s abolition activists and scholars aptly situate arguments for police abolition within the history of enslavement and settler colonialism and detail why reform and regulation cannot improve a system that fundamentally operates as a racialized, gendered, and capitalist tool of violence and inequality (Akbar 2018; Gilmore 2007; Ritchie 2017), few address with specificity how to safely intervene in domestic violence when envisioning a world without criminal law enforcement.

While I join abolitionist demands to reduce the role of criminal law enforcement in our society, I am also concerned about calls to adopt alternative justice models in incidents of domestic violence. Broadly, alternative justice models, including transformative and restorative justice, provide space for all stakeholders who have been impacted by an injustice (i.e.: perpetrators, victims, and the community) to discuss what should be done to repair the harm that the incident caused (Kershnar et al 2007). In expressing hesitancy for adopting alternative justice models in domestic violence, I am not aligned with either of the competing claims of absolute horror or absolute success that accompany discussion of these practices for abusive relationship. Rather my concern centers on the romanticized notion of “community” that alternative justice models espouse.  

A hallmark of alternative justice entails “community accountability” (Kershnar et al 2007), in which the community holds the individual accountable for their harmful behavior and ensures it does not happen again, while also working to change the structural and systemic oppressions that led to the injustice occurring. In other words, alternative justice models require that the community play a critical role immediately following the injustice while also collectively working to prevent new injustices in the future. The notion of community that alternative justice models espouse suggests a tight-knit, place-based kinship in which all members of “the community” look out for one another despite differences across gender, race, socio-economic status, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion. I join other activists and scholars who examine the intersections of intimate and state violence in raising concern about how alternative justice models rely on romanticized notions of community that seldom exists in practice, particularly in the context of gender-based violence (see for example, INCITE! 2006: 8)

In what follows, I aim to show that the overarching challenge in utilizing alternative justice for domestic violence is the absence of a tradition of community accountability in domestic violence. In their 2001 Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex, Critical Resistance and INCITE! note that police and prison abolitionists largely developed alternative justice models in isolation from domestic violence activists and these models have “generally failed to provide sufficient mechanism for safety and accountability for survivors of sexual and domestic violence”. Nearly twenty years later, abolitionists continue to promote alternative justice for domestic violence (see Gang et al 2019 for a review), yet there is a near absence of evaluative research to assess its effectiveness and its use remains controversial (ibid). Abolitionists advocating alternative justice for domestic violence have largely overlooked how “the community” is shaped by the tenets of patriarchy and institutionalized sexism. Patriarchy feeds an abuser’s sense of entitlement to engage in domestic violence, but patriarchy also features in how communities are structured, including the ongoing separation of public and private spheres, perceptions of domestic violence as a private problem, victim blaming, and the absence of a bystander culture. While “the community” might not be overtly abusive, “the community” plays a role in enabling domestic violence and is culpable for its ongoing existence. This presents a problem for abolitionism if it is to rely on “the community” as an alternative to criminal law enforcement.

By highlighting the limitations of alternative justice models that rely on community accountability to address domestic violence, I argue that if a truly abolitionist society represents the goal, abolitionists must center the problem of domestic violence when imagining alternatives beyond criminal law enforcement. This centering includes addressing the unique immediate and long-term security needs of domestic violence survivors, particularly in regards to lethality and survivor impact. In what follows, I begin by drawing on my experiences as a victim advocate and scholar of gender-based violence to show why the policing response to domestic violence is problematic and often ineffectual. I then detail how domestic violence is different from other harms and why these distinctions present challenges for alternative justice models that rely on community accountability to support survivors and hold abusers accountable.

Policing domestic violence

I worked professionally for five years as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. I specialized in legal advocacy, providing accompaniment and support to over 800 survivors during interviews with police officers and at court during civil and criminal proceedings. In this role, I worked with police officers from over a dozen agencies across two US states, ranging from small rural municipal departments with fewer than ten uniformed officers, to a large urban department under federal consent decree. As an advocate, I spent hundreds of hours informally observing police in all aspects of their everyday work lives, including their interactions with survivors. I also conducted two years of participant observation inside a police department and completed interviews with 37 police officers for two research projects focused on institutional responses to domestic violence and technology-enabled coercive control. I believe my access to conduct research with the police - as a result of my former advocacy employment - allows me to understand the problems underlining the policing response to domestic violence, while also raising concern about the use of alternative justice models for addressing this particular type of harm.

