I Worked In The Domestic Violence Unit of the Police Department, and Learned the Truth About How Our Legal System Treats Victims

Very few people know what happens after a woman is assaulted.
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Publish date:
September 18, 2014
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domestic violence, legal system, police department

I was well-intentioned when I started working as a Domestic Violence Counselor in my early 20s. Every morning, I would arrive at my desk to find a large stack of police reports from the day before. All domestic violence calls. All needing follow-up from a female with a kind voice and a background in crisis intervention.

The officers called us "Charlie's Angels," even though we had college degrees and tried to keep our heads down. Sexism ran deep behind the crumbling walls of one of the largest urban police departments in the nation. My co-workers and I were the only civilian employees in the Special Victims Unit. We stood in front of dozens of uniformed officers at line-up to share tips on how to interview victims, what the cycle of domestic violence looked like, and what the options were for helping families to stay safe.

We wore sensible slacks and heels. They wore bullet-proof vests and a smirk. They were busy. We were relentless. Domestic Violence calls were their least favorite to respond to. They had trouble understanding why many of their victims refused to come forward. These cases were rarely resolved in one call, and could not be fixed with a stern word, a ticket, or a ride to the county jail. Domestic violence calls were messy, so they deferred to us to help with the healing process.

We handled the counseling, the referrals, the safety planning, the shelter information, and the advocacy for legal action. We were an unlikely team, but we each filled a void that the other could not.

Very few people know what happens after a woman is assaulted. It’s easy to assume that cases are wrapped up in pretty little boxes after an hour, like they are on "Law and Order: SVU." The real Special Victims Unit is nothing like TV. It has been years since I’ve worked with law enforcement, and domestic violence laws are slowly changing. But there are still places where mandatory arrest and prosecution of abusers is not the law. An arrest is simply that, an arrest, and often, a release.

A domestic violence detective must then work diligently to interview the victim, photograph the victim, and gain the victim’s trust so that they can present a packet of evidence to the District Attorney’s office. The DA’S office then decides how to move forward. And then the victim must take time off work, find childcare, expose her most painful secrets, confront her abuser, open herself up to scrutiny from her community, and accept that she is in even more danger now because her abuser knows. Calling the police on an abuser is only the beginning.

If a victim is lucky, he or she will be met by a well-trained, empathetic police officer who speaks her language and knows domestic violence law. If she’s really lucky, she will be offered the services of a Domestic Violence Advocate, or at the very least, given a card with some numbers to call. But many times, that doesn’t happen.

Many times, she is met by an officer who knows that he (I said “he” on purpose) is more likely to get injured from a domestic violence call than another type of call. He may have a career’s worth of anecdotal evidence that shows that most women do not leave on the first call, and not enough time to figure out why that is. He might pass the case off to a domestic violence detective, who may or may not have been assigned that position because he was ordered to take a “time out” from the street. And friends, this is all before anyone even gets to a courtroom.

When you watch the video of Ray Rice punching Janay in an elevator, you might yell at the screen that he should be arrested. It’s not that simple. A woman who calls for help after being abused has to face a judge and jury over and over again before she even gets to court. She must plead her case in front of the police officer, to the detectives, and to the District Attorney. Unless of course there is video documenting her injury. Or someone leaks it to TMZ. Or she is so brutally injured that there is no doubt that someone harmed her.

You may tweet about how the NFL commissioner should resign, or Facebook your frustration with how women are treated. All of those responses are wonderful, but the truth that those of us "in the business" know, is that change will only happen when our legal system starts to take violence against women seriously. We must move beyond simply stating that domestic violence is bad, and make a commitment to providing a safe journey for victims as they leave

The biggest lesson that I learned from working behind the scenes in the police department is that no matter how hard law enforcement tries to do the right thing, the system is set up to abuse victims again.

