The first time Cat Brooks sought help from the police to deal with her violent husband was also the last.
She was a 19-year-old college student, married to a man 10 years her senior. One night, after beating her severely, her husband called the police to their Las Vegas home. Brooks was bruised, scratched, and bleeding, and assumed they would take her side. But her unscathed husband insisted Brooks had attacked him, a victim-blaming tactic not uncommon among domestic abusers. The officers, all White like her husband, whisked Brooks, who is Black, to jail. They released her back to her abuser the next day.
“The message that (was) communicated to me was, ‘The police aren’t here to help me,’” says Brooks, now 45 and living in Oakland. “I never called them again.”
Brooks’ experience isn’t unusual. A 2015 survey by the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that about 75% of survivors who called the police on their abusers concluded the police involvement was unhelpful at best, or at worst made them feel less safe. A quarter reported they’d been arrested or threatened with arrest when reporting partner abuse or sexual assault to police. About half of survivors never called the police. Survivors cited fear of discrimination by police, invasion of privacy, wanting to protect their children, not wanting their partner arrested, or concern that involving the authorities would exacerbate the violence.
“[I am afraid] of making the situation worse,” one survivor who did not call police told the hotline. “They might arrest my abuser, and when he is out, he will hurt me like he has threatened.”
Another survivor who did call the police says, “I felt the police were buddy-buddy with my partner and ignored what I had to say and the reality of the situation. I was scared and they ignored me.”
Faced with findings and experiences like these, researchers and survivor advocates are increasingly searching for alternative ways to address domestic violence. If involving the police and criminal justice system isn’t a good option for most survivors, why is it offered to them as the main pathway for seeking help? The conversation has gained new urgency amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to reevaluate the scope of police funding and responsibilities.
“For decades, survivors have told us that it’s not safe for them to call law enforcement, that they don’t want to be ushered into a criminal justice system,” says Colsaria Henderson, board president for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. “What they want is the ability to be safe in their home and in their families. They want the violence to stop.
“It’s really time that we recenter on what the survivors are telling us.”
Indigenous and LGTBQ perspectives
Immigrant victims of domestic violence can face other hurdles. Some avoid calling the police out of fear that they or their family members will be deported, says Dulce Vargas, who coordinates a domestic violence intervention and prevention program for the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project in Oxnard, which serves Ventura County’s large Indigenous immigrant population. Survivors and their children may also be reliant financially on their abusers and have no family in the country that they can turn to for support. If an abusive partner is arrested or deported, survivors worry they’ll be left destitute, Vargas explained. Also, police officers usually don’t speak Indigenous languages or understand the cultural dynamics of the community, which further deters these survivors from calling.
Mistrust of law enforcement is also pervasive within the LGBTQ community, says Terra Russell-Slavin, deputy director of the policy and community building department at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which offers help to those dealing with domestic violence. That’s partly because the legal system historically criminalized gay and transgender people, and even condoned police violence against them. LGBTQ survivors are still subject to higher rates of wrongful arrest, Russell-Slavin says.
“Much of the (police) assumption and assessment is based on (traditional) gender roles, and that just doesn’t hold true for LGBT survivors,” she explains. “That can lead to survivors being deemed perpetrators because maybe they’re more masculine presenting or they’re relying on size differentials and other factors.”
Survivors of sexual violence sometimes also find police intervention ineffective. After suffering a sexual assault seven years ago, Laura Heraldez, 41, of Bakersfield sought help at a hospital, where employees called the police. But, she says, when the officers arrived they dismissed Heraldez’s story and refused to authorize a rape kit because she had been drinking.
“They told me that I was drunk, that I was not raped,” she recalls. “It caused me to numb everything and not get the help I needed. I didn’t seek therapy, I got absolutely no help. I was in complete denial of what happened to me, because you get told something and you start believing it.”
“We’ve informally done it for centuries”
The search for more effective interventions has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports of domestic violence have soared as survivors are confined at home with their abusers, and families face greater economic and emotional pressures.
