BOSTON -- Defenders of
battered women long struggled to
persuade authorities to crack down
on brutal men who reigned by the fist
at home. But those crackdowns have
produced an unexpected consequence: in some places, one-quarter
or more of arrests for domestic assault are not of men but of women.
In Concord, N.H., this year nearly
35 percent of domestic assault arrests have been of women, up from
23 percent in 1993. In Vermont, 23
percent of domestic assault arrests
this year were of women, compared
with 16 percent in 1997.
And in Boulder County, Colo., one-quarter of defendants charged in domestic violence cases through September were women.
Those are simple statistics. But
women's advocates, law enforcement officials and academic experts
say that little else seems simple
about numbers they find surprisingly high -- except that they seem to
have emerged as an unintended result of mandatory arrest laws and
tougher police rules meant to help
women who were the victims of domestic violence.
Advocates for battered women
and many social scientists say that
most of the women arrested in these
cases were acting in self-defense and
that to punish them is unjust and
even dangerous because the victims
will be unlikely to call the police
Other social scientists and the police say that the arrest numbers reflect a real level of violence by women, even though women cause far
fewer injuries than men do and that
the finer nets set at women's urging
to catch more domestic abuse naturally sweep up some women as well.
Nearly one million cases of "intimate partner violence" are reported
in America each year, according to
the Department of Justice, with female victims outnumbering males
by more than five to one.
A different federal poll, the National Violence Against Women survey,
which uses a smaller sample and
different methodology, found the
gender gap was less pronounced: it
estimated last year that 1.5 million
women and 835,000 men annually
were raped or assaulted by an intimate partner, a ratio of just under
two to one.
The issue of women's arrests
sometimes takes on a gender-wars
edge. Some women's advocates see a
backlash among predominantly
male police officers. Some men's advocates see a silent epidemic of domestic abuse of men by women, and
call the arrest numbers further
proof. But virtually no one claims to
fully understand the phenomenon,
which mystifies because it so diverges from the widely accepted estimate that 95 percent of batterers
are men. Officials say efforts are
under way both to study the phenomenon and improve training for the
police, who must wade daily into "he
said, she said" battles.
"I just wish I could tell you what
the cause of it is," said Bonnie J.
Campbell, director of the Violence
Against Women Office, which oversees the $1.6 billion allotted by Congress for five years under the 1994
Violence Against Women Act. "My
instincts tell me some of it is the need
to fine-tune and do a lot of training. I
suspect one piece of it is backlash,
but that's just my instinct."
In addition, she noted, "We are
seeing numbers that suggest that
young women are getting more aggressive."
Scholars and advocates say that
they are giving more attention to the
arrests of women. The high numbers
have been cropping up for years in
spots, but lately, said Sue Osthoff,
director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered
Women, "it's become a bigger problem."
She continued, "I just think it's
happening to more women in more
In Concord, the police joined women's advocates and others this summer to try to learn what was going
on. But after examining 67 arrests of
women for domestic assault, there
was no single easy answer, said the
city's police chief, Bill Halacy.
"We had all these hypotheses,
most of which didn't turn out to be
true," Halacy said. One theory
was that the arrests might be "dual
arrests" -- the arrest of both partners in a fight -- but that was true in
only 22 percent of the cases, Chief
Halacy said. Then, he said, "We
started looking at: 'Is she a former
victim and this is like catch-up
time?' " They found that 21 percent
of the defendants had earlier come to
police attention as victims. And
among the victims, 16 percent had
previously been defendants.
Among the clear points that
emerged, Halacy added, only
three of 67 assault victims had to go
to a hospital, where they were examined and released, illustrating that
violence by women causes far less
injury than violence by men. In 24
percent of cases, Halacy said,
both parties in the assault were
women, including six cases of mothers assaulted by their daughters.
Grace Mattern, executive director
of the New Hampshire Coalition
Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said that some officers said
they needed "better training on making that on-the-spot decision on who's
the primary aggressor."
