Foreclosures, Domestic Disturbances, and Policy Implications

By Kim Lersch, Paul Cromwell, and Christine Sellers

Over the past decade, the United States has experienced a foreclosure crisis that reached epic proportions, rivaling the level seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s. While nationally the foreclosure activity was at a 5 year low in the third quarter of 2012, some states have continued to see their rates climb year after year. In May 2014 the national foreclosure rate for the entire U.S. was 1 in every 1,199 housing units. The State of Florida reported the highest rates in the country with 1 in every 436 homes in some stage of foreclosure. Conversely, the rate in North Dakota was 1 in every 160,000 homes (RealtyTrac, 2014).

Foreclosures and Domestic Issues

While the popular media and trade publications have focused attention on a foreclosure – crime link, the scholarly literature on the impact of foreclosure on crime and disorder is just beginning to emerge. One area that has not been addressed is the association between foreclosures and crimes of a distinctly domestic nature. The extant research suggests that the foreclosure rate does have an impact on the community, but it may also negatively impact families because of the financial stress that foreclosure often reflects (Ross & Squires, 2011). A small body of self-report survey research has linked economic hardship to marital dissatisfaction and instability (Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Conger, Simons, Whitbeck, Huck, & Melby, 1990), family conflict (Fox & Chancey, 1998), and intimate partner violence (Fox, Benson, DeMaris, & Van Wyk, 2004; Weissman 2007). The purpose of the present study is to explore the relationship between calls for service involving violent and non-violent domestic disturbances and foreclosure filings in the City of Tampa, Florida.Figure 1

The Tampa Experience

In 2008, the Tampa Police Department responded to a total of 16,773 calls for service classified as “domestic disputes” by the 911 call center. There were 3,206 calls that specifically included allegations of violence, use of a weapon, or aggravated assault (see Figure 1). Foreclosure data was obtained through for fiscal year 2008. There were 5,322 foreclosure filings on residential properties within the jurisdictional bounds of the Tampa Police Department (TPD). To determine whether or not there was a relationship between the foreclosure locations and the calls for service we first examined the density of the locations of residential foreclosures and the concentration of calls for service for domestic disturbances (See Figure 2). Kernel density map layers were created and classified according to standard deviation breaks. Visual inspection of these two density maps indicates similar patterns of concentration of points. However, if one examines the northernmost area of the TPD jurisdiction, there are areas with high concentrations of residential foreclosures with no corresponding clustering in calls for domestic disturbances. This area of the City, known as New Tampa, is somewhat unique. Over the past decade this area experienced a great deal of growth as developers constructed a number of affluent, gated communities.

Figure 2

We then wished to determine whether or not the rate of foreclosure filings occurring within a census tract was a significant predictor of the rate of domestic disturbance calls when controlling for socioeconomic variables. GeoDa was used to construct a spatial lag model. The foreclosure rate continued to be a significant predictor of the rate of domestic disputes, even when controlling for concentrated disadvantage, household size, and other demographics. The model was able to explain nearly 75% of the variation in the rate of domestic disputes (for a more detailed discussion of the methodology and results, please see Lersch, Sellers, & Cromwell, in press).

Policy Implications

The results of this exploratory study hold important policy implications for law enforcement agencies and social service providers. Our findings suggest that high levels of foreclosure filings may be related to heightened stress, which ultimately could manifest itself in escalated levels of violence and other domestic disputes and increasing calls for police intervention.

Perhaps the most important policy issue suggested by this research is how best to respond to domestic disturbance calls for police service and whether alternative criminal justice processes should be considered by policy makers?

Historically, domestic disturbance calls for service were treated as a family matter not appropriate for police intervention. The criminal justice system preferred to let the parties “work out” their problems privately. Studies of police encounters in domestic violence situations have found that arrest was not the most common response. The range of responses by police included ordering participants to cease their illegal behavior, separating victim from abuser, counseling the participants, referring participants to social service agencies, and arresting one or both participants. Arrest was not the most common outcome. Studies found that arrest rates ranged from 12-40% (Walker and Katz, 2013).