The history of law enforcement’s involvement in domestic violence is a recent one, consistently beginning in the early 1990s. Prior, the police, and state institutions more broadly, viewed domestic violence as a personal and family problem, outside the purview of criminal law (Buzawa and Buzawa 1996). In response, the 1970s anti-domestic violence movement worked to reframe domestic violence as public and political, necessitating state intervention. As law enforcement’s refusal to intervene in domestic violence incidents most visibly represented the state’s failure to protect women equally under the law, the anti-domestic violence movement - led mostly by white, middle-class women – not only encouraged police intervention, but lobbied for legislation requiring arrest in cases of domestic violence (Schechter 1982). The domestic violence-specific policies of “mandatory” or “preferred” arrest became common protocol within police departments across the US throughout the 1990s, and the federal 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) institutionalized the criminal legal system as the primary method to address the problem of domestic violence.

The pendulum swing in the policing response to domestic violence – particularly in jurisdictions that mandate arrest – has had conflicting results over the last thirty years. On the one hand, survivors are more likely to engage with police officers who view domestic violence as a crime, who are trained to assess for lethality, who distribute survivor-focused resources, and who arrest abusers when the officer observes visible injuries. For survivors who desire the arrest and incarceration of their abuser, the policy of mandatory arrest better guarantees an aggressive and proactive police response. However, policing intervention can also create a host of new physical, economic, and emotional insecurities, particularly for survivors who call the police for immediate assistance, but who do not want the arrest or prosecution of their abuser (Cuomo 2013). Additionally, in their mandate to arrest, police officers sometimes incorrectly assess for the predominate aggressor and arrest survivors who cause injuries to their abuser when acting in self-defense; LGBTQ and women of color survivors are disproportionately represented among victim-defendants (West 2007). Also, the intense focus on arrest has dissuaded some survivors of color and immigrant survivors from calling the police or seeking protection orders - even in highly lethal situations - because they fear a racist and violent police response, contributing to the over criminalization of men of color, and/or the deportation of themselves or their partner (Nash 2005). All this to say, the policing response to domestic violence is uneven and alters significantly based on a survivor’s geographic location, race, citizenship status, sexuality, and socio-economic class.

I have argued elsewhere (Cuomo 2019a) that the policing response to domestic violence is rooted in a form of patriarchal protection that assumes the best interest of survivors over survivors’ own self-identified needs. Not unlike abusers themselves, the police and criminal legal system more broadly, assume authority to make decisions on behalf of survivors, particularly survivors who do not support the arrest and prosecution of their abusers. Consequently, the policing response to domestic violence is problematic not only because it can create new physical, economic, and emotional insecurities for survivors, but also because it results in a (re)entrenchment of the female victim subjectivity within a patriarchal state (ibid). And yet, despite the concerns I have just outlined, I do not unconditionally support alternative justice models to address domestic violence. To contextualize my concerns, I outline three ways in which domestic differs from other types of harm and explain why these differences present challenges for the successful use of alternative justice in response to domestic violence.  

