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Episode Transcript

You remember the pandemic shutdown, don’t you? At first, they called it “sheltering-in-place.” That was an interesting phrase. It evoked a cozy snow day mixed with some Cold War duck-and-cover. It was later on they took to calling it a shutdown, even a lockdown. Whatever name you prefer, this extraordinary event produced a massive spike in certain behaviors. We all learned to conduct our business on Zoom. Everyone in Brooklyn learned to bake sourdough bread. There were runs on jigsaw puzzles and Peloton bikes. But there were darker sides too, of all this staying at home.

NBC: As many people stay home to stay safe, that can be the worst place to be for victims of domestic violence. 

WPRI: Organizations aiming to prevent violence say this is a particularly scary time for victims who may be forced to stay home with their abusers. 

“Domestic Violence Surges During COVID-19 Pandemic” — that was an NBC News headline in May of 2020, and you could find similar headlines pretty much everywhere. And there were other dark headlines, even aside from the pandemic itself: We were told that suicides would spike and that birthrates would plummet. All these predictions had a certain logic around them. The pandemic was a sudden, unprecedented tragedy, and of course it would produce additional tragedies. But how accurate did these predictions turn out?

Eve SHEEDY: It’s a bit of a false narrative.

Today on Freakonomics Radio: the difference between some of the Covid headlines and the actual data.

Amalia MILLER: What we find is that the crimes are actually lower.

And speaking of crime, did the “defund the police” movement really catch fire?

Eddie GARCIA: There has not been a neighborhood impacted by violent crime that has ever asked me for less police officers.

What’s the downside to over-hyping a real danger? And is there an upside?

SHEEDY: Any mention of domestic violence in the press can be helpful. It would also help if it was very accurate.

Accuracy can be elusive. But we’ll do our best.

 *     *     *

Domestic violence, especially in urban areas, represents a large share of all violent crime.

MILLER: More than a third of all assaults can be linked to domestic violence.

While there are male assault victims, the majority of victims are female.

MILLER: If we’re concerned with violence against female victims, domestic crimes are the majority. 

Amalia Miller is an economist at the University of Virginia.

MILLER: I do research on topics in labor economics and law and economics, often relating to the well-being of women and families.

For a researcher like Miller, domestic violence is an important and rich topic because it intersects with so many other topics.

MILLER: There’s associations with alcohol abuse and a possibility that having access to guns or weapons in the home might lead to greater escalation. Economic distress could be a predictor of greater D.V. 

Just how common is D.V., or domestic violence? That’s hard to say. Advocacy groups estimate at least five million acts of domestic violence are committed against women in the U.S. every year. According to the F.B.I., there are only around one million assault charges brought per year — and that’s all assault charges, not just domestic violence. So even if the estimates of the advocacy groups are way high, one salient fact is that many instances of domestic violence are never reported to the police. Amalia Miller has for years been studying exactly how domestic violence is reported. One paper she wrote, along with Carmit Segal, looked at what happened as police departments started hiring more female officers.

MILLER: This is mainly during the 1970s and the 1980s, when women are going from less than 3 percent of officers to more than 10 percent.

They looked at data from thousands of police departments across the U.S.

MILLER: What we found was that when a local area police department has a greater share of female officers, reporting of all violent crimes against women go up. So conditional on the crime happening, the likelihood that it’s reported to the police goes up, and that the increase is most sizable for domestic violence. 

Stephen DUBNER: And do you know what the mechanisms are for that happening?

MILLER: I think that having female officers on the force might have led the police to actually treat these crimes more seriously. It could be that female officers had more sympathy with victims or that they took the crime more seriously, and it’s possible that they even influenced the behavior of their male colleagues. And then the other side could be coming from victims, where it could be that victims feel more willing or comfortable to actually report what’s happening when they’re talking to a sympathetic female officer. So, they kind of work together.

But the data from this study ends in the early 1990s.

MILLER: This is a time when the crime was seen as this private thing, and the role of the police was to keep the peace. 

