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The Intersectionality of Domestic Abuse: Law Enforcement Barriers Black Women Face

Published onNov 16, 2020
The Intersectionality of Domestic Abuse: Law Enforcement Barriers Black Women Face


Drawing on focus group interviews, I analyze the experiences of Black women who perceive the Milwaukee Police Department as a potential resource during domestic disputes but encounter structural barriers when attempting to access help. I build upon previous research that insists on an intersectional Black Feminist framework to understand Black women's experiences with abusive domestic relationships and the institutional barriers they face due to sexism and racism. I argue that oppressive structures of race, class, and gender limit the alternatives these women have to resolve domestic encounters and negotiate the institutional challenges they face when attempting to secure police resources. These findings uncover the complex relationships that over-policed but under-protected communities have with law enforcement as participants reveal the need for help but the limits of relying on the police. They often look to resources for dealing with abusive domestic situations that do not include the police.


Black women in this study find themselves over-policed, but under-protected in abusive domestic encounters. They bear the burden of interacting with the police when they might not wish to, yet when they reach out for assistance, the available police resources fall short of protecting them. Women who find themselves involved in domestic disputes face a hard choice: they can either risk their freedom and safety by handling the issue themselves, or they can contact law enforcement and run the risk of the police not showing up in time, if at all, or of the police treating them as suspects rather than victims or witnesses. On those occasions, when the police do show up, Black women face unique challenges and consequences due to their marginalized social, cultural, and political locations in society. They have historical and contemporary fraught relationships with law enforcement patterned by prevailing practices of racism, sexism, and criminalization. They can become suspects for offenses unrelated to the reason for their call. Merely calling for help can lead state child protective services agencies to deem them unfit mothers and take their children away. Municipalities may enact nuisance laws for excessive 911 calls that permit and even encourage landlords to evict women in need of help, leaving them and their children to face homelessness. The police disproportionately perceive Black women who are upset when officers arrive as threatening, leading to them potentially becoming fatal victims of police brutality. Considering the serious nature of domestic abuse encounters, women have very little time to make decisions that might improve their chances of surviving and living to see another day. Black women in this study report that they do not have confidence that the police will protect them in the urgent and deadly encounters they may experience. Even when women make a case vehemently to dispatchers and the police that they need help, they may receive a court protective order that is insufficient to protect them if the attacker violates it. Although Black women would prefer to use the police as a resource for managing intimate partner abuse, their experiences leave them unconvinced that this is the best resource at their disposal.

This article will focus on Black women's experiences with law enforcement when seeking help during intimate partner/domestic abuse encounters. I ask, "What problems do Black women in Milwaukee face when they seek assistance during domestic violence encounters?" The data collected from Black women illuminates interlocking oppressions. Black women deal with the statuses of Black and woman concurrently, and their unique experiences interacting with the police institutions reflect this. Specifically, I highlight how police structures, policies, and practices intended to aid women in domestic disputes based on the experiences of middle-class white women work to marginalize and bring harm to Black women. In examining Black women's perspectives, we discover that law enforcement serves as a barrier rather than a boon to domestic violence relief. Black women consequently must work to find alternative resources to resolve domestic disputes outside of the criminal justice system.

Literature Review

Black Feminist Theory and Domestic Violence

Testimonies gathered from Black women who experience domestic abuse and face difficulty securing police resources highlight the shortcomings of single-axis antiracist and feminist responses to social problems. As Kimberlé Crenshaw demonstrates, measures designed to help women might not do enough to address the particular issues of women who are Black, while measures designed to help Black people may lack the gender specificity required to meet the needs of Blacks who are women (Crenshaw 1991). White women able to access police resources to counter domestic abuse are far less likely than Black women to subject themselves or their partners to police violence. Black men share with Black women fraught relations with the police, but they do not do so from the same levels of economic marginality and domestic centrality that structure the experiences of Black women (Saegert and Clark 2006). Black women are especially vulnerable to police misconduct and incarceration. Yet conventional feminist analyses of gender-based oppression often fail to include the relationships between power imbalances and abuse inflected by racial subordination.

