Black And Blue: The Inadequacy Of Police Responses To Domestic Violence In The African-American Community

The police purportedly exist to serve and protect. Black women know better.

The police purportedly exist to serve and protect.  Black women know better.

Black women – Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors – created #BlackLivesMatter.[1] The Black Lives Matter movement is best known for calling attention to police forces’ systematic violation of the rights of Black people with impunity.[2]  While dominant discourse has centered the killing of Black men and boys, the founders of Black Lives Matter and groups such as Black Women’s Blueprint and the African American Policy Forum have advocated for gender-inclusive police accountability: by demanding we Say Her Name, society has been tasked with recognizing and addressing the needs of countless Black women and girls who are also brutalized by the police.[3] The needs of Black women who are survivors of domestic violence should be a priority in this regard.  Black women, undoubtedly aware of the risk posed to us and our communities by the police, are caught in a uniquely dangerous position when we are also brutalized by our intimate partners.

Over the past four decades, the mainstream anti-domestic violence movement became increasingly reliant on the criminal justice system, and necessarily the police.[4] In order to access the benefits of this system, survivors of intimate partner violence were often best served if they could present as the perfect victim.[5] The perfect victim is white. She’s middle class. She’s heterosexual and cisgender. She’s able-bodied and has no history of mental illness. In accordance with the archetypes of white femininity, the perfect victim is both deserving of and dependent on others’ protection. And to that end, she calls the police.

This is simply not a realistic option for Black women.

Admittedly, domestic violence survivors of all races are sometimes reluctant to call the police. This stems from a variety of reasons, including a belief that the abuse is a private matter, or a fear that the abusive partner will retaliate and the violence will escalate.[6] But there are additional concerns that are unique to Black women because of our fraught relationship with the police. To Black women, the police are instruments of terror, performing in a centuries-long concerto conducted by white supremacy. The police do not offer us protection or safety. They rape us,[7] murder us[8], and in some ways, the tactics they employ to gain power and control over us mirror those utilized by abusive partners.[9] Moreover, it is well-documented that responses to intimate partner violence involving Black women are often informed by stereotypes rooted in race and gender, and can be further complicated by other axes of oppression such as identifying as LGBT.[10] These stereotypes can preclude police officers from thinking a Black woman could potentially be a victim. A Black woman is regarded as so emotionally and physically strong she cannot truly be abused; so sexually available that she cannot be raped; so angry and emasculating that she cannot be blameless; or so untrustworthy that her account cannot be believed. This typecasting creates obstacles that can plague Black women in their efforts to access other formal domestic violence resources. For example, Black women have reported experiencing racial discrimination in homeless shelters for domestic violence survivors, and even being turned away from shelters because race and gender-based stereotypes suggested they were not real victims and as such did not require support.[11] This functions to further Black women’s distrust of these systems and contributes to survivors’ inability to access potentially life-saving services.

With so much proof that the police do not value the lives of Black women, survivors of domestic violence are left to wonder, why should we put our lives in their hands now? And furthermore, what consequences will the community suffer if we do?

Black men, for example, are already vulnerable to being perceived as criminals due to racist stereotypes that they are dangerous, violent, and animalistic – a trope manufactured by slave-owners to justify treating another human as a beast of burden. Recognizing this, some writers have argued that Black women cannot be considered victims unless that victimhood discredits a violent Black man.[12] Consequently, a Black woman who is a survivor of domestic abuse can be unwilling to expose her community to the threat of stereotype confirmation. Perhaps most troublingly, Black women who are survivors of domestic abuse know that calling the police does not mean an end to violence – it only means a different victim. Their partners will be exposed to the brutality of the police and, if the police do not kill them before their court date[13], the violence of prosecution and the prison industrial complex.

With the primary safeguard from abuse foreclosed, Black women keep dying.

The statistics are staggering: in New York City, Black women and girls aged twelve and up make up 25% of all women and girls, but nearly 40% of women and girls murdered by an intimate partner. [14] On the national scale, Black women make up only 8% of the total population, but in 2005 accounted for 22% of intimate partner homicide victims.[15] Black women are four times more likely than white women to be murdered by an intimate partner.[16] These alarming figures point to a serious disregard for the safety of Black women. Whether the perpetrator is a partner, the police, or both, Black women deserve to live free from violence. In order to affirm that Black Lives Matter, we must commit to eradicating gender violence and continue working towards accessible non-carceral interventions for survivors of domestic abuse.


[1] Black Lives Matter,

[2] “The rise of Black Lives Matter: Trying to break the cycle of violence and silence” available at

[3] “An Open Letter from Black Women’s Blueprint to the Black Women Survivors Who Were Sexually Assaulted by Daniel Holtzclaw;” available at; “#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women” available at

[4] Emily J. Sack, Battered Women and the State: The Struggle for the Future of Domestic Violence Policy, 2004 Wis. L. Rev. 1657, 1668 (2004)

[5] See, e.g., Elizabeth L. MacDowell, Theorizing from Particularity: Perpetrators and Intersectional Theory on Domestic Violence, 16 J. Gender Race & Just. 531 (2013)

[6] U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Intimate Partner Violence in the United States”,

[7] See, e.g.,

[8] Supra Note 3, Say Her Name Report

[9] “NYPD using criminal background checks to push victims in domestic-violence cases” available at (noting that officers are instructed to intimidate survivors into cooperate by “reminding” them they have warrants)

[10] See, e.g., Linda L. Ammons, Mules, Madonnas, Babies, Bathwater, Racial Imagery and Stereotypes: The African -American Woman and the Battered Woman Syndrome, 1995 Wis. L. Rev. 1003 (1995); Leonard D. Pertnoy, Same Violence, Same Sex, Different Standard: An Examination of Same-Sex Domestic Violence and the Use of Expert Testimony on Battered Woman’s Syndrome in Same-Sex Domestic Violence Cases, 24 St. Thomas L. Rev. 544 (2012)

[11] See, e.g.,Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center available at; National Association of Black Social Workers, “Domestic Violence in the African American Community” available at; Women of Color Network Facts & Stats: Domestic Violence in Communities of Color – June 2006 available at

[12] “When do we #SayHerName? Examining the systems behind the death of Jamar Clark” available at

[13] Id.

[14] Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in New York City: 2008 Report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene available at

[15] Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in the African American Community Fact Sheet available at

[16] Bureau of Justice Statistics Selected Findings: Female Victims of Violence (Revised 10/23/09) available at