You can see how “keeping the peace” and stopping domestic violence might be at odds with each other. And for much of human history, violence against women wasn’t considered a crime at all. In early Roman law, for instance, women were considered the property of their husbands, and husbands were allowed to beat or even kill their wives with justification. In the 15th Century, the Catholic Church encouraged husbands to beat their wives if it would help save their souls. Such attitudes have blessedly evolved, at least in many places around the world. In 1993, the United Nations ratified the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women; the following year, the U.S. passed the Violence Against Women Act — sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden — which acknowledged the criminal nature of domestic violence. Over the next 15 years or so, as most violent crime was falling across the U.S., it’s thought that domestic violence fell by more than half. So … progress. But then came Covid-19, and those horrifying headlines.

ABC: The “shadow pandemic” is the name the United Nations has given to the rise of violence against women over the past year.

MILLER: The pandemic and the pandemic shutdowns are completely unprecedented. We don’t have a prior exact scenario to look at. I think that the news reporting, policymaking advocates were all very concerned that domestic violence might increase.

In March of 2020, very early in the pandemic, President Trump signed the CARES Act, which included $47 million in domestic-violence funding — money for messaging, for boosting the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and to provide housing and other resources for victims. The Biden Administration would go on to disburse more funds. Amalia Miller and her fellow researchers — Carmit Segal and Melissa Spencer — started to gather data on domestic violence. They had also seen the alarming headlines.

MILLER: That was our expectation, too, that there’s definitely reason to be worried about an increase. 

They wound up writing two research papers — one looking at domestic violence in Los Angeles during the pandemic shutdown, the other at Los Angeles plus 17 other big cities.

MILLER: We focused on the real-time data that are made available by these police departments, either by posting it on their web pages or that we were able to obtain by a Freedom of Information Act request.

The data contained two different measurements of domestic-violence crimes.

MILLER: One measure that we have is the number of calls for service that the police departments get. Then we have this measure of the number of crimes that the police are recording. These reports are made by the officers after they’ve investigated the call and determined that they think a crime has likely taken place.

So what’d they find? 

MILLER: What we find is that the calls are higher than expected during shutdowns, which suggests an increase in domestic violence. 

Okay, that seems to match the general perception, and the headlines.

MILLER: But the crimes are actually lower during shutdowns, which suggests the opposite.

Wait, what? Calls reporting domestic violence were up, but incidents of domestic violence were down?

MILLER: We were somewhat skeptical of the finding, and so we sort of wanted to understand it. 

Miller considered two potential explanations for why there might be more calls but fewer crimes. 

MILLER: One possibility — and this is the one that we think is more likely — is that many of those additional calls may have been coming from an increase in the crime-reporting rate, so the number of calls per incident. And some of this may have come from third-party reporters — so, people who are not victims or survivors being more likely to call the police. 

DUBNER: Like nosy neighbors, do you mean? 

MILLER: I would say concerned neighbors.

DUBNER: That’s a much better word, I agree. 

MILLER: So that’s one possibility, either there were multiple calls for one incident, or because they were getting calls about things that when they went and investigated, turned out either not to have been a crime — maybe it was a loud argument — or it turned out not to be a domestic-related crime.

DUBNER: I see. This, too, is a Covid-related phenomenon, because there are more people home to make those calls, yes?

MILLER: That’s right. There are more people home, so it could be that neighbors were just more likely to call. The other theory is the possibility that all these calls do reflect an increase in actual incidents of violence, but that police are somehow neglecting or failing to record these cases. The idea there has to be that the police are less likely to investigate and file an incident report for domestic violence during a shutdown than they would otherwise have been. 

DUBNER: And how can you determine whether that’s true or not? 

MILLER: So, I can’t determine it directly. Certainly, it’s not something that police departments — either individual officers or police leadership — were saying that they were doing. They say that they were still prioritizing domestic violence cases. These are all big-city police departments. They all have operating procedures to handle domestic cases. They have designated units and staffing to handle these cases. I think at the face of it, I wouldn’t expect them to reduce their effort.

DUBNER: How trustworthy do you, as an academic researcher, feel the data are that come from police departments?

MILLER: I think that the data from police departments are very flawed. They’re very limited. They are very incomplete. And they are the only thing we had at the beginning of the pandemic. I feel like availability trumps everything else. We can imagine perfect data, but we’re not getting that.

DUBNER: Right. But I can hear you say that and think, “Well, maybe the story that your research is telling isn’t quite as plausible because there are too many ways that the reality could have slipped between the cracks of the data analysis, between the original police data that you were getting that you admit is imperfect and the way that your analysis works.”