Domestic violence is a power-based harm

Domestic violence involves patterns of coercively controlling behaviors designed to assert influence and control over an individual’s life using threats of harm, dependence, isolation, intimidation, and/or violence. In other words, domestic violence entails more than single incidents of physical violence. When I refer to domestic violence in this essay, I draw on Johnson’s (2008) understanding domestic violence as intimate terrorism. Johnson distinguishes “situational violence” from “intimate terrorism”; the former involves fights that couples use to settle differences and the latter involves abusers who rely on control tactics to engage in emotional, financial, verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse with the goal of reinforcing control and dominance. Related, Stark (2007) refers to domestic violence as a “liberty crime” reflected through patterns of harm in which abusers seek to entrap victims, undermine their social support, subvert their autonomy and deprive them of equality (p 13). These frameworks underscore abusers as calculated, manipulative, deliberate, and in control of their actions. Despite its characterization in television dramas and the media, domestic violence is not a “crime of passion” and abusers do not have “anger management” problems. While an abuser’s mental health concerns and/or alcohol and other drug use might compound or escalate their abusive behavior, neither are the cause of domestic violence; abusers feel entitled to coercively control their partners and this entitlement is rooted in a patriarchal and sexist worldview that is learned behavior (Stark 2007).

The power-based foundation of domestic violence makes it different from other types of harm where alternative justice models and community accountability have been more regularly and successfully utilized. As a pattern of coercively controlling behavior, domestic violence is not a single-incident, but rather involves months, years, or even decades of ongoing abuse that targets one person. Those proposing alternative justice must appreciate the inequity that underpins the foundation of abusive relationships and that abusers choose to be abusive. This is not to reproduce paternalistic tropes that survivors are incapable of making decisions for themselves, but rather to understand the competing pressures that survivors navigate when presented with alternative justice options.

One such pressure entails the community that is central to the success of alternative justice. INCITE! (2006), while often cited for their abolition activism working to end all forms of interpersonal and state violence against women, gender non-confirming, and trans people of color, also cautions against adopting alternative justice models in response to gender-based violence. As INCITE! argues, “Many survivors find themselves further victimized by these strategies, as they are often pressured by community members to ‘reconcile’ with the offender with little regard to their safety or need for justice and accountability” (2004: 8). Such is the case because “the community” tasked with accountability in domestic violence is rarely independent or impartial, and will likely include the abuser and survivor’s preexisting network of friends, family, coworkers, and members of their recreational and religious groups. While physical forms of domestic violence – such as physical and sexual abuse - more often occur behind closed doors, many elements of an abusive relationship – including verbal and emotional abuse – happen within plain sight. Consequently, “the community” tasked with holding an abuser accountable is likely the same community that the abuser and survivor interacted with during the actively abusive relationship. This means that the community now responsible for supporting the survivor and holding the abuser accountable might have failed to intervene in incidents of abuse in the past, knowingly or unknowingly condoned the abuser’s behavior, and knowingly or unknowingly discounted the survivor’s experience. The “community” will likely include other abusers. Children also represent members of the community and pressure to reconcile might emerge directly from the abuser and survivor’s shared children, or within the community’s promotion of “family values”.

Beyond “the community” causing intended or unintended pressure to reconcile, the power-based foundation of domestic violence means that some abusers will require long-term monitoring as they must work to undo the value-system that justifies their use of violence and fear to maintain power within a relationship. When the alternative is jail, abusers have incentive to agree to participate in alternative justice, and their agreement does not guarantee a commitment to genuine change. When abusers do express a genuine commitment to change, this process necessitates time and requires both professional support and constant community monitoring. While isolated examples of successful community monitoring exist, such as in remote rural Alaska (Hyslop 2012), we lack models for how to scale-up this level of monitoring when abusers out-number community members willing to provide this type of intensive supervision. It is also unclear what happens when an abuser reoffends, when the community cannot manage the abuser, or whether the community has legal authority to confiscate firearms when an abuser refuses to relinquish his guns.

Domestic violence persists as a private problem

As I outlined above, for most of US history state institutions viewed domestic violence as a private problem. Yet the collective understanding of domestic violence as a private problem extended beyond criminal law enforcement and into other aspects of the community and its institutions. For example, many family therapists and medical professionals rooted their theories of domestic violence within victim blaming rationalizations (Schechter 1982). This included therapists who explained women’s participation in their own victimization as the primary cause of domestic violence, rather than pointing to or condemning the behavior of abusive men (Miccio 2005). Similarly, the church and other religious institutions preach(ed) traditional patriarchal gender roles and pressure(d) survivors to remain in abusive relationships through the old adage, “you made your bed, now lie in it”. Influenced by the messages espoused by cultural institutions writ large, family members and friends of survivors also participate in victim blaming – particularly when survivors return to abusive relationships (Lebrón 2019).

