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What to Do When Love Turns Violent
A Practical Resource for Women in Abusive Relationships
By Marian Betancourt
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Marian Betancourt
All rights reserved.
How the Police Can Help You
Reporting domestic violence to police appears to reduce the risk of a husband attacking his wife again by as much as 62 percent.
National Crime Victimization Survey
Domestic violence is a federal crime. As new laws are more consistently applied, this fact will sink into society's consciousness, although it may take a bit longer before men shake the belief that they are entitled to push women around and get away with it. Nevertheless, the law is now on our side, and there is an ever-widening network of help available: police, courts, hospitals, and domestic violence shelters. For most women the way into that network begins with the police. Calling 911 sets the criminal justice system in motion when you are assaulted, terrorized, or stalked by your abusive intimate partner.
Emerging Police Protocols
As a result of the 1994 federal anticrime bill, which included the Violence Against Women Act, most police and sheriff's departments now have written protocols for domestic violence. Law-enforcement officers are required to keep you safe if you are being abused by your intimate partner and to act as liaisons in a network of interventions to help you get away from the abuse. And now in most states they must arrest your abusive partner.
If police fail to keep you safe, they are liable. This liability grew out of a class-action suit in California in 1977 in which three female attorneys sued the Oakland Police Department and the city of Oakland on behalf of women abused by violent men. This suit, the first in the domestic violence movement, resulted in new police procedures, police training, and city funding for local domestic violence shelters. In 1985 a woman in Torrington, Connecticut, won a $2-million settlement from the city for failure of the police department to protect her from her husband's violence. This case, the first tried in federal court, was a catalyst in Connecticut's passage of the 1986 Family Violence and Response Act, which now mandates arrest in domestic violence cases when probable cause exists.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act resulted from years of persistent lobbying by women's groups. Its passage created Justice Department funding to local communities to train the police and the courts in the realities of domestic violence, and to coordinate efforts to help women to safety. It also provided for the national domestic violence hot line, launched in 1996, so that a woman anywhere in the United States can be connected to the resources she needs to get away from a violent partner.
A New Police Sensitivity
Federal funds have helped develop domestic violence protocols in about half the nation's police departments and sheriff's offices. In large metropolitan areas, police department specialists in community affairs and crime prevention have been joined by domestic violence officers, whose job is to help you get the social and human services you need. However, in some communities these officers are not always on duty at night or on weekends, when many domestic violence incidents take place. (Sunday night is the most common time for domestic violence according to a study of their state by the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women.)
In many communities where police have taken domestic violence seriously, their response has generally been applauded. In their first year of operation — with the help of federal grants — the Domestic Violence Unit of the Metro Nashville Police Department investigated eighteen thousand domestic violence calls and reduced Nashville's domestic homicide rate by 71 percent. In the New York City Police Department, a domestic violence police program began in 1983, but it was not until 1994 — eleven years later — that all precincts were required to have a domestic violence officer. Whether or not there are domestic violence specialists in your community, all officers must follow the new rules.
In rural areas the reality may be different. While police may be just as concerned and cooperative, their availability might be limited by the great distances and isolation. You might be served by a single county sheriff or deputy, or have to rely on state police. If you live in a remote corner of a district with only one officer and another crime is happening at the same time, you may never get emergency help when you need it. It is therefore essential to develop a safety plan and be connected to a network of advocates who can help.
What to Tell the Police When You Call
If you are in immediate danger, always call 911 and try to give as much information as you can. The more the police know before they arrive, the more effective they will be. In a handful of communities, the police dispatcher can run a computer background check immediately in order to let the responding officers know whether there have been similar calls to your address in the past, if an order of protection is in effect, or if a gun is registered to anyone. Although police computer networks are improving — in Hawaii there is a model plan to have computers in the police cars — most background checking goes through channels at the police station or the state capital or a central registry during normal business hours.
Most of this information is determined later, after the police have filed a report at the station house, so the more information you can provide, the better they can help you.