So far, there is no broad agreement on exactly what alternative solutions to address domestic violence should look like. But some ideas are coming into focus. They include creating trained networks of community volunteers to intervene in domestic disputes, engaging survivors and their partners in restorative justice proceedings removed from the criminal legal system, and establishing programs that encourage men to embrace healthy definitions of masculinity.
Brooks, who is now executive director of Justice Teams Network, a coalition of organizations dedicated to eradicating state violence, is a leader in the effort to identify alternatives. For the past year, her organization has been working on a toolkit that lays out principles and strategies communities can use to create their own responses to inter-partner abuse. The work is based on conversations with community members and organizations around the country who are working to address domestic violence and police overreach, mainly in communities of color, she says. It also draws from a program she helped launch this summer in Oakland called Mental Health First, which offers a hotline people can call instead of 911 for help de-escalating psychiatric crises.
Statistics show people of color are more likely than White people to be incarcerated and face police violence. One study estimated that Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than White men. Women of color and those living in poverty also face disproportionate rates of criminalization and are more likely than White women to be criminalized and punished for surviving violence, according to a report from PolicyLink.
While the toolkit is still a work in progress, Brooks outlines some main principles. Advocates agree that responses should be localized to individual communities or even neighborhood blocks, be culturally sensitive, and have broad community oversight. They should also allow survivors to decide about how they want the violence addressed, and incorporate interventions that help the entire family (including children and the perpetrator). Although law enforcement should be a last resort, there must be a plan for when calling police is appropriate to ensure safety, she added. Brooks shares that she envisions small crisis intervention teams run out of churches, mosques, or community centers, likely staffed by volunteers and funded through local philanthropy.
One solution might be similar to the Mental Health First hotline in Oakland, which responds to mental health crises, including those involving domestic violence. A survivor or person concerned about a domestic violence incident would call a hotline staffed by trained volunteers such as doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and community members. A team of the volunteers would then respond in person to the incident, work to de-escalate the situation and connect the parties involved with community resources such as shelters, mental health treatment, or financial assistance.
Some organizations have also tried to resolve domestic violence disputes through a process called restorative or transformative justice. The process varies, but in general it involves a mediated discussion that includes the survivor, perpetrator, and community members. They discuss the violence and its impact and then agree on a safety and reparations plan—including a way for the perpetrator to be held accountable. Alternative approaches to handling domestic violence have long existed informally in communities of color, where mistrust of law enforcement runs deep, says Henderson. They are people or groups that survivors turn to for help, such as a local pastors, attorneys, friends, relatives, or even hairstylists, she says.
“We’ve informally done it for centuries,” says Henderson. “But it didn’t have a dedicated number to call. It didn’t have a true, regular avenue to flourish.”
Optimizing these alternatives and making them widely available will require funding and establishing pilot projects in communities, she and others agreed. Anita Raj, director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, says a key barrier to establishing alternative approaches is a lack of money to explore what might work. Significant government funding is needed to make that happen.
One attempt at the state level to fund alternative responses to domestic violence was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September. Assembly bill 2054 would have provided grants of at least $250,000 to help community-based organizations establish pilot programs that address emergency situations such as domestic violence without involving the police. In his veto letter, the governor disagreed with the bill’s proposal to house the pilot program under the California Office of Emergency Services. Instead, he wanted it under the Board of State and Community Corrections. Supporters felt this was antithetical to the purpose of the bill, because the alternatives should be separate from the criminal legal system.
It’s important to acknowledge that some survivors do find police help effective and they want access to law enforcement, says Russell-Slavin. Police intervention is one tool for addressing domestic violence, Russell-Slavin explains, but may not be the best tool for every situation.
A Society That Has Allowed Violence and Racism to Flourish
Whatever solutions eventually emerge, most advocates agree they need to involve the perpetrators of domestic violence. Statistically, most often, that means men, although women and nonbinary people can be abusive too. An estimated one in four women and one in 10 men in the U.S. experience sexual or physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, although incidents are likely underreported. African Americans, Native Americans, and multiracial people are at highest risk for domestic violence, according to a report by the Blue Shield of California Foundation.
