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Alternatives to Calling the Police for Domestic Violence Survivors

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Claudia Boyd-Barrett, California Health Report

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 he beat her severely, her husband called police to their Las Vegas home.

Brooks was bruised, scratched and bleeding, and assumed officers 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 of whom were white like her husband, whisked Brooks, who is Black, to jail. They released her back to her abuser the following day.

“The message that (was) communicated to me was, ‘The police aren’t here to help me,’” said 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 percent of survivors who called the police on their abusers later concluded that police involvement was unhelpful at best, and at worst made them feel less safe.

A quarter of those surveyed said they were arrested or threatened with arrest when reporting partner abuse or sexual assault to police. About half of survivors never called the police at all, citing 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 said, “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.”

At 19, Brooks was severely beaten by her husband. When police intervened, Brooks was taken to jail rather than her husband.

Faced with findings and experiences like these, researchers and survivor advocates are increasingly searching for alternative ways to address domestic violence. More and more, they are beginning to question: If involving the police and criminal justice system isn’t a safe, reliable option for most survivors, why is it offered as the main pathway for seeking help? The conversation has gained new urgency amidst 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,” said Colsaria Henderson, board president for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. “What they want is the ability to be safe in their homes and in their families. They want the violence to stop.

“It’s really time that we re-center on what the survivors are telling us.”

Indigenous and LGTBQ perspectives

Immigrant victims of domestic violence can face additional hurdles. Some avoid calling the police out of fear that they or their family members will be deported, said 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 indigenous immigrant population. Survivors and their children may also be reliant financially on their abusers and have no family in the country they can turn to for support. If an abusive partner is arrested or deported, survivors worry they’ll be left destitute, Vargas explained. Additionally, police officers rarely speak indigenous languages or understand the cultural dynamics within the community, which further deters survivors from calling.

Mistrust of law enforcement is also pervasive within the LGBTQ community, said Terra Russell-Slavin, deputy director of policy and community building at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. That’s partly because the legal system historically criminalized gay and transgender people. LGBTQ survivors are still subject to higher rates of wrongful arrest, Russell-Slavin said.

“Much of the (police) assumption and assessment is based on (traditional) gender roles, and that just doesn’t hold true for LGBT survivors,” she said. “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 the staff called the police. But when officers arrived, they dismissed her story, according to Heraldez, 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 said. “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 while survivors are confined at home with their abusers, and families face additional economic and emotional pressures.

So far, there is no broad agreement on the best or most effective alternative solutions to address domestic violence, 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. Over 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 said. It also draws from a program she helped launch this summer in Oakland called Mental Health First, that 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 said there are some main principles that can help inform the dialogue around solutions. First, advocates agree that responses should be localized to individual communities or even neighborhood blocks, be culturally sensitive, and have broad community oversight.

Such responses should also allow survivors to make decisions 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 said 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 volunteers would then respond in-person to the incident, work to deescalate the situation and connect the parties involved with community resources such as shelters, mental health treatment or financial assistance.

Some organizations have also attempted to resolve domestic violence disputes through a process called restorative or transformative justice. The process varies, but in general it involves a mediated discussion between the survivor, perpetrator and community members. They discuss the violence and its impact then agree on a safety and reparations plan — including ongoing accountability for the perpetrator.

Alternative approaches to handling domestic violence have long existed informally in communities of color, where mistrust of law enforcement runs deep, said Henderson. They are people or groups that survivors turn to for help, such as local pastors, attorneys, friends, relatives or even hair stylists, she said.

“We’ve informally done it for centuries,” said 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 for pilot projects in different communities, she and others agreed. But Anita Raj, director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, said significant investment from government at all levels is needed to fund these projects, but budgets are slow to shift in that direction.

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, Newsom disagreed with the bill’s proposal to house the pilot program under the California Office of Emergency Services. Instead, he wanted it assigned to the Board of State and Community Corrections. But supporters of the bill felt this was antithetical to its purpose, arguing that 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, Russell-Slavin said. Police intervention is one tool for addressing domestic violence, Russell-Slavin explained, 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, domestic violence should 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 said. 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 said.

Marc Philpart, principal coordinator of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color at PolicyLink stands outside the Critical Resistance offices in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, Calif.

“We’ve found ourselves in this situation where men aren’t involved in solution making and in safety planning and in stabilizing relationships,” said Philpart. “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.”

Currently, the only widely funded education programs 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 said. There is little evidence that these programs work to change men’s behavior or keep victims safe, and it’s been shown that many men fail to complete the program because there is so little accountability.