Intersectionality provides a basis for conceptualizing the true contours of gender violence and racial oppression, illuminating how even the best-intentioned interventions may work to marginalize women of color further. Previous theoretical work reveals how siloed antiracist and feminist work prioritizes men of color and white women, respectively. This framing leaves women of color out of the conversation and often relegates them to roles as props to further advance movements that exacerbate their exclusion and vulnerability. Research about intimate partner abuse has too often not taken intersectional identities into account (Bograd 1999; Richie 1996, 2000). All women do not have the same life experiences and are different from the hegemonic white women's representation in the field (Richie 2000; West 2005). Using white women as the norm or framework to consider how Black women experience and respond to intimate partner violence is impractical. Many Black feminist scholars have addressed intimate partner abuse (Cole and Guy-Sheftall 2003; Collins 2000; b hooks 1981; bell hooks 1981; hooks 2000, 2004; Richie 1995, 1996, 2000, 2012). Furthermore, scholars have applied Critical Race Feminist Theory to address domestic violence in the lives of women of color (Allard 1991; Ammons 1995; Coker 1999; Crenshaw 1991; Kupenda 1998; Rivera 1994, 1998; Valencia-Weber and Zuni 1995).

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) uses the experiences of women who face battery and rape at the hands of men to illustrate how the intersection of both race and gender (as well as citizenship status and language proficiency) pattern the experiences of women of color in shelters. Structurally, shelters must address not only the violence that women experience at the hands of male batterers but also the domination that women of color face in a society that limits their ability to find alternative relationships and resources. Politically, due to the mono-focal antiracist and feminist agendas, women of color find themselves splitting their political energies in ways that men of color and white women seldom are required to do. Representational intersectionality demands that we consider how the convergence of race and gender produces narratives about and policies that affect women of color.

Beth Richie (1995, 2000, 2012) critiques the anti-violence movement that treats gender violence as an occurrence that can happen to anyone with equal impact. She shows that this illusion comes at the expense of the most vulnerable women in society because everyone is not socially positioned the same due to the intersections of racism, sexism, and classism. By making gender violence race and class neutral, this approach ignores the class dimensions of patriarchy and white domination in the United States and leaves white middle-class women as the model subjects of the feminist and anti-battering movements. When poor women of color are victimized, their problem is rendered as something other than gender violence. Instead, their circumstances are attributed to the consequences of living in poor and high crime neighborhoods, their alleged use of drugs, and allegations that they are sexually deviant or involved in criminal enterprises. Richie cautions against relying on mainstream state institutions to solve complex social problems because they often exacerbate them. Black women's precarious status in society positions many to wish to rely on the state for assistance, but the punitive legal policies embedded in state assistance alleged to help can instead hurt Black women.

Black Feminist Criminology

I engage the Black feminist criminology (BFC) approach to contextualize Black women's experiences with law enforcement, specifically regarding domestic violence encounters. BFC theory is cultivated from Black feminist theory and critical race feminist theory. By privileging the testimonies of Black women, this project embraces the Black standpoint epistemology. I take Black women's experiences as related by Black women as the knowledge base and entry point for analysis in this study.

Hillary Potter (2006) argues that Black feminist criminology incorporates four tenets to understand Black women's distinct experiences in intimate partner violence and the greater crime processing system. BFC considers first social structural oppression, taking into account that Black women have limited access to education, employment, and help-seeking resources due to racism, sexism, and classism on a large scale. Secondly, BFC incorporates the Black community and culture in its theoretical understanding that Black women have a unique position in the United States and the communities from which they originate. Thirdly, BFC includes intimate and familial relationships in the social networks that Black women are embedded within and how these can be consequential in their help-seeking behavior. Finally, BFC envisions Black women as individuals with diverse experiences and needs (Potter 2006).

The data collected from Black women in this study illuminates interlocking oppressions. Black women deal with the statuses of Black and women concurrently, and their unique experiences interacting with the police institutions reflect this. Specifying a theory that gives attention to the distinct ways Black women inhabit intersectional identities (race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, national origin, and religion) and endure multiple oppressions gives a comprehensive understanding of their experiences with and reactions to victimization (Potter 2006). Black women's devalued status in the various identities they inhabit informs how battered Black women enter abusive relationships, respond to abuses, and use systematic resources to help in leaving these relationships (Potter 2006). This article will focus on the latter, specifically Black women's experience with law enforcement when seeking help during intimate partner/domestic violence encounters.

