Domestic violence and pro-arrest policy.

AuthorNewbold, Greg


Prior to the 1980s police in New Zealand, as in other Western jurisdictions, tended to adopt a minimalist stance to the treatment of domestic violence, with separation and mediation favoured over arrest. By the late 1960s, however, the "second wave" of the feminist movement had begun to have an impact on social attitudes, and from the early 1980s presumptive arrest strategies gained international popularity. Although research into the effectiveness of presumptive arrest has been inconclusive, New Zealand moved increasingly toward such a policy from 1987 onward. This paper discusses the progress and effects of various police initiatives in New Zealand's fight against domestic violence over the past 20 years, and argues that although a policy of presumptive arrest sounds attractive, there are good legal and practical reasons why the police have continued to exercise discretion in the way the policy is interpreted.


Although violence is a long-established component of family dynamics, serious discussion about the appropriate police response is relatively recent. The breaking of the women's movement's so-called "second wave" in the 1960s laid bare a number of issues, one of which was partner violence towards women. As a result of the movement's activities and a corresponding awareness of the problem of marital violence, by the 1970s pressure had come to bear upon police organisations, which had traditionally taken a hands-off approach to dealing with family affairs, to adopt a more interventionist stance. At the beginning of the 1980s a number of studies in the United States and Britain assessed the effectiveness of different response techniques. Publicised worldwide, these studies had a significant effect on the way police handled domestic violence in a number of Western jurisdictions.

Zero tolerance responses became the most popular from about 1980 onwards, actively encouraging police to make arrests in domestic assault cases. Rather than the uncompromising mandatory (automatic) arrest that has been tried in some parts of the United States, however, New Zealand favoured a more flexible "pro-arrest" strategy, where it is assumed that police will apprehend when there is evidence of a domestic assault, but room is left for discretion. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the recent evolution of domestic violence response strategies in the New Zealand Police and the emergence of the policy of pro-arrest. The implications of presumptive arrest will be discussed briefly.


Before 1980 police in Western nations tended to adopt a minimalist stance in family disputes. In the United States, for example, there was a well-known historical reluctance to arrest in domestic cases (LaGrange 1993:146-8), as there was in Britain, where police did not consider domestic disturbances as "proper" police work (Dobash and Dobash 1979, Edwards 1989, Smith and Gray 1983). In Australia, a number of studies found an unwillingness of police to intervene in domestic disputes, and at times a belief that male violence towards women was mostly triggered by the women themselves (Mugford and Mugford 1992:328-331). In New Zealand, before 1970 policing of domestic violence reflected similar attitudes. As with rape complaints (Coney 1974:22, Lee 1983:71, Williams 1978:196-7), there was a general suspicion about the reliability of domestic violence reports. Police tended to arrest only when the circumstances were clear, the assault was serious, and a victim could be relied upon to testify. Otherwise, the preferred response was to calm a situation down before leaving (Ford 1993, Marsh 1989:9). The 1964 General Instructions to police, for example, stated:

Be wary of the wife who at 10pm wants her husband locked up, hanged, drawn and quartered for belting her in the eye and at 10am the next morning in Court she says she has a kind, wonderful husband and she is in Court only because the Police interfered! This often applies if the wife has been drinking before the assault. (cited in Butterworth 2005:163) The Instructions continued by noting that domestic assaults are usually minor, thus reflecting a broad feeling that family aggression was of low significance. Although the 1961 Crimes Act created a specific offence of "assault by a male on a female" (s.194) with a penalty of two years in prison, which was double that for common assault, in 1968 a 400-page Department of Justice survey on crime in New Zealand carried no discussion on domestic violence per se, and neither did a 62-page government booklet on violent offending published three years later (Schumacher 1971). As late as 1986 a 200-page book published by the nation's Institute of Criminology, which purported to "focus on a number of major issues facing both the New Zealand Police and the wider New Zealand community" (Cameron and Young 1986:1), ignored the issue of domestic violence altogether. In short, prior to 1970, family violence was not treated as a serious social problem, particularly by the police.


It was largely the activities of the women's movement which eventually changed this. The second wave of feminism commenced in the United States in the mid-1960s, largely as an offshoot of the civil rights movement. In 1964 the term "Women's Liberation" was coined and consciousness about women's issues began to escalate from that point, with the National Organization of Women (NOW) forming in 1966 and the first national Women's Rights Convention in Illinois in 1968 (Bunkle 1979-80, Davis 1973, Johnston 1973). In New Zealand, publicity about international developments, boosted by books such as Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963/1972), Miller's Sexual Politics (1972), Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex (1970) and Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970) led to the formation of the Women's Liberation Front in 1970. By 1972, when feminist author Germaine Greer visited New Zealand on a speaking tour, a proliferation of women's organisations had appeared, including a New Zealand branch of NOW. In July 1972 the first edition of a highly influential feminist monthly magazine called Broadsheet was published.

Broadsheet soon became the central voice of feminist politics in New Zealand. It initially focused on issues such as sexual stereotyping, prejudice, exploitation and discrimination, but before long specific matters such as rape and woman-beating began to appear as common themes. In 1973, reflecting rising awareness about violence towards women, the first of what became a network of women's refuges was established, which was consolidated under the National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges in 1981.

During the 1970s, traditional police approaches to domestic violence remained largely unchanged, with police typically playing a mediating role when called to a domestic dispute and avoiding arrest where possible. In 1979, based on an American model, crisis intervention training began within the New Zealand Police, continuing the policy of conciliation, with arrest as a last resort. But two sensational domestic murders in the 1980s put a spotlight on domestic violence and the need for a higher level of intervention. In 1980, the shooting of feminist Leigh Minnitt by her jealous doctor husband David emphasised the fact that family violence is not always minor and not necessarily a working class phenomenon, as was commonly believed. Moreover, the subsequent jury verdict of manslaughter due to provocation, followed by a four-year prison sentence, led to public protest and accusations of sexual and class bias (Else 1980). Two years later the murder of Julia Martin by her husband demonstrated the inadequacy of existing protection for women and the need for police to be more pro-active in preventing it. In this case, despite the police having been notified several weeks before that Martin's husband had a gun and was dangerous, no preventive action had been taken. Writing about the case in Broadsheet, Crossley (1983:15) argued that neither the courts nor...

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