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Though abuse rates are equal among races, African Americans are arrested more often for domestic abuse
By Brandt Williams
Minnesota Public Radio
May 20, 2002


An overview | Accountability in the justice system | American Indians and the rural justice system | The new disparities | Driving while black

Statistics show that domestic abuse occurs in equal rates among racial and ethnic groups. However, in the Twin Cities African American men are more likely than whites to be arrested for domestic abuse. Police say they aren't profiling black men. And domestic violence experts say there may be other reasons for the disparity. Some Twin Cities social workers are working on a way to reduce domestic abuse and at the same time reduce the number of black men going to jail. And they say the key is a culturally specific prevention program.

The Minneapolis police department receives about 21,000 911 calls for domestic abuse each year. Out of those calls, an average of 3,000 result in arrests. Police officials say in most calls, no arrest is made because the suspect has left the scene before the police arrive.

Minneapolis Police Sergeant Dean Christiansen of the department's family violence unit, says more than 50 percent of the men arrested for or suspected of domestic violence, are black. However, black men are only nine percent of the city's population.

"Is it just - they do it more? Or are they calling the police more? It's hard to say," says Christiansen.

According to the Council on Crime and Justice, the domestic violence arrest rate for black men age 18 to 30 in Hennepin County is 15 times greater than the rate for white men in the same age group. However Christiansen says police officers are not targeting black men.

"We only respond to a domestic situation when somebody calls us. We're not out there doing proactive domestic work. When we get called to these domestics, we have no choice of who we go to if it's one type of race to another type of race. We have to go there and we have to deal with it," he says.

The disparity in domestic violence arrests is not limited to Minneapolis. St. Paul police receive fewer domestic abuse calls each year, but black men are still arrested at a higher rate than white men. Some say the discrepancy can be blamed on a smaller 'zone of privacy' for African Americans, who are more likely to live in apartments and other attached housing.

But Christiansen says the majority of their calls comes from the victim or someone inside the house. And he says officers are sometimes compelled by the state's pro-arrest domestic abuse laws to make an arrest.

"If an officer goes into a situation, a domestic situation and the victim has visible signs of injuries or the victim states they were assaulted or even the victim says they were afraid of being assaulted, then Minnesota police officers are required to make an arrest in that situation," he says.

There is no proof. But some judges, domestic abuse experts and academics suspect that police officers are more likely to arrest black men because of the color of their skin. But there may be other factors at work.

Dr. Oliver Williams of the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work says race, poverty, pro-arrest laws and a higher level of policing in urban communities contribute to the disparity in domestic abuse arrests. Williams heads the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, a think tank based at the University of Minnesota. He says troubled black families often don't seek counseling until there is an emergency, and he says sometimes they are reluctant to do that.

"Sometimes these women have mixed feelings about the response, and also I think the community has concerns about the response because sometimes people are concerned the police will use lethal force to respond to a man that's being violent rather than using some other alternatives to deal with him, so she gets concerned about his safety," says Williams.

Williams says sometimes jail helps the man change his behavior. But he likes the idea of a safe house where black men can go to cool off and avoid getting dragged into the criminal justice system.

Planners of the Frederick Douglass House want to build such a facility. It would serve as a place where men can go and calm down and get counseling before committing an act of violence. Social workers who are designing it say the center will only take referrals and will not admit intoxicated men. The center will also not admit men who have committed a crime, unless that man is there on a conditional release from prison. Once a client is taken in, he will have to undergo anger management counseling and chemical dependency counseling if needed.

Planning committee member Thornton Jones talks to a group of about 20 black men at the African American Family Services headquarters in Minneapolis. Through a show of hands, most of the men admit they have committed domestic abuse. The planners ask them about the circumstances around their situations and want to know if the men think such a facility could have helped them.

"I think that's mostly what men need is for someone to go and talk to," says 'Kenny,' a client at African American Family Services. He says he's been arrested for domestic abuse seven times and just recently regained custody of his four kids.

Kenny says a shelter could have helped him and his family back in the days before he turned his life around and stopped using drugs and alcohol. He says the center could also help a lot of other guys like him.

"What we're not getting at home... we can always go to someone to talk about our problems so it won't escalate into something really, really bad. They have a lot of resources up here for women, but I don't see a lot of resources for men," he says.

"Locking you guys up doesn't work. It just makes you angry," says Toi Miller-Bowser, the executive director of African American Family Services and a member of the planning committee.

Miller-Bowser has worked with the victims and perpetrators of domestic violence for nearly 20 years. She says the old model of locking a man up and focusing the counseling on the woman has not worked. Miller-Bowser says the goal of the shelter is to preserve families by helping men learn to resolve conflicts without using violence. And she says sending black men to jail is no way to help them do that.

"It doesn't change the relationship, because I know most of the women that have their men locked up are waiting for them when they get out. And the cycle starts all over again."

The planning committee members are still looking for a site in Minneapolis to house the 40-bed facility. And they're looking to raise money for the project from public and private sources.

More Information
  • African American Family Services
  • Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community