Try to tell them
if you and your abuser are at the same location
if you are being threatened with a weapon
if there are children present
if the assault is still in progress
if a protective order exists
if anyone has been using drugs or drinking
how badly you or anyone else is injured
if you are disabled
In most emergencies you won't have enough time to remember all this, but the more information the radio dispatcher is able to give to the police in the street, the more efficient the response will be. For example, if police know your abusive partner has a gun, they might call for backup, or they will come without sirens so they can catch the man off guard. In some jurisdictions police are instructed to approach all domestic violence calls silently. Many officers do not park directly in front of the house.
This caution is necessary to avoid provoking the assailant, who might take you hostage or kill you, and to protect officers as well. Domestic violence calls are the fifth most dangerous police assignments. In 1996 a young police officer was killed in New York City when he was shoved into a broken mirror by an enraged man who had been beating up his common-law wife. A police lieutenant was shot and killed when he went to the aid of a woman who was being stalked by a former boyfriend.
If you are being assaulted and yanked away from the phone, try to leave it off the hook, and keep talking or screaming so police can trace the call and find you. The priority police give to your call depends on the degree of immediate danger conveyed in your call as well as what else is going on in their district at the time. If there are two armed robberies in progress, the police response to your call might not be as fast; but in areas with a substantial police force, somebody will come. In many cities domestic violence calls receive the second-highest priority after calls to assist an officer in trouble.
Never put yourself in greater danger than already exists. If you can remain where you are until police arrive, then you will be able to explain what happened. If, however, you need to leave the scene to protect yourself, then do so. If you are gone when police arrive they will talk to your abusive partner, who is likely to tell them nothing is wrong. They will make a report anyway, because there was a call about violence.
If You Are Not a Citizen
If you are a lawful permanent resident or possess a valid visa, you have the same rights as anyone else; new immigration laws mean you cannot be deported for calling the police to report domestic abuse. You are still entitled to help from the police and safety from the violence. You can go to a shelter and also get a temporary restraining order against your abuser.
In 1996 the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled that abused spouses and children of legal residents can petition for legal status on their own, so you need not choose between abuse and deportation. Some communities, like Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a large immigrant population, have created special domestic violence programs, such as the Albuquerque Border City Project, to facilitate response to immigrant women.
The changes in the federal welfare laws in 1996 may restrict the services available to immigrants — legal and illegal — but police and hospital emergency rooms cannot turn you away in an emergency.
If you do not speak English, police can get an interpreter, either from their own ranks or from the community. In some cities a call to 911 or the AT&T Language Line can connect you and the police to a translator.
What the Police Will Do
When the police arrive, go into another room with the officers so you can speak without being shouted down or interrupted. Try to tell them what happened and ignore any taunts from your abusive partner. He knows he can be arrested and might try to appear rational and calm so he can talk his way out of an arrest. Though your home might be filled with broken furniture and shattered glass, though you might be crying and terrified, he will point to you and say, "Look at her, she's the one who's out of control." If your injuries are not visible, he may even deny attacking you. If you are obviously injured, he may claim that you hit him first and that he had to defend himself, or that it was your fault. "She made me do it. She insulted my manhood." Try not to respond to this lame excuse of the chronic abuser. There is no excuse. You are not responsible for his violence. He is. The evidence at the scene speaks for itself. The fact that you — or someone — called and said you were being attacked is all you need.
Describe the violence as accurately as you can. Give them a blow-by-blow account of what happened. Officers at the scene may also interview children, other family members, and neighbors who might have seen or heard the violence.
If your violent partner has fled by the time police arrive, the police will have to go find him. This can be done immediately or after a warrant has been issued for his arrest. Police will need your help in finding and identifying him. Give them addresses of friends and relatives, known hangouts, his workplace, car license plate number, and a photo.
Getting to a Safe Place
If police do not take away your abusive partner, they can take you away after they wait while you collect your belongings such as clothes, important papers, medications, money, and the evidence of domestic violence. They can take you to the home of a friend or relative in the area, or to the police station where they can help you locate the nearest family violence shelter. Because shelters are so crowded, they may have to take you to your community's emergency shelter.
If police take away your abuser, they might be able to offer you help in getting your locks changed and obtaining an emergency protective order while the abusive man is in custody. Ask them to let you call your local or national domestic violence hot line. If your police department has domestic violence officers, they will be able to give you more information.
