim, and the third time neighbors called female officers came, one of them was blaming me because I went back to my abuser; I had no money, no place to go and no transportation. She also told my abuser I was crazy.” Survivors of sexual assault are afraid to seek help from the police because they don’t want to be victim blamed. 

Not only do domestic violence survivors struggle going to the police for the reasons above, but recent evidence has shown that many police officers have become abusers themselves. Andrea Ritchie said to The Crime Report that, “Police have so much power, and they use that power in the same way that other people with power, such as Weinstein, politicians, and priests do.” A database created by The Buffalo News showed that every 5 days an officer is caught in a sexual assault case or misconduct. Vox reported that even one of the officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor was recently accused of sexually assaulting two women. 

The relationship between domestic violence survivors and law enforcement is complex. Survivors struggle trusting the police because often they aren’t respected or heard. However, in some cases, reporting sexual or domestic violence to the police can be life saving. If contacting the police is something a survivor wants to do, it is important to be prepared. NDVH has shared a great resource explaining how to communicate with police after experiencing domestic violence. Click here to read more about working with the police. 

Many organizations exist to help survivors navigate the process of reporting domestic and sexual abuse. Survivors can contact their local domestic violence crisis center to assess their options, including filing a report in the crisis center rather than a police precinct.  Depending on the nature of the relationship, a survivor may also be eligible to file for an order of protection in family court, rather than criminal court. It’s important to note, however, that the police may still play a role in the family court order of protection process. For example, if the perpetrator violates a family court order of protection, a survivor may call the police to have the perpetrator arrested; this may open up a criminal case against the perpetrator. 

Day One offers survivors legal services, social services and counseling. If you are seeking help you can call Day One’s helpline at 800-214-4150 or text 646-535-3291. You also can reach out to us on our contact form here. Survivors can also find help by contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline for a variety of services. 

Join Our
Mailing List

Sign up for the latest news,
content, and updates!