By the 1970s the women’s movement resulted in political pressure for greater intervention in abuse cases and lobbied for mandatory arrest policies (Flannigan, 2013; Weissman, 2007). In the 1980s, prosecutors in some jurisdictions began to develop special programs for domestic violence cases. These policies tended to focus on police arrest practices; in many jurisdictions, requiring mandatory arrest for abusers. Prosecutors were encouraged to institute “no drop” practices, which required prosecution even without the abuse victim’s cooperation, and courts were also urged to impose more severe sanctions (Weissman, 2012).

But, how did these criminal justice focused policies affect the incidence of domestic violence? Recent findings by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the rate of intimate partner violence fell 42-49% from 1993-2005 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013); however, unofficial data from social services agencies and organizations such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) have reported increases in incidents of domestic violence. The NDVH reported that calls were up 21% in September 2008, compared to September 2007. Fifty-four percent (54%) of 7,865 of NDVH callers who agreed to participate in a survey reported that there was a change in their household’s financial situation in the past year, and they believed that abusive behavior had also increased during that time period. Notably, this data corresponds to the beginning of the economic downturn and housing crisis.

The disparity between “official” statistics and calls for social services assistance may also be partially explained by the level of police response. Although most research has shown that arrests reduce the incidence of repeat violations, others suggest that mandatory arrest discourages reporting (Weissman, 2012; Walker and Katz, 2013).

Domestic violence victims may instead seek help from non-law enforcement sources, and their victimization may not be reflected in police calls for service statistics. We suggest that vigorous law enforcement tactics may reduce reporting in some cases. A woman who is financially dependent on her abuser and obliged to live with him may not report her abuse. Victims who are in this country illegally may fear deportation if they report their abuser. Lesbians, gay men, and transgendered victims may fear discrimination, and African-American, Hispanic, and persons in communities with a history of distrust of police may also be averse to involving authorities. Women may also fear further violent victimization when their abuser is released from custody (Weissman, 2007; Maxwell and Stone, 2010). Furthermore, Robinson and Welchans (2003) reported that victims in middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods may fail to report through official channels due to embarrassment or concerns over loss of income if the spouse is arrested. While this is purely speculative, it may be that in the more affluent New Tampa area there were incidents of domestic disturbances that simply were not reported to the police.

This data suggests that mandatory arrest, “no drop” prosecution, and other vigorous law enforcement and prosecutorial practices, while focused on concern and safety for the victim, may be too narrowly focused. We suggest that response to domestic violence should include a range of strategies, including police and criminal justice interventions. We agree with Weissman (2007) that a return to the “hands-off” approach is inconceivable.

The present study found that the rate of foreclosure filings was a significant predictor of the rate of calls for service for domestic disturbances. Law enforcement agencies and social service providers may wish to target their scarce resources to enhance domestic violence prevention efforts in areas with high levels of actual or potential foreclosure filings.   Revised police response policies providing specialized training for patrol officers in the handling of participants in domestic disputes and violence should be implemented in each department. Special domestic violence units could employ a range of strategies which include arrest, but also look toward prevention, referral to appropriate social service agencies, emergency shelters, employment, and financial counseling when the circumstances are appropriate.




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Ross, L. M., & Squires, G. D. (2011). The personal costs of subprime lending and the foreclosure crisis: a matter of trust, insecurity, and institutional deception. Social Science Quarterly, 92(1), 140-163.


Walker, S., & Katz, C. (2013). The Police in America (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.


Weissman, D.M. (2007) The personal is political and economic: Rethinking domestic violence. Brigham Young Law Review, 387. Available at


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Kim Lersch

Kim Lersch is currently the Director of the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in Sociology in 1995 and a graduate certificate in GIS from University of South Florida in 2010. Her research interests include the spatial distribution of crime, and planning for crime prevention. Currently Dr. Lersch and co-author Tim Hart are working on the 4th edition of Space, time, and crime.

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