MILLER: So the most convincing thing to me was the information on intimate-partner homicides, and the data on suicide rates.

What do the homicide and suicide data tell Miller about domestic violence? Remember: domestic violence makes up a huge share of violent crime generally. Homicide and suicide can both represent the most severe outcomes of a domestic-violence attack, and so these numbers — fatal outcomes and non-fatal domestic assaults — they tend to travel together.

MILLER: We don’t see increases in these fatal outcomes, so that pushed me more towards believing the possibility of an aggregate decrease in incidents knowing that it’s possible that there’s something unmeasured that did go up. 

The fact that suicides fell during the shutdown was also a surprise, since experts had been predicting an increase. But the actual data tell a different story.

MILLER: The data that have been released on suicides from the C.D.C. are still preliminary estimates. The second quarter, which was the quarter when the shutdowns started, shows significantly lower suicides. 

Miller’s talking about the second quarter of 2020.

MILLER: So not just no increase, but significantly lower than would be predicted from previous years and seasonal trends. The fact that suicides went down when many of us expected that suicides would be increased does suggest maybe that we should have um some humility in the face of predictions when it comes to unprecedented, life-changing events. And that maybe we have a basis for our ideas, but we don’t know. 

Experts had also predicted the pandemic would have a big effect on fertility rates in the U.S. On this very show, in fact — episode 447, published in January 2021 — the economist Melissa Kearney shared her research with us.

Melissa KEARNEY: So, this is work I did with my frequent collaborator, Phil Levine. We are expecting a pretty large baby bust. 

Kearney and Levine’s reasoning was sound. Birth rates tend to fall during a recession, and Covid-19 certainly produced a recession. But they also pointed to the big birth decline after the Spanish flu, in the early 20th century, even though that pandemic did not create a recession. So how large a Covid baby bust were they predicting?

KEARNEY: We should expect a 10 to 13 percent reduction in births and based on annual birth rates, that leads us to predict 300- to 500,000 fewer births next year. 

But guess what actually happened? Not only did the U.S. birth rate not plummet last year, as predicted — it rose, by one percent; it was the first increase in the U.S. birth rate in more than seven years. How do the researchers explain their busted prediction? They said that “the labor market recovered much more quickly than expected” and that thanks to massive government financial stimulus, families felt more secure. All of which makes sense. But the point is: Any predictions — but especially those made in the heat of a global crisis — are susceptible to being wrong. I asked Amalia Miller what she thought about the news coverage saying that domestic violence was surging during the pandemic.

MILLER: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s hard to think of what I would have done differently. I think that it makes a lot of sense, where if you’re hearing anecdotes, and they’re concerning, that it seems like a sort of journalistic responsibility to write about it. The way I interpret it is that it was coming from a feeling of concern and wanting to care for the most vulnerable. And then I think also — at least from my co-authors and me, and for many people who did research during the pandemic — there was a desire to feel like you were doing something helpful. And thinking that there’s this horrible thing happening, and you could help sound the alarm seems like a noble pursuit. 

Some of the other data Miller used, to cross-check the police data on domestic violence, did seem to sound the alarm. This data came from the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Hotline, which has nothing to do with the police.

MILLER: And there we were able to see that calls went up during the shutdown, and then stayed elevated after reopening. 

DUBNER: That would suggest, however, more domestic violence crimes, not fewer. So how do you square those? 

MILLER: I think that the reporting rate went up because of the advertising. In L.A. in particular, they had this program to set up domestic-violence victims and survivors at hotels. And just the presence of that program may have led more people to come forward to the hotline to get help. And it’s possible that that reduced some crime incidents. 

DUBNER: I see. So, it’s not necessarily that shutdowns didn’t increase the propensity for domestic violence, but perhaps there were these measures that actually did work against an increase, yes? 

MILLER: I think that’s right. There could be some cases where the shutdowns directly reduced incidents, but we don’t have that experiment. What happened in the U.S. was the shutdown happened, and then there were these pretty remarkable countermeasures, huge increases in resources devoted to addressing the issue. What would have happened without that increased spending or increased attention? We don’t know. 

