More women arrested in domestic violence cases

Authorities find it is difficult to tell how many are abusers


BOSTON -- Defenders of battered women have long struggled to persuade authorities to crack down on brutal men who reigned by the fist at home, but as laws and the police have become more aggressive, they have produced an unexpected consequence: In some places nationwide, one quarter or more of arrests for domestic assault are of women.

Among residents of Concord, N.H., who were arrested for domestic assault this year, nearly 35 percent were women.

In Boulder County, Colo., one-quarter of defendants charged in domestic violence cases through September were women.

In Vermont, similarly, nearly one-quarter of domestic assault arrests this year have been women.

Those are simple statistics. But little else about the surprising arrest rate of women in some places is so clear, experts say, except that it seems 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 most of the women arrested in these cases were acting in self-defense, and to punish them is unjust and even dangerous because victims will be unlikely to call the police again.

Other social scientists and the police say arrest numbers reflect a real level of violence by women, even though women cause far fewer injuries than men.

Nearly 1 million cases of "intimate partner violence" are reported in America each year, according to the Department of Justice. Female victims outnumber males by more than five to one.

A different federal poll, called 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.

Virtually no one claims to fully understand the phenomenon, which mystifies because it diverges by such a wide margin from the generally accepted estimate that 95 percent of batterers are men.

Officials say efforts are under way to study the phenomenon and improve training for 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 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."

National numbers on arrests of women in domestic violence cases are hard to come by, but local numbers in some places do show a rise.

In Vermont, only 16 percent of domestic assault arrests in 1997 were of women, compared with 23 percent this year; arrests of women in Concord, N.H., rose to nearly 35 percent this year, from 23 percent in 1993, the first year for which the police had figures.

In Concord, police joined women's advocates and others this summer to try to learn what was going on. 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, Halacy said.

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 some officers said they needed "better training on making that on-the-spot decision on who's the primary aggressor."

It also seemed many of the women arrested were involved in violent relationships that did not rise to the level of battering, Mattern said. In classic battering, one partner seeks to control and terrorize the other.

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