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Regionalizing Police Responses to Domestic Violence

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nicholas Mastron
March 24, 2017

Perhaps it’s not intuitive, but an under studied paradox exists between domestic violence, police departments’ service delivery and local tax bases. However, police regionalization proffers a sustainable solution that harmonizes communities while also recognizing resource allocation concerns.

Historically, intimate partner violence overwhelmingly accounts for personal violence, and sadly, it continues to destabilize American households. At the macroeconomic level, national impact estimates of domestic violence range from $5.8 billion to $8.3 billion. On a more micro-level, domestic violence hotlines answer an estimated 20,000 calls daily for assistance, and national data suggests that roughly 10 million people are abused by intimate partners every year. Yet, many survivors feel they cannot report these crimes to police precincts. In other words, the departments fail to deliver appropriate services to these populations.

This service delivery aspect arises from both administrative and data misinterpretations. A recent American Civil Liberties Union study of advocates, attorneys, service providers and nonprofit organizations identifies police dismissiveness toward claims and officers’ personal biases as chief deterrents to survivors’ reporting.

From an administrative standpoint, some officials view domestic violence cases as “bad apples,” as they often rely upon testimonial evidence against supposed loved ones, cross jurisdictional bounds and attract unwanted wp-PPYR-YorkTownSquare-1741-segatt9oX00153_9public attention to police investigations. These elements culminate in psychosocial elements that make survivors feel like they are personally on trial by undergoing police interrogations to ascertain whether an individual’s case is both covered and easily investigable.

From a data perspective, many law enforcement and criminal justice officials misinterpret recent declines in domestic violence rates as indicative of successful service delivery, when in fact it illustrates merely a decline in reporting of domestic violence. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a 33 percent increase in female intimate partner homicide rates over the past two decades.

Decreasing local tax bases often force police departments into service provision tradeoffs, thereby inhibiting these jurisdictions’ abilities to holistically “serve and protect.” Economic downturn in the wake of the Great Recession erected many service constraints through massive cuts in services and discontinuation of specialized units across localities. These constraints leave certain populations, like domestic violence survivors, vulnerable to funding considerations.

As Michelle Alexander identifies in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, police departments also often prioritize certain types of police services––such as drug enforcement––over other services like domestic violence due to federal grant monies to subsidize department activities. In other words, departments selectively provide services because of their need to collect to protect.

So, to what degree can a feasible solution be achieved? While many potential remedies have emerged, few incorporate the survivor-oriented, service delivery-minded and budgetary-conscious aspects critical to improving and sustaining outcomes. However, regionalization of services possesses many advantages that might considerably alleviate these divergent interests.

Regionalization––merging and consolidating various jurisdictions within relatively homogenous geopolitical service areas––poses both benefits and drawbacks. In terms of benefits, regionalization accounts for communities’ changing population demographics, as many counties and municipalities continue to lose populations to larger urban and suburban centers. Canada pioneered the regionalization model in the early 1970s due to provinces’ inability to maintain even provincial population distributions. As more U.S. states face similar demographic transitions, regionalization presents an alternative to often outdated service delivery methods.

As people’s requirements for police services evolve into more cross-sectoral needs, cost-sharing across jurisdictions constitutes an important consideration. Other components of the criminal justice systems already employ a shared cost apparatus, such as jails, records and task forces. Furthermore, the oversight costs of ensuring continued accountability are potentially lowered through increased interactions with community leaders and organizations. So, precincts’ reliance upon current declining tax bases decreases.

Within a domestic violence context, regionalization of police services does not exclude but rather complements other potential changes, such as improved training, more widespread use of exceptional clearances, and more equitable hiring initiatives. Hence, jurisdictions move beyond top-down philosophies, which facilitate the systemic dismissiveness, and instead collaborate and coalesce within communities. Community leaders and organizations thus better ensure a bottom-up police accountability model that would help eliminate officers’ biases.

However, many residents, particularly in rural areas, adamantly oppose regionalizing police. Studies routinely find rural residents, areas in which regionalization is arguably most needed, often cite the need to have a personal connection to officers, which regionalization might impact. Others wish to preserve the current form of service delivery, seeing no need for additional services, which runs counter to domestic violence spatial prevalence rates.

Could regionalizing police forces improve responses to domestic violence? At least one state provides an encouraging outlook. Pennsylvania’s almost 40 regional police departments represent approximately 125 municipalities for services ranging from administration to specialized services, making it the most regionalized U.S. state for police services. The state provides financial and technical assistance as well as grant funding to localities interested in regionalizing police services. Since Pennsylvania began implementing this regionalization approach in the late 2000s, domestic violence deaths continue to decline.

Author: Nicholas Mastron is a current PhD student in Public Policy & Administration at the George Washington University, with a field specialization in Gender & Social Policy. Nick also serves as a Research Assistant at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy on the “Significant Features of the Property Tax” project. His email address is [email protected].

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