This article was originally published on Medium on August 19, 2019. 

Imagine calling the police to get a reprieve from intimate partner violence but the police response is either underwhelming or overzealous — and either way your community turns against you for even calling. People you know stop speaking to you, they walk the other way when they see you coming, and they don’t show up to your child’s birthday party.

This is the painful tradeoff experienced by some women survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual violence (SV) in Baltimore City, where engaging with police can be contentious and taboo. This story and others emerged in a 2017–18 qualitative study with 26 racially diverse survivors of IPV/SV, undertaken by our team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with House of Ruth Maryland and the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

We wanted to better understand women’s considerations in reporting IPV and SV to police. IPV and SV are among the most underreported forms of crime, but are widespread with an estimated one in three women experiencing IPV, one in five experiencing SV, and partners responsible for approximately half of all homicides to women. We applied an intersectionality lens, a framework coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. This lens enabled us to examine how women’s intersecting identities along lines of race, gender, and class impacted their experiences. We used intersectionality to explore where and how power imbalances related to race and gender interact, and how they affect decisions to report IPV/SV to police.

African American IPV/SV survivors in our study explained feelings of overall devaluation and dehumanization in police interactions of any sort, and pointed to disproportionate incarceration of African Americans as a concrete example of what they described as an overarching lack of concern for their lives and safety. Against this backdrop, it was almost inconceivable to reach out to police for safety and justice following IPV/SV. “That’s why I didn’t call. Because I knew he [abusive partner] was going to go to jail,” explained one study participant.

Several participants feared that their partners could be hurt or even killed by police should law enforcement become involved in instances of IPV/SV. As one respondent explained, “I’m like, if I would call the police, maybe it’ll escalate, and he can get hurt or they can kill him…I never really called the cops on my husband regarding the situation because I was too scared…I’m like, what if it turns out wrong? I’m here seeking help, and then he ends up getting killed in the process.”

The women also raised examples of strict social sanctions, including lethal violence, in cases where the social norms discouraging police contact were violated. One respondent recalled a scenario, “A woman kept calling the police. People was outside, she called the police. They were stealing [a neighbor’s] bike, she called the police. They was doing things to her house, she called the police. Last time she called the police, the police left. As soon as the police left, somebody killed her in front of her kids. Her body fell in her kids’ arms.”

Women of all races explained that their experiences with police minimization, skepticism, and victim-blaming in response to IPV/SV also discouraged them to contact police. These experiences reflect historic gender biases that minimize violence within the home, and in ongoing relationships. As one respondent said, “I, in the past, was intimate with this guy. Because I already was intimate with him, I took it as the police saying, ‘Well, you already had sex with him before. Why not have sex with him again?’ That’s how I took it. That’s how the police looked at it.”

All in all, women in our study articulated a profound discouragement to contact police following IPV/SV. This discouragement reflected underlying racial tensions in police-community relations, the gender-related skepticism and mistrust specific to IPV/SV, and the restrictive community norms that discourage police contact. For IPV/SV survivors, this translates to limited confidence in the justice system. Ultimately, these dynamics allow violence against women to continue with impunity.

Our study showcases the intersecting dynamics of race and gender, specifically, and how they undercut women’s health and safety by compromising access to justice and safety following IPV/SV. Other research has similarly demonstrated how the justice response to IPV/SV can be undercut by systemic skepticism, disbelief and inaction, revealed most recently via investigative reporting. IPV and SV remain among the most underreported forms of crime, despite legal reform and considerable investments through the Violence Against Women Act, the 1994 federal law designed to protect women from violence, including domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault.

The study also points to the need for greater attention to structural race and gender barriers that influence police reporting, particularly for IPV/SV. Current IPV/SV research tends to focus on particular characteristics of the individual or the incident, such as the severity of the violence or whether a weapon was used. Related public health and criminal justice surveillance systems tend to similarly focus at the individual or incident level, leaving gaps in knowledge on women’s fears of police brutality against their partners, community repercussions, and police and community minimization of IPV/SV — and to what extent it deters them from seeking police assistance.

Access to justice is a core issue in human rights, social justice, and gender justice. Research conducted with an intersectionality lens and a focus on social determinants is valuable in understanding women’s underreporting of IPV/SV. Ensuring access to justice for IPV/SV survivors in urban settings like Baltimore and elsewhere requires reforms to race-based and gender-based structural inequities. New solutions that allow greater access to justice and safety are clearly needed. Non-carceral alternatives must be considered. Public health and public safety systems must work in harmony on IPV/SV prevention and response.

The full article can be found at the Journal of Urban Health. This work was supported by the Bloomberg American Health Initiative.