Methods and Sample

The study uses a combination of archival research and focus group discussions. I measured Black Milwaukee residents' experiences with the Milwaukee Police Department among eight focus groups (n=30). Eleven of the respondents in the groups were women. Data collection began in July 2016 and ended in December 2017. Requirements for participation in a focus group were the participant: 1) had to be a legal adult; 2) must racially identify as Black; 3) had to be a resident of the city of Milwaukee. The University Institutional Review Board approved the study. I obtained informed consent through written and signed documentation. Participants completed a pre-test and post-test and then were assigned an artificial number for anonymity and confidentiality purposes. I asked the group a total of nine guiding questions that often led to related topics we would explore with follow up questions prompted by the discussion. I allotted one hour for each focus group, and at times I would intervene and move discussions along to ensure that we covered all topics. All participants received a meal and a $10 gift card. Focus group interviews were recorded and later transcribed and prepared for analysis. For this study, I used a form of constant comparison analysis. This method was developed by Glaser and Strauss (Glaser 1978, 1992; Glaser and Strauss 1967; Strauss 1987) for use in grounded theory research. Leech and Onwuegbuzie (Leech and Onwuegbuzie 2007, 2008) discuss constant comparison analysis as a technique to analyze focus group research.


Findings from this study reveal two things. First, many Black women in this study wish to rely upon the Milwaukee Police Department as a resource for managing domestic violence incidents. They find law enforcement to be a potentially life-saving resource for women who face domestic violence. Yet, second, Black women encounter institutional difficulties when attempting to access the police department's safety resources. They report that 1) police and dispatchers do not take their domestic violence complaints seriously, 2) they experience long wait times for the police to arrive, 3) jurisdictional boundaries limit where, how, and which police officers can assist them, and 4) they can become suspects when they reach out for assistance as victims. Intersectional racism and sexism pattern both the likelihood of Black women being involved in domestic disputes and the institutional barriers they face to secure law enforcement resources to resolve these matters.

"If the cops don't come, that woman may die": Managing Domestic Violence Encounters

Black women believe that the police offer one of the few resources to protect them when managing intimate partner violence. For the women in this study, domestic violence problems are the rare -- if not the only -- instances in which they will initiate contact with the police. Many believe the police can protect them from potentially fatal encounters and they highly value the potential help the police department could offer in this regard. Jayla, 52, described how grateful she was for police help in handling a domestic violence situation, although she recognized police assistance limits. Not only does she desire the police to show up when called, but she acknowledges that if not for the police, she might have to jeopardize the freedom and safety of a relative who might unlawfully manage the situation for her:

Jayla: When I first moved here, I was in a situation with someone and I had a domestic violence situation. Thank God, it was police [who helped]. I mean, we need help. When you are in a domestic violence situation, you need the cops. I don't want my brother to go over there and beat him with a baseball bat. I want the cops to do something about it.

Mod: Why would you prefer the cops handling it?

Jayla: Because if my brother goes over there and beats him up, to keep him away from me, then my brother is going to jail for a long time because the dude is a cop. My brother is going to go to jail for beating him up versus the police going over there. After I got a Black eye or whatever, the police are going to put him in jail, and I get my restraining order or whatever. Not that restraining orders really help, but once you have it, oh my God…After I got my restraining order, I felt like I needed that, but then I still had to go and go get my brother. I did, because some domestic violence situations, I'm going to tell you right now, if the cops don't come, that woman may die.

Black women like Jayla find themselves in abusive relationships because they often lack the resources to sustain independence, to leave these violent relationships, or to remedy the harm they experience. Milwaukee is hyper-segregated, and the majority of Black residents are considered poor or low income (Smeeding and Thornton 2018). The lack of communal resources contributes to the limited alternatives Black women have for seeking non-police sources to help support them when escaping abusive relationships. Jayla is grateful that she could obtain a restraining order, but she still has her brother on reserve to protect her in the future. As Richie (2012) notes however, relying on law enforcement expands the state power in the lives of poor women of color and often further criminalizes them. Restraining orders are challenging to get, often provide little benefit, and place already criminalized Black women under further police scrutiny. Even with a court order of protection, a piece of paper will not stop violence or save a life when there is an immediate threat of danger. There are many times where women are hurt or killed by those from whom they have legal protection. If these women survive an attack from someone they are legally protected from, it is only then that the attacker might face jail time for violation of the court order.

Kelly, 25, explains that one must prove a history of abuse before obtaining a restraining order against a violent intimate partner:

Kelly: To even establish it in court, something has had to happen. They gotta do something to get the police over there for them to help you put somebody on papers. You can't just say this happened, and then they do something about it. There has to be a record of it.

Mod: Are these domestic experiences or in general?

Kelly: Domestic, because I will see on TV like somebody wanted a restraining order, and they denied the restraining order that somebody wanted prior to that. So, they just see it as this person wasn't trying to be malicious. So, they say 'if something else happens, we already have this on record. Continue on with what you're trying to do because then it might be malicious in the future.'

Robyn: By then, it might be too late.

Janet: Riiight

Kelly: Sometimes, it be too late though.

