Law enforcement key to violence decline

When there is vigorous law enforcement response, the level of violence at reproductive health care facilities drops, a national survey shows. According to the 1996 National Clinic Violence Survey conducted by the Arlington, VA-based Feminist Majority Foundation, this finding extends across local, state, and federal lines.

Just 6.5% of clinics reporting "excellent" local law enforcement experienced high levels of violence during the first seven months of 1996, compared to 38.1% of clinics with self-declared "poor" law enforcement, the survey shows. In turn, when it came to state agencies’ responsiveness, those clinics that reported "excellent" service comprised only 4.8% of facilities with high violence levels, in contrast with the 40% that noted "poor" service.

The same correlation extended to response from federal agencies: Only 7.5% of clinics with self-reported superior service were victims of high violence levels, compared with 25% of those clinics who described their service as "poor."

The problem is that law enforcement varies from community to community, says Vicki Saporta, executive director of the Washington, DC-based National Abortion Federation (NAF). In communities with effective law enforcement, clinics tend to stay in touch with their law enforcement officials and regularly report acts of violence. For those communities with less than adequate response, health care providers can sometimes get frustrated and say, "What’s the point?"

"What we would like to see is law enforcement taking threats against reproductive health care facilities seriously in every part of the country," contends Saporta. "It shouldn’t have to take the [January 1997] bombings in Atlanta to make people realize that there are serious threats against providers. They are at unacceptably high levels, and law enforcement agents really do need to respond — not only to major incidents like bombings, but to other things [such disruptive acts as glue in clinic door locks] that, when left unchecked, can lead to more serious acts."

Officials with NAF, the Foundation, and the New-York based Planned Parenthood Federation of America are working closely with all levels of law enforcement so they can ensure that law enforcement has a comprehensive, consistent, and aggressive approach to investigating threats and incidents of violence against reproductive health providers.

The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) act, signed into law in 1994, has made a significant mark on clinic violence. According to NAF statistics, the overall number of violent incidents has dropped from 160 in 1994, to 158 in 1995, and 110 in 1996. This represents a continued but moderate decline from the peak of violence noted in 1993, when 434 violent incidents were recorded, NAF’s trend analysis states.

FACE makes a difference

As explained by an overview of legal remedies prepared by Planned Parenthood’s Legal Action for Reproductive Rights, the law makes it "a federal crime to use physical obstruction, force, or a threat of force to injure, intimidate, or interfere with someone in order to prevent that person from obtaining or providing reproductive health services. FACE is also violated when someone damages or destroys the property of a reproductive health facility."1

Members of the three national organizations agree that when FACE is called into play, and law enforcement acts upon it, clinic violence declines.

"It’s clear from our survey data that the FACE law and the improved enforcement of it, especially in the last year, has really made a difference in violence," says Jennifer Jackman, PhD, director of policy and research for the Feminist Majority Foundation.

According to the foundation’s 1996 clinic violence survey, clinics in 1996 noted "vast improvements" in enforcement of the FACE act. Almost one-third of clinics said federal officials had interviewed parties in response to reported violence against them, compared with the 12.9% of clinics reporting in 1995. This upturn in response may well have been responsible for the downturn of reported violations in 1996 as noted by the survey.

"I think the FACE law has been a great help in changing the tone of the discussion so we’re not always reinventing the wheel," comments Ann Glazier, the director of clinic defense and research for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "With the FACE legislation, law enforcement agents know there is some federal legislation that’s got some teeth in it. The problem continues to be with the aggressiveness of law enforcement using FACE."

No matter the level of violence or the response from law enforcement, clinics must be vigilant in reporting such acts, say the three organizations. Some facilities, especially those that provide abortions, may tend to take acts of nonviolent disruption, such as glue in the entrance locks, as a matter of course. This line of thought can be dangerous, though, says Saporta.

"These acts are illegal, and they need to be prosecuted, because when they’re not, people then do go on to accelerate," she notes. "When they see that these things are tolerated, they accelerate and push the envelope."


1. Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Overview of Legal Remedies for Clinic Harassment. New York, NY.