It also seemed, Ms. Mattern said,
that many of the women arrested
were involved in violent relationships that did not rise to the level of
battering. In classic battering, one
partner seeks to control and terrorize the other. In these cases, she said,
"when the couple gets angry, they
push each other, they shove each
other, one slaps the other, but no
one's a victim or a batterer." It's
more a "you hit me, I'm calling the
police" situation, she said. Throwing
things, shoving and hitting, "in this
day and age, can get you arrested,"
In the last two or three decades,
there has been a growing movement
to defend battered women that has
fought for tougher laws concerning
what many had long considered
"family matters." A more recent
wave of laws and policies has shifted
the focus in some places to identifying and arresting the "primary aggressor," but the upshot has remained the same: a great surge in
domestic violence arrests.
The trouble is that officers face a
difficult task when they enter a
house where both partners are disheveled, bruised and furious. Officials and experts emphasize that the
police must have the time, training
and willingness to investigate thoroughly enough to determine whether
a woman is a victim or an abuser.
But in some cases, said Bob
Moyer, executive director of the
Family Violence Council of Lancaster County, Neb., an officer is wont to
say: "I can't sort this out so I'm just
going to arrest both parties."
One Vermont woman described
the process that led to her arrest and
conviction for assaulting her boyfriend this year. The man had been
beating her on and off for five years,
she said, including during her two
pregnancies. After she got a restraining order, and the man was
warned not to hit her, he would
smash her head into a wall, or body-slam her, often in front of their small
daughter, who would lie on the floor
and cry with her.
One night as she was being beaten,
she said, she grabbed a knife and cut
an artery in the man's arm.
police took her in, she said, but the
man was not arrested.
"The police didn't look at him,"
she said, "didn't care about the violence he had done to me."
Vermont officials say they are trying to determine why 23 percent of
their domestic assault arrests are of
women. Jeri Martinez, an educator
for the Vermont Network Against
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said that a look at a few cases
indicated that women were largely
being arrested for minor assaults
like scratching and slapping.
"People want to look at this data
and say women are beating men,"
she said, "but the data doesn't tell
you that." There are too many other
variables, she said, like a recent expansion of the law.
Ms. Martinez was referring to people like Bert H. Hoff.
runs MenWeb, a men's issues Web
site that has an extensive collection
of articles on battered men, said that
the arrest numbers were not surprising, considering various studies that
indicate widespread domestic violence by women against men.
"Men are finally coming forward
and are finally being believed," Ms.
Murray A. Straus, a sociologist at
the University of New Hampshire
whose research has shown high levels of domestic assaults by women,
said that to him, the arrest numbers
show that "the pendulum is starting
to swing back toward more equal
treatment." It was terrible, he said,
when men were getting away with
beating their wives, but then the emphasis "swung to the other extreme"
when new laws and policies made it
sound like only men could commit
But some wonder whether the pendulum has swung back too far. Margaret Martin, an associate professor
at Eastern Connecticut State University who has looked at the Connecticut arrest rates, blamed "a kind of
over-routinized enforcement of the
law" for the fact that one-third of the
state's domestic assault arrests are
As study of the numbers proceeds,
so do attempts to improve police
training like a program recently begun in California, where the state
Justice Department reported that almost 17 percent of domestic assault
arrests in 1998 were of women.
Alana Bowman, deputy city attorney of Los Angeles and the point
person on domestic violence, said, "I
think training is the key component
to allow law enforcement to see domestic violence in a context" -- a
context, she said, that requires thorough investigation to look for things
like power and fear that may not be
State-level training, began this
month, she said, but was introduced
in Los Angeles at the start of this
year and has reduced by one-third
the arrests of women compared with
last year. High arrest rates of women, she said, seem to reflect confusion among the police about new
Eve Buzawa, a domestic violence
expert at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, said that her research suggested that it would also
be wise to return more discretion to
the police on whom to arrest.
"When you think about community
policing," she said, "in every other
area they're trying to teach the police to use discretion properly."
The high rate of arrests, particularly of women, raises a basic policy
question: Has the bar been set too
low on domestic violence? Should a
couple that scuffles really be vulnerable to arrest?
Chief Halacy of Concord said he
had asked himself that question and
concluded that even if the violence
was minor, "Our hope is that this
takes on sort of the flavor that Driving While Intoxicated did in years
past -- that it's no longer socially