Participants in one focus group agreed that the burden of proof required to access the police and legal protection orders is too great and can potentially allow for fatal occurrences. While restraining orders are intended to protect women from partner abuse and document the batterer's behavior formally, in practice, they routinely fail to help the most vulnerable women who are most likely to experience violence. An applicant must document multiple prior abusive encounters before intervention and legal remedies can be considered to secure a restraining order.

Structural Barriers to Access Police Resources

Although women identify the police as a preferred resource for mitigating domestic disputes, they find a host of barriers that prevent them from successfully accessing the safety that law enforcement offers. These impediments result from structural policies that subject Black women in domestic disputes to vulnerability and make them more likely to experience additional violence. It is not the individual actors of the law enforcement system alone that produce these vulnerabilities, but the institution's structure itself. Intersections of racism and sexism compound the consequences of structural impediments that leave Black women vulnerable to greater harm, as the next section will document.

Domestic Violence Complaints Not Taken Seriously

Black women in this study report that police and emergency dispatchers do not take their domestic violence complaints seriously. Respondents feel that they must provide evidence of physical harm, debate their claims with police personnel, and answer questions they deem unrelated to the current emergency before police act on their behalf. Participants also discussed frustration with the rules required to prove that an intimate partner has violated their rights. Janet, 23, gave a personal example describing a time when a boyfriend took her car without permission. She called the police for assistance, but the dispatcher did not send help because her situation did not meet the requirements for police intervention:

Janet: Let's say somebody you know, you give this person permission like a boyfriend or something, you give them day by day permission to, you know, to drive your car or whatever. But at a certain point in time, you're like, okay 'no, you cannot take my car,' and they take your car anyways. They will say like, 'oh, your car has not been stolen because he's driven it before,' but he's driving it without my consent, and he has stolen my keys.

From the police policy perspective, Janet's boyfriend did not steal her car. Nonetheless, she found herself without transportation when she had obligations to fulfill. In this instance, an institutional policing policy created an impediment for Janet to secure law enforcement support in facilitating her car's return. When cars are taken with the keys, it implies the owner has granted permission and therefore does not qualify as a high priority theft. Although the rules in place may have been well-intentioned, they do not consider how victimized individuals could face trouble establishing the conditions to support car theft. Couples that lack access to two vehicles in the home, often because they cannot afford them, are more likely to have disputes over car use. Janet's partner could also have deceived or overpowered her, conditions that do not change the car theft status, despite her ownership of the vehicle and lack of permission granted.

Phone interrogations by emergency dispatchers serve as another source of frustration for women attempting to access police resources in domestic violence situations. In times of emergency, participants desire an immediate police presence, but instead, they face resistance in the form of questions they deem irrelevant and inappropriate at the moment. Kelly provided an example of a conversation with a police dispatcher that interfered with obtaining police help:

Kelly: I think it's all crazy because when I call the police, I understand what they are doing. But when you are in a panic or an emergency, it frustrates you that you can't just get a response from the authorities right away. Because when I call, they're like 'well, do you know the suspect? [What] was the person's first name? What's his last name? What's their eye color? Hair color? Kind of car? License plates?' I'm thinking if I knew all that about the person that was trying to harm me, then I wouldn't call you. I don't know. If I could tell you a couple of things, then I would. You are sitting there wasting all this time asking all these questions.

Although Kelly showed an understanding of police procedure, she felt the line of questioning she endured did not consider her call's urgency. She perceived the interaction to be a waste of time, and in a domestic violence dispute, time is of the essence. Again, the ways in which law enforcement render help place victimized women in greater danger of additional harm by prolonging the time it takes to dispatch an officer to the scene.

Long Wait Times for Police Assistance

Even in cases when women do not face difficulty convincing dispatchers that they need police intervention, they can find that when they contact the police and dispatchers promise them relief, the officers take a long time to arrive. Time is of the essence when dealing with domestic violence encounters, and sometimes it can be "too late" -- meaning women may find themselves gravely injured or dead if the police do not arrive in a timely fashion. Kelly discussed not only the barrier of proving the severity of her incident to obtain help, but once she made her case, she still had to wait for police assistance because her matter was not deemed sufficiently urgent compared to other calls. Even after promising help, the police never contacted her. She later learned that she missed their ineffective attempts to reach her. Again, this participant, like other women, believed that she could have been killed because the police did not take her complaint seriously by making a concerted effort to ensure her safety:

Kelly: One time, I called for domestic problems, and they took three hours. They tell me nobody had a gun, so they were responding to calls that are more urgent first, meaning someone who's seen a gun. So, I'm thinking maybe if I had been shot or had a rifle pointed at me, then I can call then? Basically, yes, if they have a gun, they will come faster. If they don't, then you are behind others. When I called back, they supposedly said they came at seven, rang my doorbell, called my phone private, and then left. I could have been dead right there. Plus, my memories aren't fresh then. What am I supposed to do then?