Despite decades of feminist activism and laws criminalizing domestic violence, these cultural legacies persist and many people – including survivors – continue to view domestic violence as a personal and individual problem. The ongoing perception of domestic violence as a private issue is evident when we analyze the way domestic violence is not framed. For example, we do not frame domestic violence as a “public health crisis”, “national security concern” or “domestic terrorism”, even though it is ideology-driven, a leading cause of homicide among women, and men who kill their intimate partners regularly do so within the context of a mass shooting (Everytown for Gun Safety 2017).

The ongoing perception of domestic violence as private is also exemplified by the rarity of bystanders to intervene in incidents of domestic violence. This includes neighbors who fail to intervene when they hear an argument through a shared apartment wall or pedestrians who fail to intervene when they witness an incident on the street. While fear that they will become the target of the abusers’ violence deters some bystanders from intervening, research also indicates that - in the context of domestic violence - bystanders believe they should not intervene in another person’s private affairs (Davis 2014). Without an established culture of bystander intervention, it is dangerous to rely on the community alone to support survivors, hold abusers accountable, and intervene during incidents of domestic violence. While dedicated members of the community might be responsible for the day to day monitoring of the abuser, survivors must be able to trust that everyone, all the time, and anywhere will intuitively provide support and intervention. These challenges will only intensify as abusers increasingly rely on technology as a tactic of coercive control, hiding behind anonymous social media accounts and spoofed phone numbers to harass, stalk, monitor and surveil their victims (Cuomo and Dolci 2019)

Domestic violence also persists as a private problem in that society continues to question and disrupt efforts to expose the prevalence and pervasiveness of domestic violence, and survivors continue to be doubted and blamed for the abuse they experience. For alternative justice to succeed, the effectiveness of community accountability relies on the community believing survivors, especially the community closest to the abuser. While there are numerous examples to demonstrate the ways in which survivors who raise allegations of gender-based violence continue to be doubted and mistrusted, relevant for alternative justice is the backlash against higher education for utilizing Title IX to hold accountable student perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic violence. Title IX is a federal law within the US that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. The law identifies sexual assault and domestic violence as forms of sex discrimination and requires schools to address the harm, its effects, and prevent its reoccurrence. Notably, Title IX represents a non-criminal alternative for student-survivors to receive support and seek accountability. Student-abusers found responsible for violating a school’s conduct policy are held accountable via a continuum of non-carceral measures; less serious conduct code violations might result in the loss of extracurricular privileges at the school, while more serious offenses, including violent assaults and rape might result in expulsion.

The backlash against schools holding accountable student-abusers has largely been led by men’s rights groups and mothers of the accused (Hartocollis and Capecchi 2017). In defense of their sons, mothers often rely on age-old sexist tropes centered on the lying, revenge-seeking woman. The uproar about the unfairness of Title IX has positioned mothers of the accused as leading advocates to call for changes in how schools use Title IX to hold accountable student-abusers; their advocacy has fallen on sympathetic ears within the Trump Administration as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued new federal guidance in May 2020 reducing the authority of Title IX to adjudicate sexual misconduct. I use the example of Title IX in this discussion because it serves to reinforce the ongoing interest among various members of “the community” to shift responsibility off the abuser’s shoulders, and abusers are skilled at cultivating allies. The penchant among abusers to cultivate allies and skirt meaningful accountability is also reflected among professors within academia accused of sexual harassment. If an internal human resources investigation affirms that a professor violated a sexual harassment policy, the outcome is generally private, may or may not result in employment termination, and often leads to severance pay, a job offer at another institution, and community members rallying around the accused. The propensity to view domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence as private and individual one-off incidents, rather than a reflection of a patriarchal and sexist culture, occur within even the most “educated” communities.