To reach more men, programs like these should be overseen by agencies like public health departments, not probation agencies, said 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” where men come together to assess their own misguided ideas about manhood; explore those 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 mostly 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 welcome all men or people who identify as male who are seeking to be better fathers, partners, brothers, grandfathers and community members and to improve their relationships, said Jerry Tello, who founded the nonprofit.

There are over a hundred men’s circles in California and across the country. The Compadres Network also offersnonviolence programs that target specific groups of men and boys, such as fathers, teenagers and gang members. Additionally, they run circles for women and mothers on how to improve family relationships and raise healthy boys.

“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,” Tello said.

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, said Vargas, the coordinator. Promotional materials for the program emphasize healthy relationships and self-care, rather than domestic violence specifically, which she said reduces stigma and encourages more people to participate, including men.

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 said. “Maybe he could have too.”


Photos by Martin do Nascimento, Resolve Magazine. Lead image: Cat Brooks, Executive Director of Justice Teams Network, a coalition of organizations dedicated to eradicating state violence, sits outside her home in Oakland.

This story was produced in partnership with Resolve Magazine and YES! Magazine.

This article first appeared on California Health Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

15 Comments

  • Good idea. We all know White cops are the root of all evil in society and certainly in the Criminal Justice System. If you get us out of having to handle these types of calls can’t blame us for when things go south. Now no more gripes from any victims because we all know things will be handled correctly from here on out by my darker brothers and sisters. Thanks, gives me more time to watch the important stuff I stream nightly since pro-active policing is no longer in my playbook because of you SJW douchebags. The rising crime rate, not my problem, bosses told me so. Making the same money at nowhere near the risk, thanks ladies. Drinks are on me.

  • Wow, Fifi, what a sense of entitlement. If they call you and things go south don’t blame you? If you break it, you pay for it. You are an employee, a servant. You will do your job as they tell you to do it, just like every other employee. If they tell you to apologize to the darker brothers and sister, that is what you will do. If they tell you to say, yes ma’am and no ma’am, you will do that too. And, you will do it because you are an employee. I bet you don’t talk this smack in uniform in front of the SJWs you bitch so much about. Be a man of principle. If you don’t like the job, find another. Alas, you will not because it does not get any better that this gravy train you are on. Sure, you have to bite your lip, but you will do it because the alternative is Walmart, and they ain’t hiring right now. Drinks on me, boy.

  • Making spousal assault a felony, requiring mandatory arrests on domestic violence calls, increasing bail for domestic violence crimes, and mandatory police reporting was very much an issue pushed hard by feminism and the left.

    This stuff wasn’t invented or pushed by police departments, departments were for the most part dragged into it. I’ll bet witness la has been a big supporter of these laws from the beginning. Now they’re doing a one eighty on their own policies. Instead of admitting this they blame white cops. How pathetic and predictable, 2020 in a nutshell.

  • Worldwide exposure and loss of privilege, specifically this year 2020, has brought Fife and his kind to an unexpected end. I might add with much grumbling and whining.

    Fife, you’re a young cowboy without a horse. Just do your job and and keep your complaining for your neighbors.

  • Childish Fool,

    Spouting woke garbage as usual. You’d do yourself a favor by listening to “Fifi,” to get a Dose of Reality instead of rolling around in your pile of liberal tripe. Are you a pajama boy or a crazy cat lady? No insult to cats – I like them.

  • Domestic Violence has been among the hardest things to address. DV calls get a lot of cops killed or injured, not that anybody reading this blog cares about that. No, we don’t want to solve your home life issues in a few minutes – you took months or years to get yourself into them. Now that we’re here, and there’s evidence of a crime, the primary aggressor is going to jail, maybe everybody is. As stated above, feminists and others lobbied the legislature and forced this upon the police.

    Oh, you don’t want boyfriend/hubby/baby daddy to go to jail now? Sorry, that’s the law. How many of my fellow cops have had to fight the female at the point they realize their meal ticket/hubby/baby daddy is going away? And how many of these females stayed pissed off at the abuse long enough to make it to court? Not many – too many showed up to bail the asshole out.

    And then there are the ones who say we made up the allegations and they never said anything about abuse. Oops, body cams and pockets recorders solved many of those situations for us.

    Making arrests mandatory and taking discretion out of police hands is the street version of zero tolerance/mandatory sentencing in court. Unintended consequences are commonplace.

    It’s sad that the race of the public servant who arrives to solve the public’s problems is made an issue. Maybe in the future we’ll reach an enlightened state where calls are handled exclusively by matching races. Need a black cop? Sorry, he called out sick tonight. Good luck.

  • For Pete’s sake!
    You left out in your selective narrative about the percentage of domestic violence among LEO’S.

    The cover-ups within those stats are quite astounding, go figure.