Understandably, the dispatchers must prioritize calls to manage police resources. The fact that domestic violence calls fall to the bottom of the pile unless a gun is present, however, reflects how the law enforcement system deprioritizes violence against women. Women who encounter abuse with potentially lethal objects (besides a gun) like the hands of their abusers face significant challenges when trying to establish the urgency of law enforcement assistance.

A similar complaint about extremely long wait times for the police to answer urgent domestic dispute calls arose in another focus group. Kayla, 31, works within the public library system. She recounted a story she heard from a colleague. In this instance, library staff, including a security guard, tried to protect a woman from an abusive man as she was attempting to reach the police. Before help arrived, the staff called 911 four separate times:

Kayla: So, with calling for situations within a library, I think the police sometimes have a slower response time. So, if there is an incident, they take a longer time to come out. I guess it all depends on what the situation is, but sometimes these situations are out of control, and we need them here immediately, but they take, I mean it takes like five times where you would call them for them to come out to handle the situation that's going on in the library.

Mod: Anything specific you want to share?

Kayla: I heard at Center Street Library they had a domestic dispute where the man was trying to drag the woman out of the library. The staff there were trying to find different ways to secure the woman and keep her out of harm's way. So, they were in different rooms, and she was going in and out, but the man still was chasing her. So, meanwhile, the staff is still trying to alert the police. I was told that they had to call at least four times before the police actually came. So, finally, the guy exited the library. Now they have this new cipher codes on the door. So, one of the librarians was able to badge in and lock him out, and then finally, the officers finally came to the library and was talking to the guy. But in that incident, so much is going on. You try to keep this individual safe, and there is only so much you can do. There is always so much a guard can do. They're told not to put their hands on the individual, so they're trying.

Mod: The guards?

Kayla: Yeah.

Mod: Okay.

Kayla: So, the guards can't really physically take this man out of the situation or take this woman. So, it just kind of has to play out. But while all this is happening, you're saying, 'where is the police?'

In this instance, untrained staff members risked their safety by physically intervening on behalf of a Black woman involved in a domestic dispute. Surprisingly, security guards hired to protect patrons and staff have limited resources available to them regarding physical intervention matters. Library policy specifically directs security personnel not to touch citizens, even during violent encounters like the library incident. Considering the limitations placed upon security staff, one would expect the police to respond promptly. However, in this case, staff members had to call four separate times and lock the library doors as they waited for police help. Again, the system of priorities within law enforcement procedure creates greater vulnerability for women who experience domestic violence, especially when a gun is not present, which can potentially lead to grave danger.

Jurisdictional Boundaries

Women in this study describe geographical jurisdictional boundaries for police departments as barriers to police help. Milwaukee County is segmented into separate cities, each of which contains its own police force. Therefore, city of Milwaukee police cannot handle matters that occur in neighboring cities like Brown Deer or Mequon. Although these departments may work in tandem with one another, they cannot act as first responders in each other's jurisdictions. Janet shared an experience she had managing a domestic conflict. Although she made the call from Milwaukee, she fled to the neighboring suburb of Brown Deer for safety. The Milwaukee police she called could not help her because jurisdictional mandates prevented them from providing service in that area:

Janet: I had a similar instance. Somebody was trying to kill me. Somebody tried to shoot me, and I was in somebody else's house. I knew he had access to a gun, so I call 911, and I get put on hold right away. So, I'm calling and calling, and I'm getting put on hold, and then they call me back and was like, 'What is your emergency?' This is like 10 minutes later. I tell them, 'This guy has access to a gun, he threatened to shoot me, he threatened to shoot up somebody's house.' They say, 'Okay, they're going to bring a squad out there.' And I said, 'I'm not staying around to get shot by anybody.' So, I went to Brown Deer, but they say they don't have jurisdiction out there, but I see them out there all the time. They said, 'We can't do anything if you're not around to talk to us.' I thought that [was] stupid, and I hung up the phone. They call me back and ask, 'Okay, where are you? We're going to send the squad [car] out there to you right away.' They never showed up. They never did.

Mod: They wanted you to stay where you called from?

Janet: Yes, they wanted me to stay there.

Mod: Would they help you if you do not stay there?