Domestic violence is dangerous

One of the reasons that people fear intervening in active domestic violence incidents is because they are dangerous. For law enforcement, domestic violence incidents are some of the riskiest calls they respond to, especially when the abuser has access to firearms, is recently unemployed, and intoxicated upon police arrival (Johnson 2017). Intervening in a domestic violence incident is also unpredictable; a seemingly innocuous effort to intervene in a verbal argument can quickly escalate when an outside arbitrator challenges an abuser’s perceived authority, particularly when the intervention occurs in the home. The privacy that the law affords individuals in relation to their home buttresses abusers’ already perceived “king of the castle” mentality; it is challenging to deescalate and rationalize with someone who assumes this mentality.

Additionally, most domestic violence homicides occur after the relationship ends. Abusers who lose control of the survivor often feel as though they have nothing left to lose, expounding why domestic violence homicides regularly end in the abuser’s suicide. “If I can’t have you, no one will” represents one of the most commonly used phrases among abusers. When I worked as an advocate, survivors regularly conveyed fear that their abusers would follow through with this threat, underscoring why so many survivors stay in abusive relationships. Moreover, domestic violence remains dangerous for survivors after the actively abusive relationship ends, particularly when the survivor enters into a new relationship. This is exemplified by the number of domestic violence-related mass shootings that spill out of the home and into public spaces, as abusers also target the survivor’s children, new partners, extended family, and co-workers.

Alternative justice can also create precarious situations for “the community” tasked with holding abusers accountable. Those who interact with abusers and attempt to manage their behavior are in a position to experience similar emotional impacts after being exposed to an abuser’s power-based tactics and attempts to regain control (Cuomo 2019b). This exposure to vicarious abuse can lead to feelings of hypervigilance and fear among those responsible for monitoring abusers, and requires us to better understand the impacts of having regular and constant contact with abusers. For all these reasons, we must carefully consider how we ask “the community” to intervene in incidents of domestic violence.

The problem is patriarchy

Abusive relationships exist along a continuum of low to high risk for lethality and there are survivors without ongoing safety concerns for whom alternative justice might be an ideal option. But abolitionism must also be prepared to respond to incidents of domestic violence involving homicidal abusers in ways that do not increase feelings of precarity or potential for escalated violence. Abolitionism must also be prepared to encounter survivors who believe incarceration provides the only guarantee for their short or long-term safety. Notably, the police response to domestic violence reproduces many of the same coercive dynamics inherent within abusive relationships and can create new and additional physical, economic, and emotional insecurities for survivors. Yet in working toward a world without criminal law enforcement, abolitionism must be careful not to reproduce these same paternalistic and coercive dynamics by limiting or choosing what intervention and accountability options exist for survivors.

Survivors of domestic violence need more options for safety and accountability, not fewer. If alternative justice is to be included as an option, survivors must feel confident that these models will meet their needs. While anecdotal success stories exist regarding alternative justice and domestic violence, unlike the robust body of evaluative research on alternative justice and youth crime, there is little existing research on the short and long-term intervention effects of alternative justice in domestic violence. Gang et al (2019) completed a systematic review of research on restorative justice programs for domestic violence and found only one paper that met the authors’ eligibility criteria for evaluation, noting the study is also not generalizable; Koss’ (2014) evaluation of the Arizona program Project RESTORE. Gang et al (2019) conclude, “the use of restorative justice for sexual, family, and other gendered violence thus remains controversial, without evidence to support any point of view” (p 3). Survivors deserve better evaluative data on alternative justice models before being asked to engage in another system – like the police – that was not originally designed to address domestic violence.  

Abolitionism cannot advance until the movement meaningfully centers the issue of domestic violence. To center the issue of domestic violence, abolition activists and scholars must tackle the problem of patriarchy. In the end, dismantling patriarchy – in all of its intersectional and oppressive iterations - is not only the key to ending domestic violence, but it might also be a way forward for achieving a world without criminal law enforcement.


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Dana Cuomo is an assistant professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Lafayette College, where she uses her training as a feminist geographer to study the policing response to domestic violence and technology-enabled coercive control. Dana’s work is informed by five years of professional experience providing advocacy services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.