Law Enforcement’s Function in Preventing and Addressing Domestic Violence

Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) are often the first to respond to sexual assault and domestic violence incidents. Gender bias can affect the initial response and investigation of these crimes, leaving victims vulnerable to further harm.

LEAs can help to reduce gender bias in policing by developing and implementing comprehensive policies that are a department priority, support victims, and hold perpetrators accountable.


There are nearly 19,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States. Local police departments have the most contact with their communities; they respond to 911 calls, patrol roadways, monitor neighborhoods, and conduct traffic stops. They also operate crime labs and provide training through their respective police academies and in partnership with institutions of higher learning. State attorneys general act as the chief legal officers of their states and territories and oversee law enforcement reform.

Law enforcement personnel need problem-solving skills to address their daily challenges. Developing empathy helps them consider the individual behind each crime they prevent, arrest, or investigate. They must also pass physical fitness tests to prove their ability to perform long hours of physically strenuous work.

CDC supports state, tribal, territorial, and local prevention efforts to increase awareness about intimate partner violence (IPV), its root causes, and how to reduce IPV. These efforts are informed by evidence-based practices, as well as by the experiences and needs of survivors.

Currently, IVPB-funded DV/TDV prevention programs focus on population-based, environmental, and system-level strategies that change or eliminate the events, conditions, situations, or exposure to influences (risk factors) that contribute to initiating relationship violence and associated injuries, illnesses, and deaths. It includes reducing the prevalence of victimization in community contexts, improving access to effective prevention services, and strengthening communities’ capacity to implement effective, culturally appropriate interventions.


Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a pattern of coercive behavior that may include physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, progressive isolation, intimidation, reproductive coercion, and stalking.

Adults are not the only victims of domestic violence; children who grow up in violent households are more likely to experience other types of abuse in the future, such as drug misuse, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior. Their long-term health and well-being may suffer long-term, detrimental effects from it.

To address the issue of domestic violence and other forms of interpersonal violence, the CDC works with local, state, tribal, and community groups to implement primary preventive measures in their regions. These programs teach healthy relationship skills, engage influential individuals and peers, disrupt the developmental pathways that lead to IPV, and create protective environments.

Law enforcement officers are essential to the safety of their communities. Over 19,000 local, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies across America work to uphold the laws of their jurisdictions, patrol their neighborhoods, and investigate crimes. Those departments operate with local rules and regulations, overseen by their chiefs, who typically report to a mayor or other elected official. The Federal government plays a supporting role through funding of training and national data collection. The Department of Justice is the lead agency for criminal law enforcement, including the FBI, DEA, and ATF.


The crime of domestic violence cuts across many identities and can impact people from all walks of life. The criminal justice system is responsible for providing an accurate response informed by a deeper understanding of victimization and victim/perpetrator dynamics to ascertain facts, determine whether an incident was a crime, and hold offenders accountable.

Historically, law enforcement responses to domestic violence incidents were inconsistent and lacked clear guidance for police officers. In some jurisdictions, responding officers viewed these incidents as a family matter or did not believe they should be prioritized over other cases, such as burglaries and narcotics crimes.

Since then, many agencies adopted pro-arrest policies, also known as preferred arrest policies, allowing officers to arrest the primary aggressor in a domestic violence case when probable cause exists. Some jurisdictions also developed community-based programs that invited victim services advocates to the scene and police stations to connect victims with local resources. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) helped foster these changes and provided victim services and officer training funding.

Developing an effective domestic violence policy takes time and requires a commitment to change long-held assumptions and biases. It requires a comprehensive community-wide effort that is guided by the following principles.


While the role of law enforcement is to enforce the law and protect the public, they must also be mindful of how their actions affect people in their communities. They must ensure that their presence in a community does not create distrust and suspicion, especially during times of crisis.

The United States Constitution establishes a federal government of limited powers, and police power is one of those restricted by the Constitution. The primary duties of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies include investigating criminal activity and ensuring public safety by deterring crime and maintaining order through patrol, apprehension, and arrests. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) maintains a national system to collect data on crime incidents reported by law enforcement agencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works to prevent domestic violence and its effects at the individual, relationship, family, community, and societal levels. Its goal is to reduce the risk of intimate partner violence and abuse, support survivors, and minimize the short- and long-term harm for all. CDC’s resources, including preventing intimate partner violence across the lifespan: A technical package of programs, policies, and practices, can help state, tribal, territorial, and local agencies develop and implement effective multi-faceted prevention strategies. Model policy and considerations documents present a range of items for agencies to consider when developing their agency policies on specific topics, recognizing that expectations and capabilities vary by organization.


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