Janet: They said they had no jurisdiction to where I was going, but I had nowhere else to go. I didn't want to put anyone else's life in danger. So, I went to the furthest place I could go, which was Brown Deer, and he said they had no jurisdiction out there, so they didn't help me at all. I even went back and tried to resolve the situation myself. I ended up resolving it myself.

When Janet called the police for assistance, the telecommunicator placed her on hold several times. It is unclear if this was a standard procedure or if they were under-resourced. However, the lack of urgency to address her immediate concern placed her in greater harm. To mitigate this harm, Janet fled the scene to protect herself and others who could have unintentionally become gunfire victims. Like many Black women in the city, she lacked resources for protection nearby and decided the best decision would be to flee the city.

The artificial boundaries created by municipalities and police departments take precedence over the safety of women who call with claims of domestic violence. The division of Milwaukee County cities and corresponding law enforcement units provide inadequate organization to manage residents across a large area. Assigning specific law enforcement officers to crimes only in their jurisdictions may efficiently address crime management and record-keeping for crimes like property damage. However, in the case of domestic violence, this proves problematic. This procedure is what created greater vulnerability for Janet. Despite the call's cause, local law enforcement could not render assistance unless she remained in the physical location of danger in proximity to her abuser. This rule contributes to the harm abused women who flee might face.

Milwaukee is a racially and economically segregated city where poor Black residents are concentrated on the Northside. When Janet fled to the suburb of Brown Deer, she was under the impression that she might have greater protection from her abuser. It is geographically distant from the scene of the crime. It is also in a community that may have different informal standards and rules about who can or should call the police.

Victims Become Suspects

In some domestic violence instances, the caller becomes the subject of a police encounter after the victim has reached out for help. Sydney, 36, recounted a domestic violence experience where she called the police, and the two Black women officers who responded scolded her for jeopardizing the freedom of a Black man:

Sydney: This is the aggression they got against us…We don't even see them as protection, because we call them, somebody white might come, you already know that, so why call them?

Mod: Even people that call for help, do you think that is the case?

Sydney: I have called for help from police officers, and I'm the one who they made me look like I'm the bad guy.

Curtis: When you call them, just know that you are going to be guilty before proven innocent. You are guilty by just being there because you're a Black, and there is no way for me to get around with my skin color.

Mod: Even as a victim?

Curtis: Exactly, you are still a suspect even though you could have called them and said, 'Hi, somebody is robbing me.' They going to call in and look at you side-eyed too, like 'you are guilty, how do I even know that what you are saying is true?'

Sydney: I mean from a personal experience I have called when somebody was trying to attack me in my home, and when they came and got that person, and it was two Black females. It was like, 'why are you are trying to make it hard for this Black male?' He tried to attack me in my home! He had drugs on him and everything, and they just overlooked that, and then they came and scolded me.

Mod: Even after you were the one who called them?

Sydney: I'm like, this is my home, and you are telling me I can't call? So, next time just shoot him, and we have whole 'nother of investigation that's going to be happening?

Curtis: You are still guilty.

Sydney: Exactly, so which one am I supposed to do? Call you guys, or take care of him myself, because every time I take care of myself, that is when I get cuffs on me.

In the above example, Sydney did not receive services. Instead, police officers reprimanded her for what they perceived to be a systematic issue of Black men's overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. In Sydney's case, the reprimanding officers were Black women. Crenshaw (1991) writes that the issue of rape can pit Black women against Black men. In an attempt to rescue Black men from the commonly false accusation of rape (of white women), Black women's rape claims may go ignored, silenced, or vilified. Black women may assist in this injustice by holding other Black women responsible for their violation despite their testimonies. This practice allows Black women who also face repeated sexual aggression and assault to deny their vulnerability and distance themselves from the victim. Something similar may have occurred when the Black women officers denied Sydney's claims of assault and instead insisted she was causing harm to a Black man by involving law enforcement, especially because there are little to no immediate strategies available to challenge the systemic issue of Black mass incarceration.

Due to the framing of feminist and antiracist efforts, Black women frequently find themselves at crossroads where they often must abandon addressing their personal harm as the way presumed to defend the broader Black community from over-incarceration. This decision suppresses attending to the intra-racial harm they have experienced. Intersectionality provides a basis for reconceptualizing Black identity as an uneasy coalition between men and women who have both complementary and conflicting interests and experiences.

