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Connecticut Lawmaker to Consider Legislation to Improve Domestic Violence Enforcement

For years, Connecticut has been plagued by the problem of “dual arrests” in domestic violence cases, with innocent victims sometimes swept up in the police response.

A Connecticut lawmaker today is set to convene a panel of experts and law enforcement officials to explore ways of reducing the state’s rate of dual arrests in cases of domestic violence, outcomes where both alleged abusers and victims wind up taken to jail and charged.

ProPublica reported earlier this year that Connecticut’s rate of dual arrests far outstrips the national average and has persisted for years despite the concerns of many women victims and domestic violence advocates. The state’s rate of dual arrests has hovered around 18 percent of all intimate partners cases, while the national average has typically been around 2 percent.

The lawmaker, Democratic state Sen. Mae Flexer, said the panel will tackle the need for better, more comprehensive data, as well as the possibility of formal legislation. Panelists will include domestic violence experts, a representative of the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council and other officials from the state’s judicial system.

A ProPublica review of data provided by the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection shows that rates of dual arrests in some cities and towns are strikingly high. In Windsor, a town of 29,044, dual arrests accounted for 35 percent of intimate partner arrests in 2015, the last year for which complete data is available. In Ansonia, the rate was 37 percent. New Haven for years has seen about a fifth of its domestic violence cases result in dual arrests.

At the center of the problem, according to legislators and advocates for women, is the fact that the state has a mandatory-arrest law for cases of reported domestic violence, but lacks a provision that allows police to limit arrests to the person determined to have been the primary aggressor. As a result, victims can wind up being arrested along with their abusers. In such instances, the complaining victims must find a lawyer and work to limit the lasting damage of a formal criminal record. They are often assigned a public defender and a victim’s advocate, whose offices also represent their significant others. The fear of being arrested can dissuade victims from calling the police at all. 

Over the years, state lawmakers have tried to adjust the governing legislation to limit damage to victims, but so far have not succeeded. For instance, legislation establishing a “self-defense” exception was meant to allow officers to protect a victim who legitimately struck back at his or her attacker from needless arrest. But some say a lack of training in the proper handling of domestic violence cases for local police departments has limited the impact of the exception, and dual arrests have continued at disturbing rates.

Enhanced training for officers will be among the issues taken on by the panel, according to Flexer.

Other states have made attempts to combat dual arrests, with varying degrees of success. New York state enacted a mandatory-arrest law but quickly added a primary aggressor section — authorizing officers to make a determination about who was the actual culprit — after the state saw dual arrests rise. New Jersey also has a mandatory arrest and primary aggressor law. Massachusetts has a preferred arrest law: Police are strongly urged, but not required, to make an arrest in cases of domestic violence. Massachusetts law requires police to provide written justification in dual arrest cases.

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