Going to a Hospital
If you are injured or in shock, police should call for an ambulance or take you to a hospital emergency room, or to your own physician or clinic if that is an option. Hospitals are also operating under new rules about domestic violence, and if they do not help you, they can lose their accreditation.
Never refuse medical attention. It is imperative to seek an objective medical opinion and evaluation. Many bruises and fractures are not always apparent right away. Injuries could swell and discolor later. If you have dark skin, discoloration may not be noticeable until hours later, or when swelling begins. You could be unaware of internal bleeding or contusions that will cause problems later. A physician can examine you for deeper injuries, as well as signs of long-term abuse, and make a diagnosis for treatment as well as a medical report you can use as evidence in getting a protective order or following up on criminal charges.
If you are pregnant, let police know right away. Nearly half of all women who are beaten up by intimate partners are pregnant. Any kind of trauma can harm your baby. More babies are born with birth defects as a result of domestic violence than a combination of all diseases and illnesses for which we now immunize pregnant women. An abused mother is two times more likely to miscarry and four times more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby.
In chapter 5 you will find more information about getting medical care and how hospitals can help you as another intervention resource.
Confiscation of Weapons
Police will also remove any weapons or potentially harmful instruments like baseball bats if they believe they were used to assault you, even if no arrest is made. Weapons are used in 30 percent of domestic violence incidents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and of these weapons, 40 percent are knives or sharp instruments, 34 percent guns, 12 percent blunt objects, and 15 percent other weapons. A weapon includes not only a gun or knife, but also objects used as weapons, such as a piece of furniture, a lamp, ropes, or chains.
If you have a protective order against your abusive partner, federal law now prohibits him from possessing firearms or ammunition. The only exception to this is if he is an on-duty law enforcement officer himself or a member of the military.
Never clean up the house right after an assault. Unfortunately, many women do this because they want to erase all memory of the violence. (Men do it to hide the evidence.) But in doing this, you get rid of pieces of broken glass, torn and bloody clothing, clumps of hair pulled from your head, and broken furniture pieces used as weapons. This is all potentially important evidence and should be collected in a plastic bag, labeled, and taken away by the police to store in their property room.
The importance of identifying and collecting evidence of domestic violence cannot be overemphasized. Many women who have gone to court to get a restraining order, to testify in the abuser's arrest, or to get custody of their children have failed because it came down to their word against his. After years of living with control and intimidation, you may not be able to be objective and remember everything when you speak to a judge. But if you have hard evidence, it does not matter. Even if your abuser has a good attorney or the court is not sympathetic to you, the evidence speaks for itself.
What happened to you is a crime, and where it happened is a crime scene. Police have traditionally been more thorough at searching the scene for evidence when the offender was a stranger. Remind them that this is a crime scene and should be treated like one. The more evidence you collect, the more help you can get for yourself to build a safer life. Good evidence will make it easier to get a protective order, financial help, stronger punishment for the abuser, and tougher penalties if he does not stay away from you.
Police officers should be looking for all evidence of harm or injury to you, such as
torn or bloody clothing
damage to furniture, walls, windows, a car, or other property
broken objects used as weapons
signs of break-in through a window, door, or garage
threatening messages on your answering machine
letters or written messages containing threats
your own records, diaries, letters, and reports from police, courts, hospitals
names and phone numbers of witnesses
photos of you showing cuts, bruises, black eyes, or other signs of physical injury
Photographing Your Injuries
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then photographs of your injuries and any damage to your home are critical evidence. In Wailuku, Hawaii, as part of a domestic violence program, police officers carry cameras in their cars in order to take pictures at the crime scene. This may be the case in other jurisdictions as well, but in general don't expect the police to have a camera with them. Despite donations of special instant cameras to some law enforcement agencies from the Polaroid Corporation, the film is so expensive that most police do not routinely have access to this technology. They may not get photographs unless they take you to the station house and borrow a camera from the detective division.
Excerpted from What to Do When Love Turns Violent by Marian Betancourt. Copyright © 2009 Marian Betancourt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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