Divide and Conquer
Domestic Violence Law Can Backfire On Victims
by Jacqueline Marino
1995 law that cracks down on domestic abusers has resulted in an unexpected, troubling increase in the number of women arrested for domestic assault in Memphis.
Because 95 percent of domestic violence incidents are perpetrated by men, no more than 5 percent of people arrested for domestic abuse should be women, according to the National Center on Women and Family Law.
But since May, the Memphis Police and Shelby County Sheriff's departments have arrested an average of 333 people per month for misdemeanor domestic assaults, and 18 percent of them are women. That's up from 11.5 percent in 1995.
Prosecutors, victims' advocates, and others who work with abused women in Memphis find the trend disturbing because it means victims are being arrested.
"I would say some of them are victims," says Mary Thorsberg, an assistant district attorney who prosecutes domestic abusers. "Some women have been so victimized that they do lash out at their attackers. We do look at those cases another way."
Since the 1995 law, Catherine Jones, a court advocate with the YWCA, has seen more victims of domestic abuse prosecuted for assaulting their attackers. Ill-advised women plead guilty. Then, with criminal assault on their records, they can lose their jobs or even their children. One thing they certainly lose is their faith in the criminal-justice system.
"It makes them feel as if the legal system is not on their side," Jones says. "They've already been victims at home. Then they've been victimized by the system."
The number of domestic-violence arrests increased from about four a day to about 10 a day after the 1995 law went into effect, says Bill Powell, administrator for Shelby County Pretrial Services. The law strongly encourages police officers to arrest perpetrators of crimes involving domestic abuse, regardless of the victim's wishes. A decline in domestic-related deaths from 55 in 1994 to 23 in 1996 has been somewhat attributed to the so-called "preferred response" law.
But the law can also work against abused women. When police arrive at the scene of a domestic dispute, it's often unclear who started the altercation. Only a few Memphis police officers have received special training in how to determine the primary aggressor in a domestic-violence dispute.
"Often they arrest both partners because they don't know who really hurt who," says Anna Whalley, clinical coordinator for the Shelby County Government Victims Assistance Center.
In some jurisdictions, the police have the technological capability to tell if either partner has a history of domestic abuse, but not in Memphis.
"It's hard to tell who the attacker is because the officers don't know the history at the scene," says Betty Winter, manager of the MPD's Family Trouble Center. "They look at the stories and the injuries and make a judgment.'
Meg Jones, director of the YWCA's Abused Women's Services, is concerned because the number of women being arrested here is higher than the national average. "But I think a lot of this is that our domestic-violence court is new, the police department's domestic-violence unit is new, and it's going to be a matter of time until the police get the training and experience they need to understand this,"she says.
Over the last two years, a groundswell of support for prosecuting domestic abusers and helping their victims has resulted in the passage of tougher domestic-violence laws, a court that handles only domestic-violence cases, and plans for a special domestic-violence unit within the Memphis Police Department.
"I think there are problems that need to be ironed out," says Meg Jones. "But mandatory arrest is a step in the right direction."