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Domestic violence drops along with general crime
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Domestic violence drops along with general crime

The recent Arizona Republic story was all too familiar: “Mesa police said they believe a 25-year-old man was the gunman in an apparent murder-suicide that also left his girlfriend dead Sunday morning in a school parking lot.”

Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without grim accounts of domestic violence – which remains a highly underreported crime yet ranks among the most frequent 911 calls for most police departments. Domestic violence (DV) not only causes injury and property damage, but also shatters intimacy, scars children and often eludes the best efforts of the justice system to keep victims safe and hold offenders accountable.  It’s no wonder that frustrated victims, police officers, prosecutors and victim advocates wonder whether anything can possibly ease this plague.

Well, something is. A new study* from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) echoes estimates presented in earlier reports that the incidence of DV has dropped by a remarkably large margin in the past 20 years. How large? The April publication states that the rate of domestic violence in the U.S. plummeted by 63 percent – yes, 63 percent – from 1994 to 2012. This fits with a 2012 BJS report that found that the rate of intimate partner violence** had dropped by 64 percent between 1993 and 2010. Even back in 2000, the agency was reporting that intimate partner violence had declined 21 percent from 1993 to 1998.

These are amazing numbers – and thus immediately suspect: Widespread human behavior doesn’t usually change so dramatically or so quickly. And of course these are merely estimates generated by interviewing samples of the U.S. population. All of these reports are based on the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), an ongoing federal survey that continuously interviews thousands of Americans aged 12 and older – nationally representative samples of all households – in search of information about nonfatal crimes, both reported and not reported to police.

But the NCVS is a well-known, widely used analytical tool, and these findings gain credibility as succeeding studies point in the same direction. Even more supportive, of course, is the fact that the violent crime rate as a whole has been dropping (or flattening) throughout the country since the early 1990s. These DV figures, however extreme, are not outliers. 

So has DV been declining dramatically in the Phoenix area too? That’s harder to say, because national studies like the NCVS don’t measure local variations, and because the way DV cases are recorded in Arizona leaves plenty of room for omissions or mistakes. But there are indications that the decline is also happening here:  

  • Phoenix Police Department records show that the number of 911 calls alleging domestic violence (a very loose-fitting measure) declined gradually from 2001 to 2005, fell more steeply from 2005 through 2009, and have since shown a gradual increase through 2012. Overall, the annual number dropped from 54,377 calls in 2001 to 43,210 in 2012.
  • A 2013 report by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission – while noting numerous gaps in state record-keeping – found that statewide arrests for DV-related crimes increased from 2001 to 2010, but peaked in 2006. When controlling for population growth, the report found, the statewide DV arrest rate peaked in 2006 at a rate 9.8 percent higher than in 2001, then declined, ending the decade at a rate 3.1 percent lower than in 2001.
  • Assaults, both aggravated and simple, form the most common category of reported DV. According to state Department of Public Safety (DPS) records, the total number of aggravated assaults reported in Maricopa County declined from 11,093 in 2001 to 9,821 in 1012. DPS does not record the number of reported simple assaults – which are much more common.
  • Three basic measures of the use of Valley emergency DV shelters remained flat or declined during the past five years. These are 1) the number of requests for shelter per quarter, 2) the number of new clients served per quarter, and 3) the number of victims turned away for lack of bed space.    
  • The  Maricopa County office of Community Legal Services noted that applications for service from individuals identifying themselves as DV victims have remained essentially flat over the past five years, rising from 746 in 2008 to 751 in 2012.

It’s worth remembering that the above numbers were registered mainly in Maricopa County, whose population has grown by more than 25% since 2000.

So if DV is dropping, the big question is why? As for the overall national decline in violent crime rates, most researchers cite such factors as the dissolution of urban crack markets, the aging of the population, the huge rise in incarceration rates and improvements in policing. A couple of these factors might pertain directly to the DV drop. A study*** of the decline of reported DV during the 1990s proposed as causes the increased involvement of the legal system – especially the police – on behalf of DV victims, gradual improvements in women’s educational and economic status , and the general aging of the population.

These issues will remain in dispute. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that that the DV decline in part represents a “success story” for advocates and others who have worked diligently on behalf of DV victims for years or decades. There’s no question but that public awareness of and education about DV have grown substantially in the past several decades, as have services for victims and interventions by law enforcement and the rest of the justice system. Together with other cited factors, this general shift in our societal response to DV may well have served to deter some potential abusers, reduced public tolerance of DV and – perhaps most important – prompted more potential victims to recognize and avoid abusive relationships or to flee them at earlier signs of abuse.

Too many sad news stories will undoubtedly keep coming. But maybe, just maybe, we’ll see a few more happy ones as well.

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* Truman, Jennifer L., Ph.D., and Rachel E. Morgan, Ph.D (2014) Nonfatal Domestic Violence,

2003–2012, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics

** While “domestic violence” or DV is the commonly used phrase, it legally can refer to crimes committed against family members by siblings, parents, etc., while the crime of most concern is actually “intimate partner violence” or IPV. The standard term is used here for convenience.

*** Farmer, Amy and Jill Tiefenthaler (2003) “Explaining the Recent Decline in Domestic Violence,” Contemporary Economic Policy, 21:2

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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