Marc Philpart is principal coordinator of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color at PolicyLink, a national network of community-based organizations seeking policies that better support the wellbeing of boys and men of color, and their families. That includes policy shifts in responses to inter-partner violence. The organization argues that domestic violence needs to be treated as a public health problem arising from societal norms and structures that have allowed violence, racism and misogyny to flourish. Embroiling perpetrators in the criminal legal system only exacerbates that violence, Philpart says. He adds that men need a chance to learn new patterns of behavior, heal from their own traumatic experiences, and become positive agents of change in their relationships and communities, he continues.
“We’ve found ourselves in this situation where men aren’t involved in solution making and in safety planning and in stabilizing relationships,” Philpart continues. “That one-sided approach has done nothing but deepen male involvement in the carceral state and in the criminal legal system, and it also has led to significantly more destabilization in families and hasn’t helped to break the cycle of violence in a way that has been productive.”
The only widely funded education programs now targeting perpetrators of domestic violence are so-called “batterer intervention programs.” These programs are typically overseen by county probation departments, and men attend because they’re required to by court order. The forced nature of the programs and the association with the legal system mean that men who attend feel stigmatized, Philpart explains. There is little evidence that these programs work to change men’s behavior or keep victims safe, an outcome some critics attribute to notoriously high dropout rates.
To reach more men, programs like these should be overseen by agencies like public health departments, not probation agencies, says Philpart. They should be promoted as open to anyone who wants to participate, not just those convicted of a crime. And they need to reflect the culture of the community they’re serving, Philpart added.
The San Jose-based National Compadres Network has offered programs like this for years, although they are run by community-based organizations rather than local governments. The nonprofit has developed a concept called “men’s circles” in which men come together to assess their own misguided ideas about manhood, explore these within the context of their experiences with systemic racism, oppression and childhood trauma, and develop a new understanding of what it means to be honorable based on their cultural heritage. The circles largely serve men of color—largely those who are Latinx, Native American, and Black. They also welcome people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer/questioning, and transgender. Some of the participants are referred by probation departments, but the programs also serve people in general who are seeking ways to improve their relationships, says Jerry Tello, who founded the nonprofit.
Dozens of men’s circles exist in California and across the country. The organization also has nonviolence programs that target specific groups of men and boys, such as fathers, teenagers, and gang members. Also, they run circles for women and mothers on how to improve family relationships and raise healthy boys.
“We deal with the woundedness, and underneath the woundedness is a sacredness. If men don’t believe that,” they can’t change, says Tello. “Really this is a process and a movement and a re-grounding of manhood, a re-grounding of what it means to develop in a healthy way.”
The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project also runs a domestic violence intervention and prevention program for both men and women. Living With Love is a series of workshops held in Spanish and the Indigenous language Mixteco, that focuses on how to have healthy relationships, the impact of domestic violence on families and children, and what to do if someone is experiencing domestic violence. The program, which is funded by the California Department of Public Health, encourages participants to explore the reasons for their own violent behavior, such as childhood trauma, says Vargas, the coordinator. She advertises the program as being about healthy relationships and self-care, rather than specifically about domestic violence, at tactic that reduces stigma and encourages people to participate.
To make interventions like this more widely available, the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color recommended in a policy paper last year that California create a statewide office focused on violence prevention and intervention, increase violence prevention programs and services in schools, and increase funding for community-based solutions to end domestic violence.
Brooks left her abusive husband in 1994, but she wonders what difference the alternative intervention strategies now being proposed would have made for both her and her ex-partner if they’d had access to them.
“I could have gotten the help I needed, the healing I needed,” she says. “Maybe he could have too.”
Claudia Boyd-Barrett is a long-time journalist based in southern California. She writes on topics related to health care, social justice, and maternal and child well-being. Her investigative stories on access to mental health care have resulted in legislative and policy changes.