How Police Policies Allow Domestic Violence Victims to be the Ones Arrested
I wasn’t supposed to be the one going to jail. I remember repeating this phrase in my head while the police officers cuffed me. Cuffs that eventually left wounds on my wrist that have now left scars.
With a bleeding face and my body covered in bruises I literally couldn’t understand why I was being arrested for domestic violence. I was in doubt because this wasn’t supposed to happen to me, any of it. The violence, the false arrest, and the damage. My ex was always the aggressor and I was falsely arrested and criminalized for having an emotional reaction to the abuse once the police arrived.
Supposedly called by a neighbor, the cops read the situation incorrectly and characterized me as the aggressor. This mistake by the Oakland Police Department put me in the company of women that represent the 446% increase of arrest of women for DV after the passage of the Violence Against Women Act.
This problem presents itself in states like California, where there are mandatory arrest laws. The problem with mandatory arrest laws are that it does not require fact from both parties. In real time the first person to speak to the officers will generally get the to shape the narrative. In my case I was in the bathroom trying to wash blood off my face.
Most assume that the law appears consistent with the probable cause requirement with the Fourth Amendment. In my case, and in many others, the enforcement of these laws requires weaker standards.
According to the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse, “despite the increasing arrests rates of women, none of the respondents felt that women’s use of violence was increasing. They attributed this increase to changes in police policy, in that police were trained to automatically make an arrest on all domestic violence calls, rather than use their discretion.” (Source)
Advocacy groups and lawyers are working to re-direct the hand of justice towards protecting victims rather than criminalizing them. This however hasn’t happened fast enough to protect me and other women suffering from this harm. I was not charged yet the District Attorney has a year to do so. In a year I can seal my arrest record that is if the DA does not decide to file charges. I have no influence on this.
My experience highlights a problem in the execution of policies meant to protect women, but as anything primarily managed by the state it perpetuates racist and sexist practices that do just the opposite.
Unfortunately there are 700,000 people (annually) who are falsely arrested for domestic violence, when in fact they are the victims. This happens often times by the lack of proper use of discretion by police officers and the use of power by the abuser to validate a story against the victim. Here we see the state playing ally and co-conspirator with the abuser.
I do not believe this was the intent of the Violence Against Women Act. In fact, I spoke in Washington D.C. in support of the re-authorization of this bill in 2013. So, as you could imagine my frustration is palpable.
My story describes how I was criminalized and further traumatized by police while gripping the fact that my partner could have put me in the Hospital. I will admit, not with shame, I did try to defend myself. This does not make the aggressor. When the police knocked on the front door I was sure that my battered body would be enough evidence.
While I was being booked at Santa Rita Jail I was still having a panic attack. I was crying in the back seat of the police car and I had to watch the officers make fun of me and complain about me crying.
They had to finger print me three times in order to fully book me in the system. I couldn’t stop shaking and I was throwing up from stress and shock. I didn’t think what was happening was real. It couldn’t have been. Unfortunately, for me, it was. The conditions in Santa Rita Jail was deplorable. There were holding cells with very little room, I couldn’t sit down so my only option was to lay down on the floor where it was clear that dried period blood had been.
I thought I knew betrayal until I lived the consequences of my former partner willingly throwing me under the bus to police to “save” himself from persecution. After release from my 15 hour stay in Santa Rita Jail I was unaware of the narrative crafted by the state and my former partner.
My ex is a black man afraid of police. Rightfully so, he believed that he could have been harmed. The thing he didn’t realize is so could I. He decided to do the wrong thing. He now regrets letting them in the house and saying anything. Still, being afraid of the police is not a rationale that sits well with me. It’s a sick irony when a black man criminalizes a black women because he is afraid to be killed by police.
In my circumstance I was falsely arrested for domestic violence while my 34 bruises were still on my body. At the time of arrest I did not know how many bruises were under my clothes. I didn’t get a chance to see them until after I was released. I knew it was bad because I couldn’t sit down on the cement bench in the holding cell as my entire back side from shoulders to ankles throbbed.