One way to think about what might have happened in the U.S. is to look at what happened in other countries. Many countries reported early on that domestic violence was spiking because of the pandemic — China, Australia, countries across Europe and Latin America. Some of those countries did spend big money, as we did, to try to forestall the domestic violence crisis; others, much less so. So what happened? Did domestic violence rise in the places that didn’t spend money on it and did it fall or at least rise less in the places that did spend money? Miller tells us the results are somewhere between mixed and inconclusive, at least thus far. And in this case, she says, a cross-cultural comparison may not tell us all that much about the U.S.

MILLER: The U.S. differed from a lot of countries in the sense that the shutdowns were typically not as strict or severe. And everything else is different in terms of police and the social services and the whole context. 

We also reached out to the sources of the domestic-violence data that Miller collected from Los Angeles. We couldn’t get the L.A.P.D. to give an interview, but we did hear back from her other data source.

SHEEDY: Hi, my name is Eve Sheedy. And until about two weeks ago, I was the executive director of the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council.

DUBNER: Does that mean you got fired or something two weeks ago? What happened?

SHEEDY: It does not, no. I have been working for almost 40 years, so I officially retired. Although I am consulting and opining about domestic violence after having been in the field for a long time. 

The Domestic Violence Council is run by L.A. County’s Public Health department. It works to connect people who experience domestic violence with services that can help them — and that includes the hotline. What did Eve Sheedy see during the pandemic shutdown?

SHEEDY: In Los Angeles County, there was not a significant increase in the amount of domestic violence. There was an increase in calls to service-provider hotlines.

In other words: a similar pattern to what Amalia Miller measured in the police data.

SHEEDY: I think it’s a bit of a false narrative, about the increase in domestic violence. What we have seen is an increase in severity. The narrative pushed an understanding of domestic violence that there were people, because they were locked in, they all of a sudden sort of became abusive people. When you’re in a dangerous domestic-violence relationship, whether there is a lockdown or there is no lockdown, you are stuck in your home. The concept of a survivor having his or her movements limited because of domestic violence is not limited to a lockdown. That’s their life.

DUBNER: When you were reading these headlines and seeing on T.V. these reports that domestic violence was spiking during the pandemic, did you feel that there are people who think this problem is much worse than it is, or were you grateful for any attention being paid to the problem — because just because there might be less domestic violence, even one is still a problem. So, what was your position? 

SHEEDY: Any mention of domestic violence in the press can be helpful. I do believe there’s a bit of a public misunderstanding of both the scope of domestic violence and what it really is. The fear is that people confuse rage with power and control. Those are not the same things. I think overall, from my world and the work I’ve done, if we could talk about domestic violence much more openly and much more frequently, when you talk about what would help address domestic violence, that would help. It would also help if it was very accurate as well. What we should say is, domestic violence is incredibly pervasive throughout this society, and it demands our attention every single day. 

Coming up: What kind of attention gets results?

MILLER: Having that economic cushion, I think, could make a big difference.

And: how a big-city police chief thinks about domestic violence.

GARCIA: What that tells me is that the same individuals that are committing those assaults, robberies, and using firearms are the same individuals that are hurting their loved ones. 

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, at 1-800-799-7233. We’ll be back in a minute.

 *     *     *

As we mentioned, both the Trump and Biden administrations invested millions of dollars in social services and programs to address domestic violence. Some of this was spent with outreach and messaging campaigns; some on housing and other support. But in many cases, the social service that is most directly involved with domestic violence, especially in its worst forms, is a police department. And police departments in the U.S., as you surely know, have come under serious pressure since the pandemic began. Many of them are facing a significant rise in crime and especially gun violence while also facing political pressure over racial justice and police abuses. So we called up one big-city police chief — Eddie Garcia, of Dallas — to talk this over.

GARCIA: I was born near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I moved to California when I was very young. I grew up and became a police officer in the city of San Jose.

Garcia rose through the ranks in San Jose.

GARCIA: Whether it be narcotics, S.W.A.T., homicide, community services, vice, special investigations, criminal intelligence. I was the chief of police in San Jose for about five years before retiring. 

But a month later, he came out of retirement, when he heard the Dallas job had opened up.

GARCIA: I’m a huge Dallas Cowboys fan. I was a Cowboys fan probably before I spoke a word of English. I’d been to the city a few times. I always loved the diversity of it.