  • I was a street cop in the 80’s when these strict DV laws were passed. Although, well intentioned, they seemed to make these situations worse rather than help. If we saw as much as a scratch on either party (man or woman), we were required to take the alleged perp. to jail. Oftentimes if both parties had any signs of trauma no matter how slight, both would spend a weekend in jail because they could not afford the high bail. Therefore, when things became violent again in the future, the victims would be hesitant to call. Discretion on the officer’s part was no longer allowed. It seemed counter-productive !

  • I am not and never have been a servant. One of my tat’s says what I am, guess what it says Little Man? I have no sense of entitlement at all. Worked for everything I have, never had my hand out expecting someone to pout something in it that I didn’t work for. No, I’m not one of you, I won’t lower myself to that level. I do my job and my bosses know that, just don’t put out that extra effort any longer for all you haters. It’s not expected of us anymore, and that’s pretty sad. We know how to play the game, well the ones of us with smarts, and we will collect our pensions or lateral to somewhere better. Those places do exist where street scum you applaud don’t sneak up and try to put two in your head. Get back under your rock now, decent people are up and about.

  • Stacie,

    Not sure what you’re referring to. I know several cops who lost their careers to DV. But rock on with your allegations and ignore my anecdotal accounts.

  • Fifi, I meant servant as in public servant. You get paid by the government, don’t you. With regards to your tats, as you call them, a tattoo does not make you tough or a gangster. At best a wanna-be tough guy. If I had to guess, I would imagine you have a dolphin on your chest, a butterfly on your arm, or maybe a couple dolphins and a heart on your lower, lower back with the words, Love is a Two-way Street below the dolphins.

    Dope of Reality, stop it with your hero complex. DV calls do not get “a lot” of cops killed. A lumberjack, a fisherman and many others are in more dangerous jobs. A bigger occupational hazard is the high cholesterol those Krispy Kreme donuts and sitting on the motorcycle or patrol car all day give you. “Meal ticket?” Racist and sexist. Why the public does not like your ilk boggles the mind.

    Are you ladies aware that if Celeste ever turns over your comments and email addresses many of you may lose your jobs, your meal ticket? So, let us not be too racist or sexist lest you find yourself asking me whether I want to Super Size my meal or welcoming me at WalMart.

  • Childish Fool,

    Showing your simplistic mindset yet again. You hate cops so much, maybe you could call a lumberjack or maybe a crip next time you desperately need help. You’re one of those chicks who calls 911 when she sees a black man walking in her neighborhood, but you feign wokeness and tolerance (for all but cops) in public.

    If you weren’t spending your days getting manicures and shitposting on liberal blogs, you might volunteer your time at a battered women’s shelter and find out what we’re saying is right on the money. The “meal ticket” aspect is high up on the list of considerations for women not to pursue charges, thus the existence of battered women’s shelters that help women get back on their feet.

  • No comment here would get me fired, not ever. No Little Pimple, it’s some words, straight out of the Good Book. You wouldn’t be familiar with them. You’d need to open the book and have read it for that to happen, no chance that’s part of your routine.
    Not a Public Servant, a cop, that simple. See it’s funny, so much of the public who doesn’t even do a moment of work or contribute at all to society are the ones who love to toss out how they “pay our salary.” Sounds familiar doesn’t it Little Guy?
    Now get back to pushing that cart, there are cans out there and you need to work out that McDonalds Big Meal you just wolfed down.
    Next up…

  • Dope of Reality,
    Again with that sense of entitlement. If lumberjacks and crips were paid to do your job, I would call them, but they are not. You are the one feeding at the government trough, and if I need you I will call you. And, you will come because that is your job. You may roll your eyes, you may make a detour at Krispy Kreme, but you will come because its your job. If my neighbor is smacking his girl around, you will come when they call you because its your job. You do not have the self-respect and lack a sense of principle, and you lack the options of course, to leave a job so bitch so much about. Please let Fifi know that its a job. BTW, do you two have matching tats?

  • Mandatory arrest and prosecution lead to a lot of people going to jail unnecessarily. Police were threatened with arrest if they did not make arrests. Feminist accused police departments of being male dominated supporters of the patriarchy.

    What was once simple domestic battery (misdemeanor) was changed into a felony. Police use to have desecration unless one or both parties demanded and private persons arrests. Most couples wanted to avoid the legal system.

    Women’s rights groups demanded we get tough on abusers which quickly evolved into zero tolerance. This hit communities of color particularly hard. Law Enforcement was never the solution to this problem but law makers like; Kuehl, Hahn, Barger, And Solis all demanded cops be tough on spousal abusers. They all recently pledged their support for the Federal Violance Against Women Act that calls for a continuation of these policies.

    If you want to know who is at fault, take a look at State and local legislators.

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