After review of the police report they characterized my behavior as erratic. The scene was me cornered in my bedroom by 7 cops. I was in my pajamas. Before I was arrested I kept asking to get more clothes to cover up they wouldn’t allow it. During and after the altercation with my ex husband I was having a full blown panic attack. At various times I blacked out from shock.
So on this morning when the cracks of his rage broke on my body I never thought I’d be arrested.
The piercing ill-fated action of these police officers is not just an issue for me. I used to think I was not the typical “victim” or “survivor” of domestic violence. I knew better because I watched my mother deal with it and escape it. I knew better because I’m formally educated or maybe I knew better because I loved myself. Why many people may think those characteristics would deem a life with domestic violence as non congruent, it was not my choice. The violence was his choice, not mine.
This is a common story and unfortunately when people read or hear this they think the victim a willing co-creator of this dynamic. In all actuality the abuser and those that harmed the abuser and more culpable than we are.
The nonprofit organization Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting (RADAR) reported that, “thirty states have now enacted laws that promote arrest for domestic violence..” They also reported that, “as a result, the number women arrested for DV have risen dramatically. In California, mandatory arrest policies caused the number of women arrested to soar by 446%.”
Until my relationship with my ex husband I had never had violence in an intimate partnership. I felt like I had done something wrong. I blamed myself questioned my judgment, until I found out that it wasn’t new for him. He had a pattern. He needed healing that he never received. I found out that he had hurt his ex-girlfriend and that her hip is permanently damaged from him dropping her. For us the violence didn’t start until a year into a 3 1/2 year relationship.
I am not ashamed of what happened as much as I am concerned. I’m confident that I will continue to survive this and transform this pain and loss into something beautiful. I know I have privilege of mind and spirit. I’m educated – I have no children and I’m gainfully employed. This is not the experience of all women who experience domestic violence.
I have a cousin back home in Michigan who almost lost her housing due to domestic violence. I did not, I was able to secure housing right away. These nuances matter when thinking about and implementing sound policy and practice to keep women safe from harm.
I have another friend who almost lost custody of her children because her housing was put in jeopardy when she left an abusive partner. How is this fair? What is just about that? Why must women be subjected and accept violence in order to maintain our private and public dignity? How many more people will we allow others to be nearly destroyed before we hold our peers accountable?
In my recovery, I asked myself – What would happen if my circumstances as a black woman were different? How would I make it out of this situation without legal support? Job security? What would I do if I didn’t understand what was happening to me?
These are questions advocacy organizations and legal professional need to consider when helping survivors of violence. As communities of neighbors we must be sure that we don’t stay silent and we when we choose to speak we better know what we are talking about. Arresting and charging victims will not save us or prevent us from further harm.
I know police departments need to re-evaluate how they address domestic violence calls. Common recommendations from advocacy groups for how law enforcement should respond include, but are not limited to, a) critically evaluating DV incidents and consider the role of self-defense in each situation and b) prioritizing accurate and founded identification of the primary aggressor. First come first serve isn’t a responsible practice to address these circumstances. It’s discriminatory and plays into the hands of the abuser.
The appropriate use of discretion highlighted above could have saved me.
But instead I’ve become another statistic.
Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse. The footnoted material was adapted from the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s publication entitled “Victim-Defendants: An Emerging Issue in Responding to Domestic Violence in Seattle and the King County Region,” prepared by Meg Crager, Merril Cousin and Tara Hardy.
Local Domestic Violence Resources
A Safe Place Oakland 510-536-7233
Building Futures with Women/Children San Leandro 1-866-A-Way-Out (1-866-292-9688)
San Leandro TTY 510-733-3133;
Emergency Shelter Program, Inc. Hayward 510-786-1246/1-888-339-SAFE
SAVE Shelter Against Violent Environment to Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments Fremont 510- 794-6055
Tri-Valley Haven Livermore 925-449-5842; 1-800-884-8119
Asian Women’s Shelter San Francisco 415-751-0880; 1-877-751-0880
Community United Against Violence San Francisco 415-333-HELP
La Casa de les Madres San Francisco 877-503-1850/1-877-923-0700
Riley Center/St. Vincent de Paul San Francisco 415-255-0165
W.O.M.A.N., Inc San Francisco 415-864-4722/877-384-3578