DUBNER: What was your perception of Dallas, the job in Dallas, the crime in Dallas, and all the other parts that go along with being a police chief?

GARCIA: Very large city. Very diverse, with an issue that was going on that we saw in 2020 with violent crime going up. Seeing levels of violent crime that the city hadn’t seen in a while. 

DUBNER: What did you know about the causes of that rise in crime? 

GARCIA: Violent crime is rooted in poverty, education, lack of jobs, family structure, food deserts and those type of things. The police come in and we have to deal with the symptom and not necessarily the disease.

DUBNER: The police obviously have quite a bit of leverage and ability to do things, but you don’t really have that much leverage to address the underlying root causes of all these things. So how do you first think about controlling what you can control and then doing something about it? 

GARCIA: Well, that’s exactly right. You got to look at what you can control. What we did in the city of Dallas is we broke it down in about 101,000 crime grids. And these grids are areas a little bit bigger than a football field. We ended up really focusing proactive and visible presence in about 45 to 50 of those grids. Now 45 to 50 of those grids is actually a very small percentage, obviously, of 101,000 grids. But those 45 or 50 grids represent about 10 percent of the city’s overall violent crime. Our mantra here in this police department is, “Weed and seed.” We need to take the criminal element off the street, but we also have to seed our community with positivity. You look at that problem apartment complex or strip mall, and you ask yourself, “Okay, after the police take the criminal element out, what else is needed? Does it need lighting? Does the street need fixing? Does there need to be a park nearby so that the kids have somewhere to play? Do we need to bring landlords and have them accountable? Do we need more libraries?”

This grid system that Garcia is describing and directing resources to the biggest trouble spots — that’s known as hot-spotting, and it’s been a common policing practice for quite some time. Dallas has so far seen success under Garcia. Violent crime in most big cities has been going up since the pandemic but in Dallas it’s been falling, even with the number of arrests falling too. So that’s one way in which Dallas is an outlier. But there’s another, having to do with domestic violence. Back in the 1980s, before the federal legislation that increased protections for victims of domestic violence, Dallas had one of the first police units devoted to it. How’d that happen? There had been a class-action lawsuit by women in Dallas who argued that the government was denying them equal protection under the law. This forced the Police Department to create a specialized unit.

Kylee HAWKS: We were only required to do it for two years, but it’s still going to this day. 

That’s Kylee Hawks, a police major in Dallas who used to run the domestic violence task force.

HAWKS: The task force is amazing because it has created communication between the police department and the advocacy groups. 

Many cities now have specialized police units to fight domestic violence. The Dallas unit is staffed by detectives trained to help the victims but also to follow up after the crime to make sure the offenders are properly prosecuted.

HAWKS: The domestic-violence detectives can get anywhere from 30 to 70 cases a month. The one thing about domestic violence that is different from a lot of other offenses is that our probable causes are pretty much handed to us. A patrol officer goes out, answers a 911 call, they get all the elements of the offense, they take pictures of the victim’s injuries, they have their body-worn camera, we have the 911 audio. When you have a large volume of cases, these detectives have to really keep up with it. 

All this requires a lot of resources, and personnel. Chief Garcia recently proposed a plan to increase funding and staff for his domestic violence unit.

GARCIA: Our crime plan in those grids is based on street-level violence. The robbery at a gas station, the aggravated assault on a street corner, or what have you. It’s not necessarily concentrating on crimes that happen in homes in the middle of the apartment complex. But as we saw reductions in robbery and agg assaults and murder, we also saw a reduction in intimate-partner violence. What that tells me is that the same individuals that are committing those agg assaults, robberies, and using firearms are the same individuals that are hurting their loved ones. 

DUBNER: I’m reading here that the long-term trend in violent crime in Dallas is still down, but I see that domestic-violence assaults are up around 13 percent, it looks like. You were talking about the correlation between the criminals in the community and when those guys are arrested, that tends to lower domestic-violence reports, which makes sense. I’m curious if you think about if you could get the arrow to travel in the other direction — is there anything that you can do directly? Now, I realize it’s in the home. You’re not going to go into every home and make sure that there’s no trouble going on. But do you think about trying to drive down domestic violence numbers on their own, whether just for its own sake or to drive down crime in the community? 