Sydney was frustrated with the lack of options available to her to resolve a domestic violence encounter immediately. She could either contact the police and hope they would assist her, or else handle the problem herself and possibly jeopardize her safety and freedom. Many participants believed that the police are not there to serve them or to protect them, but to incarcerate them, even when they are the victim. For this reason, and many more, people are reluctant to call the police for fear of bringing more surveillance and scrutiny into their lives. Jayla shared a domestic violence experience she witnessed where the woman defended herself against a male attacker. Because she injured the man, however, the woman went to jail. Her decision to defend herself resulted in an arrest. When she took immediate action to protect herself from immediate physical harm, she was choosing the lesser of two evils:

Jayla: Because some domestic violence situations, I'm going to tell you right now, if the cops don't come, that woman may die. I have seen a woman beat up a man before. This one was, I don't know what this dude was doing with this bigger whore, but she [was] slamming [him] and hit him in the head with a frying pan. When the police came, she went to jail. He was hurt, but she went to jail.

In this instance, the woman resorted to taking matters into her own hands, but she faced the consequences of protecting herself. Perhaps if police resources were more reliable and responded more swiftly, women would not find themselves in these precarious encounters where they must make hard choices to defend themselves from aggressors.

Battered Black women use physical force against their abusers and are more likely to strike back relative to white women during domestic violence encounters (Hampton, Gelles, and Harrop 1989; Joseph 1997; Potter 2004; West and Rose 2000). Wisconsin has a mandatory arrest law (Wisconsin Legislature n.d.). When a domestic abuse incident qualifies for arrest, the police must take someone into custody. One of the qualifications for arrest is the evidence of physical injury to the alleged victim. Police officers may identify a predominant aggressor by a host of factors, one being the relative degree of injury inflicted on the parties. In cases like these and the one Jayla witnessed, women who fight back face the possibility of going to jail. Sydney expressed the dilemma that many battered Black women face when she commented, "Exactly, so which one am I supposed to do? Call you guys, or take care of him myself, because every time I take care of myself, that is when I get cuffs on me." The Wisconsin statute harms women in these encounters by criminalizing them for what might have been life-saving efforts to resist the violence they experienced. As Jayla stated, "If the cops don't come, that woman may die." This structural dilemma is more significant for Black women who have fewer resources at their disposal to resolve domestic violence encounters where fighting back becomes a necessary option. They are then punished for this survival strategy. Race, class, geographical location, and the history of policing in Black communities heighten this structural dilemma.

One must also consider that Black women are constructed in terms of criminality, meaning that police already treat them more suspiciously compared to their white counterparts, even in domestic violence cases. While white women are framed as actual victims, damsels in distress who need saving, Black women are seen as somehow complicit in the harm they experience. Victimhood status is routinely withheld from Black women. Richie (2000) explained that the violence Black women experience is seldom understood in terms of gender violence, but instead seen as a consequence of where these women live, what they did, who they are, or the choices they have made. These ideas make battered Black women less believable to police officers and underpin Sydney's experience with the reprimanding officers and the experiences of others who face charges for using retaliation as a means of survival.


Findings reveal that law enforcement policies, procedures, and practices make it difficult for Black women to obtain help during domestic disputes. The process of relaying information to a telecommunicator or dispatcher before securing support makes Black women in this study feel as if they are not taken seriously and must prove they are in fact, worthy of police assistance. Participants shared that when dispatchers report their crimes to law enforcement, they waited excessively long times for the police to show up at the scene of a domestic dispute. The police policies that determine call priority and allocate resources accordingly push Black women in domestic disputes further down the list of priorities. Calls for help from the police that involve a suspect with a gun receive the highest priority. That does not always fit the circumstances of the domestic disputes these women find themselves in, even those that are potentially fatal but do not involve firearms. Milwaukee police department officers address calls only in their geographical districts within the region. When Black women flee the scene of a domestic dispute to safe havens beyond the call's juridical location, the rules require them to return to the scene of the crime for the proper district to address it. This policy places them back in possible harm. When Black women call the police for help, they are perceived with a presumption of guilt. The interview questions and police attitudes they encounter further victimize them in an already difficult situation.

Although Black women in this study face unique encounters, they all find structural impediments to the police help they seek during domestic disputes. It is how law enforcement renders service that makes getting assistance more difficult for these women who are already among the most likely to experience male violence. The policies, practices, and procedures of law enforcement do not consider the most vulnerable populations when created and therefore fail to protect them in some of the most dangerous situations they may encounter.