Do you know that in some areas, district attorneys won't prosecute a case if a victim doesn't agree to testify? No victim, no crime. Do you know that in order for a permanent restraining order to be in place, a victim has to know how to advocate for herself and go through the court process of securing one? No victim, no crime. Do you know that most women who are abused are told that if they tell, they will lose the things that are most important to them? Their children, their jobs, their immigration status, their friends, their home? No victim, no crime. Do you know that the courts are looking for physical evidence of abuse, which requires women to allow someone to photograph their wounds for a police report? No victim, no crime. Do you know the tremendous courage that it takes for a woman to tell the truth about her pain, when she is terrified and exhausted and can't be sure that the legal system will protect her? Do you know that domestic violence agencies across this country have to beg and plead for funding, so that they can walk this journey with victims, and provide advocacy, counseling, and safe shelter for them free of charge?

The woman whose partner cut up her credit cards and broke her car windows last night doesn't have a Roger Goodell to keep her abuser in check. The mother whose five-year-old got hit with a chair yesterday because he was trying to protect her from his dad doesn't have a pundit on Fox Sports who is going to plead their case. Her husband won't lose his job. Her son won't be on national news.

I've seen how the police reports pile up. I've put my arm around a woman as she lowers her jeans to show me the bruise on her thigh. I've followed her into a courtroom and squeezed her hand as a defense attorney glared at her. I've watched her cry as she told a room of strangers how her boyfriend tried to kill her son, because he knew that would hurt her more than any fist to her face could. I have seen what happens after the spotlight fades on domestic violence cases.

My time in the police department was short, and yet it was the most important work that I’ve ever done. I was honored to walk the path of healing with the brave victims that I had the privilege of getting to know. To watch these women kick and claw their way out of darkness was nothing short of amazing.

Telling your story to strangers, daring to hope that someone could help to protect you, choosing your children over everything else, and demanding that the world see you as someone with value -- the fight in these women was stronger than the fight in their abusers. But they shouldn’t have to fight that hard.

There are domestic violence agencies in every community, but they need your help. They need someone to staff the crisis line, and someone to sort the donations. They need funding to pay for the counselors in the Family Justice Center. They need translators, because when a victim is terrified and hurt, she feels more comfortable speaking in her native language. We need Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA’s) to shepherd children through the legal process.

We need legal experts who will take cases pro-bono and volunteers who will staff restraining order clinics. And the need doesn’t end there. We have a responsibility to teach our communities and our children how to be safe, kind, respectful partners.

As for the NFL, it must hold its players and coaching staff accountable. That means providing mandatory domestic violence workshops and trainings to every single player on the roster. Every year. No exceptions. That means contracting with a domestic violence advocacy group to provide confidential support services to every family on every team, as part of their health care coverage. This means adding an ethics clause to every players contract that outlines what will happen in the event that a police report is filed against them for any reason. Not six months or a year later, but in real time.

But domestic violence isn't just happening in the NFL. I've read the names on the police reports, and women are being hit in every income bracket, every religion, every corner of your city.

There are abusers in your community. Hold them accountable. Most women don't leave the first time they get hit. They don't leave because they know how hard it will be to get to safety. They wait until they have all of their ducks in a row. They plan. They hide. They pray. They plead. Pay attention. Make sure that Janay Rice has all of the help that she needs. When she is ready, make sure she knows where to go.

If you are angry with the NFL, then please consider helping the families in your own community. Donate diapers, food and time to your local domestic violence shelter. Read up on the Violence Against Women Act, and hold your elected officials responsible for making sure that women in your community are protected. Invite safe-relationship experts to your child's school to discuss what intimate-partner violence looks like. Help train other parents on what the signs of teen dating violence look like.

Ultraviolet is flying planes above football games this weekend, with banners attached calling for Roger Goodell's resignation. That brings awareness, but only you are responsible for what happens next. Mirror their message in real life. I've sat in a dirty, dimly lit interview room with a woman who had two black eyes, as she meticulously smoothed the hem of her dress. I've checked the boxes on her restraining order. I've given her $10 for lunch and let her sleep on our office sofa until we could figure out where to hide her.

And yet, if there is no victim, there is no crime. If she isn't ready to use her own voice, lend her yours.

If you or someone you know is being hurt, please consider making an anonymous, confidential call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. There are people waiting to help you heal.