GARCIA: I think they go hand-in-hand. I know you only get a snapshot in time, but as of this morning, our domestic-violence numbers are trending down once again. But again, those are snapshots in time. No police department has a silver bullet to this. We absolutely need to work with our partners and our advocates out in our community. A lot of it was doing home visits to former survivors, and former oftentimes batterers, to do two things to, No. 1, let the survivor know that we care, we’re here, we’re paying attention. But on the flip side of it, to let sure that the former batterer — who hopefully is a former batterer — know that we’re here, we’re present, and we’re also paying attention.

DUBNER: What about the legal side? How effective are the legal tools to prevent domestic violence from escalating? Let’s say there’s been a report. Let’s say there’s even been an arrest. How good are restraining orders and injunctions and so on? 

GARCIA: I think they work. But a restraining order is only as good as the individual that’s actually going to follow it. And so those are, quite frankly, blind spots. And I’m not quite sure we’ll ever be able to get over. But the system that we have in place has worked well for us. It’s not to say it’s perfect. In this profession, we could always do better as a team, whether it’s us, the D.A. or the courts.

DUBNER: Okay. Let’s talk then about what happens after an arrest and a conviction even. In a lot of places including New York, where I live; including Los Angeles, many other places, there’s been a real change in philosophy about bail reform, about recidivism. We all know the story. You read one article about somebody who was in jail or in prison for a short time, a long time, whatever, gets out and kills somebody — everybody hates that story. But also, people are trying to balance from a human rights and civil rights perspective, too. Can you talk about the relationship of the P.D. there with the D.A. or other institutions to try to strike that right balance and where you’re pushing that to get to? 

GARCIA: We have been seeing are irresponsible decisions made by individuals on the bench where individuals have committed violent acts, particularly with handguns, that are released very quickly. And when they get released, they get released back to their communities. When they re-offend, we have to stand to our communities, explain to them why that was and why that is. I’ll say this, there has not been a neighborhood in the city of Dallas impacted by violent crime — regardless of the language spoken, racial makeup, or economic status — that has ever asked me for less police officers. In fact, unfortunately, it’s our communities of color that often beg me for more presence because they’re tired of the violence. 

DUBNER: Right around the time you were coming in to take over Dallas P.D., there was this huge movement inspired by the police murder of George Floyd that was centered around a few mantras, “Black Lives Matter,” but also, “Defund the Police.” And I’m curious to know whether that vibe was present in Dallas. 

GARCIA: Well, I’ll say this. Our city leadership here, led by our mayor, quite frankly, was not — we’re not going to talk about defunding the police, and recognize what an irresponsible decision that would be. I think it takes more conversations like the one we’re having right now — that, yes, absolutely, we need to reinvest in our communities. We need to reinvest in areas that have not been invested in before in a lot of ways that don’t have to do with policing. However, those reinvestments are not going to manifest themselves into stronger communities today, this weekend or next weekend. And oftentimes when I have individuals that are talking about less policing or what have you, I invite them: “Please, I beg you, come with me to my next community meeting and you stand there with me as I tell this community that there’s going to be less police officers in their neighborhoods, because they will let me have it.”

DUBNER: I understand you have proposed a plan for higher bail being set for domestic-violence crimes. Can you talk about the coordination to make that happen? 

GARCIA: I am definitely an advocate for higher bail for domestic violence or intimate-partner-violence crimes. I know the D.A.’s office oftentimes will get scrutiny when it comes to charging individuals. But a D.A. has very little power over the bail or bond system. That’s on judges. And I’ll be frank with you, particularly as I see the numbers of individuals being released that have committed violent crime, I’m actually going to send an invite to judges at some point to come with me to community meetings. They need to hear from the people that they’re here to protect. It doesn’t have to be adversarial; it’d just be an issue of, maybe have this in mind the next time you’re setting bond or thinking about reducing a bond. You do have to balance that with fairness, obviously. But there’s a narrative that has been going around, let’s just call the elephant in the room, that’s very far from reality when we’re talking about our communities in our neighborhoods that are impacted by violent crime that I think judges do need to listen to. 