While some may suggest the barriers Black women face in this study could happen to anyone and appear race-neutral, I argue that Black women in Milwaukee face a particular kind of oppression patterned by their race and gender by encountering obstacles that stem from their intersectional identities. Black women are subject to violence and oppression because of the patriarchy and racism they experience. Many Black women are burdened by poverty, under or unemployed, lack job skills, and bear childcare responsibilities. The consequences of gender and class oppression, plus race discrimination in housing and employment, make Black women less able to depend on alternative resources when they encounter intimate partner violence. Furthermore, race and gender intersect to shape the structural, political, and representational obstacles to securing formalized resources meant to aid women in violent domestic encounters.

Black feminist scholars have recently illuminated the importance of studying and alleviating how state power operates in the lives of women of color. Black women have often been left out of the conversation because of their precarious position in society. They have economic marginality but domestic centrality. They are expected to bear responsibility for the well-being of the family but have the least ability in the labor market to secure the resources needed to do so. Black men have been devastated by artificially low wages and kept in a reserve segment of the labor force, working mostly subsistence jobs or less. Furthermore, mass incarceration has removed millions of Black men from the community and the labor market. The criminal justice system's gendered dynamic has left women and dependent children abandoned and burdened with bearing the brunt of the community's problems. The upside, however, is that Black women have had to be more public, solve more problems, and remain more active in the workplace than white women have, precisely because Black women cannot depend on the family wage and have to struggle in the absence of the presence of men a lot of the time.

Black women are the most stigmatized and least protected group of women; therefore, they are in the greatest danger. They are asked to do the most, but provided with the least. Richie posits that the farther a woman's sexuality, age, class, criminal background, and race are from hegemonic norms, the more likely it is that she will be harmed, and the more likely that the harm will not be taken seriously by her community, by anti-violence programs, or by the general public. The disadvantaged position of some women renders the abuse they face invisible. The difficulty Black women experience when attempting to access police resources in the face of violent domestic encounters reflects the distinct ways in which Black women are perceived. Testimonies by Black women in this study reflect their vulnerability when they find themselves in one of these encounters.

Incidents of domestic violence against women of color have been used to bring attention to the vulnerabilities of white middle-class women who garner greater concern and resources. When domestic violence occurs to women like those in this study, it is often written off as a product of non-gendered conditions like their environment, their socioeconomic status, or simply poor choices in choosing romantic partners. These excuses imply women of color have culpability and responsibility for the harm they find they face during domestic disputes.


This study contributes to Black feminist literature on Black women's vulnerability by elucidating the distinct experiences they face while interacting with law enforcement. Black women who already prove most vulnerable to unredressed violence face extreme barriers to accessing police resources in moments of domestic and intimate partner violence (Richie 1996, 2012). This study contributes to Black Feminist Criminology by illustrating how law enforcement policies, practices, and procedures structurally fail poor Black women. By centering Black women's experiences in domestic disputes, this study furthers the necessity for criminologists to attend to the intersectional contours of gender violence and the provision of law enforcement resources to address these encounters.

Practically, this study can provide evidence to support the call for resources to aid domestic violence that does not rely on police intervention or the legal system altogether. Beth Richie (2000) calls out the danger in relying on law enforcement to resolve domestic disputes because of its disproportionate negative consequences for women of color. The expansion of state power in the lives of poor women of color further criminalizes them. It places them in a precarious position to decide between surviving the immediate circumstances or securing their greater well-being. Community based restorative justice practices, mutual aid among women, or defusing violent encounters by third parties, like representatives of the Nation of Islam, have been forms of addressing domestic abuse that bypass the police apparatus.

In a 1962 speech, Malcolm X said, "The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman" (Crop It 2019). This study highlights Black women's distinct vulnerability as they encounter barriers to access police resources, specifically in the face of domestic violence.


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Contributor Bio

Katherine Hilson’s research interests meet at the intersection of race, gender, crime, class, and social movements. Specifically, she is interested in how the police, criminal justice systems, and mass incarceration work in concert to protect and reproduce social inequality. At the same time, she emphasizes the ways in which members of marginalized populations individually and collectively resist aggressive and punitive policing. Prof. Hilson earned her B.A. from Emory University in sociology and African American studies. She holds a M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology with a Black Studies emphasis from the University of California-Santa Barbara.


To Milwaukee, Wisconsin the place that bred me, thank you for making me who I am. To the residents who allowed me into their lives, thank you for sharing your important stories. This project would not have been possible without the support of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the UCSB Center for Black Studies, the Flacks Fund for the Study of Democratic Possibilities, the Graduate Division at UCSB, and the Department of Sociology at UCSB.

I thank Dr. George Lipsitz for his mentorship and guidance. He has helped me craft this project from a collection of personal experiences into a theoretical study and contribution to scholarship. His unwavering support and commitment to the project cannot be replaced.


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