2023 Changemaker Rhonda Martinson: Policing the Response to Domestic Violence

Rhonda Martinson holds out the final report about Minneapolis police response to domestic violence. Each binder covers a single year of cases. Photo Sarah Whiting

Shortly after graduating from Menomonie High School in Wisconsin in 1972, Rhonda Martinson married someone who turned out to be violent.

They had moved to Loveland, Colorado, where she called police a few times to intervene in situations of domestic abuse.

After four years of abuse, Martinson left her husband. A few weeks later, he showed up drunk to her house. He broke into her home through a glass window, cutting himself extensively in the process. He started destroying things in the house. Her neighbors heard the disturbance and called the police.

As she struggled to explain, an officer cut her off mid-sentence and said he wasn’t interested in hearing about “your personal problems, lady,” before walking out the door. They took her ex with them, but he was not charged for damages. Martinson found a lawyer in town who convinced her ex to write a check.

Martinson moved back to Wisconsin, living with her mother for a few months. She got a job as a jail officer and 911 operator. It was “eye opening to actually get 911 calls myself from other women,” she says, “and book defendants into jail” who had been abusive.

In the 1990s, after getting a law degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Martinson became a prosecutor in La Crosse. The city was in a county that had streamlined a new response to domestic violence, called Coordinated Community Response (CCR). CCR offers policies and procedures that are shared by the criminal justice system, resource centers, advocates, and community members. The policies are designed to hold batterers accountable and keep victims safe.

CCR emphasizes how every person is responsible for making domestic violence visible. For example, instead of a 911 operator asking the standard questions of “where are you” and “what does your house look like,” they ask if the abuser is still there, if there is a gun present, and if there are kids around. These questions provide for better victim safety and documentation, and enable the officer to know more about what to expect at the scene.

Martinson attended a CCR training by Ellen Pence, who co-founded the internationally recognized Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, and Casey Gwinn, a former city attorney in San Diego. The training emphasized “aggressive prosecution policy for domestic violence. … Nobody [else] was doing that.”

Martinson became the first prosecutor in La Crosse to use innovative practices to charge perpetrators of domestic violence, such as asking 911 centers to save calls to be used as evidence and searching visitor and phone records at jails for signs of victim intimidation.

In 2021, she joined Minneapolis-based Global Rights for Women (GRW), Domestic Abuse Project, and other partners to assess how cities were handling domestic abuse cases. One assessment, completed in June 2023, was about the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).

These assessments, Martinson says, are a “constructive way to go beyond simply training someone about domestic violence.” They are not solely a critique of police policies and practices, but a way to understand the “why” behind missing pieces that block support for victims.

The MPD Report

During a two-year process of analyzing Minneapolis police reports and assisting in writing the GRW report, Martinson and her colleagues conducted 32 interviews with criminal justice workers and led 26 focus-group and personal conversations with victims involved in calls the Minneapolis police responded to from 2018 to 2022.

Martinson stressed the importance of being thorough to establish research credibility. For example, Minneapolis police reports showed response times to domestic violence calls as being under 30 minutes. Victims, on the other hand, often indicated they waited two to three hours for police response. After some digging, Martinson discovered that 911 had information in a separate notebook showing when calls came in. It conflicted with what police reports indicated. Sometimes, she learned, the 911 center is overburdened with calls, and some are held until they can be assigned to an officer.

Martinson had been involved in a similar assessment of the Minneapolis police department 20 years earlier, with the Battered Women’s Justice Project. In both assessments, between 43 and 47 percent of cases involved offenders who left the scene before police arrived. She was surprised to learn how many “gone on arrival” (GOA) reports there were over time.

When GOA cases are not followed up on, it can result in the abuser feeling emboldened to strike again. Martinson and her colleagues found that in 23 out of 48 GOA cases, the case wasn’t assigned to an investigator and did not get prosecuted.

Victims need support, like discounted rent, when attempting to transition out of an abusive relationship. “Shelters are often full,” Martinson says. “They are meant to be emergency help for a few days, not two years.”

Survivors express gratitude for support groups, resource centers, and advocates who work on their behalf. However, Martinson points out these resources — often inadequate because of limited funds — are not enough, because they don’t hold offenders accountable.

Next Steps: Implementation

Enforcing better criminal justice practices and policies is essential. Better assessment of the risk factors faced by victims of domestic violence will ultimately lead to improved victim safety.

Martinson and her colleagues identified seven gaps that led to recommendations for the MPD to follow. Among those suggestions is to make an arrest for a violation of order of protection if the victim reports multiple instances of abuse. Minneapolis police chief Brian O’Hara and other members of his team have agreed to work in collaboration with the working group on implementation of risk assessments.

People involved in the assessment of the institutional response to domestic violence would like to see a continuing practice of gathering the stories of victims, and a more coordinated community response, Martinson says. “I think that would be a huge step forward, to have an information process regularly offered to police: ‘Here’s the issue we’ve talked to 20 victims about in the last six months. We would like to share these stories with you.’”

Find the report, and a Valiant Voices discussion led by Rhonda Martinson on the links between guns and domestic violence, at globalrightsforwomen.org