DUBNER: You sound way too smart to get into any kind of political pissing match but let me just ask you a philosophical question. Judges are elected or appointed. Do you feel that most of the judges that you’ve interacted with in your tenure as a police chief have acted less on a rational assessment or even a commonsense assessment and more on an underlying political belief? 

GARCIA: I never like to use absolutes. But when decisions have been made that I scratch my head on, particularly when it has to do with violent crime — very often decisions are being made in the name of social justice that does not make the neighborhoods that we work with, our beautifully diverse neighborhoods oftentimes that are impacted by violent crime, more safe. They make them less safe. So, yeah, I’d like to see a level of common sense used, absolutely. 

Criminal-justice reform in the U.S. is a volatile subject. In the most progressive circles, there are arguments to abolish the police and prisons entirely. In Los Angeles, District Attorney George Gascon has pushed to largely eliminate cash bail. He said, “We can break the multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma and arrest and recidivism that has led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation.” I asked Eve Sheedy, who until recently ran the L.A. County Domestic Violence Council, if this new bail policy was worrisome to her.

SHEEDY: Well, my personal opinion is I would say no. I would say that is not the opinion of everybody in the domestic violence field here. But if we look over the past 30 years, we have some larger problems in the criminal justice system. There are structural racism issues within that system, and there are other issues that directly impact domestic violence. There are many people who get taken to jail for a minor level of physical violence, which is not to say there’s not true domestic violence. That person gets incarcerated, they lose their job, the family loses their income. And the question becomes, are there other ways that we can address this that are effective? Where we’ve used incarceration and law enforcement as a response — in certain instances, is it successful? It is. In many instances, does it get rid of the domestic violence? It does not.

DUBNER: But you’re suggesting that having a lighter touch when it comes to automatic incarceration, let’s say, may actually prevent a lot of domestic violence — long run, yes?

SHEEDY: What I’m saying is choice is what people need. There are cases which are incredibly dangerous to someone’s life, and they need a police response. There are cases where people have strong family or community support, or they are not in that kind of physical danger. They need other kinds of support, and they don’t want to access law enforcement, either because they have a fear of law enforcement — which many times is, in my opinion, a legitimate fear — or it is not the remedy that they are looking for. So, the real answer, in my opinion, is not to do away with one or the other, but to provide choice and provide knowledge so that people can access the services that they need. 

MILLER: Some of the research that economists have contributed to that’s been really helpful in thinking about domestic violence is the role of non-police factors. 

That, again, is the economist Amalia Miller.

MILLER: In particular, I’m thinking about work by Anna Aizer and others that shows how female empowerment — so when women have better employment opportunities and better wages — that that’s associated with significant declines in domestic violence. Having that economic cushion, I think, could make a big difference.

DUBNER: Do you feel in this case where there was such widespread and really noisy reporting about how terrible domestic violence was during Covid because of lockdowns, do you feel there’s a little bit of a problem in hyping danger that doesn’t exist to the degree that it does? Is there a boy-cried-wolf problem here? 

MILLER: I think it would be really wrong to interpret our findings as saying, “Oh, yeah, that was a bunch of hullabaloo about nothing, and we should cut funding and cut resources.” That would be very upsetting to me. We don’t find direct support, but it’s certainly consistent, that the drop in crimes partly did come from this expansion in financial resources like in the CARES Act. But also, just all this attention and publicity. To me, that suggests, if anything, that we were leaving some opportunities untapped to try to address domestic violence. I do want to know what are the factors that actually reduce violence. If we can’t measure it and we can’t study it, then we’re never going to improve things. And that, I think, applies to every question I ask about gender. I’m not objective in the question of do I want women to be victimized or not? I’m biased. I’m against violence. But at the same time, I’m unbiased when it comes to methodological approaches or policies that can be beneficial. 

Thanks to Amalia Miller, Eve Sheedy, Eddie Garcia, and Kylee Hawks for their insights and analysis today. Again, if you or  someone you know needs help, you can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie KanferMorgan Levey, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

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Sources

  • Kylee Hawks, police major at the Dallas Police Department.
  • Eddie Garcia, police chief of the Dallas Police Department.
  • Melissa Kearney, professor of economics at the University of Maryland.
  • Amalia Miller, professor of economics at the University of Virginia.
  • Eve Sheedy, former executive director of the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council.

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