The Memphis Police Department's domestic violence bureau is probably the friendliest office in 201 Poplar. Stuffed animals smile from every corner of the reception room. Cows, unicorns, and a crocodile line the window sill, bears are in a cardboard box by the door, and a few small snakes are wrapped around an overflowing plant holder.
Children get to play with the toys while their mother talks to officers in another room. Afterward, the kids are allowed to take one of the donated toys home.
Lt. Robert Gill of the domestic violence bureau says the unit sees about 50 cases each week. "Every once in a while we'll see a spike," he says. "Recently, we got 72 cases. People were saying, 'Look, I better start reporting this. People are getting hurt; people are getting killed.'"
Last month, two horrifying local incidents brought domestic violence to the forefront. Memphis police patrolman Anthony Woods was shot and killed as he answered a domestic violence call. Alreco Ayers shot Woods, shot his girlfriend twice, and then, as other officers converged on the scene, committed suicide.
That same night, James Hudson killed his former girlfriend, Jennifer Braddock, and two of her friends in East Memphis before turning the gun on himself. Hudson and Braddock's son, who was in the house at the time, was physically unharmed.
Memphis has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the county, but for every incident the public hears about, there are thousands they don't. According to 2001 statistics from the YWCA's Abused Women's Services, approximately 98,000 cases of domestic violence occur in Memphis each year, but of those, only about 14,000 are reported to the MPD.
In July, Deborah Chance was beaten to death in her South Memphis apartment. Her boyfriend was later charged with second-degree murder. Three months before that, 32-year-old Marilyn Hughes was stabbed and burned to death in the home that she shared with her live-in boyfriend and their three children. Her boyfriend was charged with first-degree murder.
Elizabeth (who asked that her last name not be used in deference to her family) is a survivor who works with the YWCA's community education program. She calls domestic violence a "huge epidemic" that no one knows about. "People who don't have it in their lives don't want to think about it. Those who are involved don't want to talk about it."
Gill says victims don't report domestic abuse for a variety of reasons: They may be embarrassed to be labeled a victim or intimidated by the abuser or unable to afford to live without the abuser's financial support.
"The victim is angry, frustrated, and scared when they call 911," says Gill. "Later on, the abuser and the victim will get back together. They'll talk it over, and they'll call and say we don't want to prosecute. Little do they know they don't have the right not to prosecute."
Last year, the unit handled almost 16,000 cases, though not all were prosecuted. When someone is arrested for domestic violence, he or she automatically gets a set of bail conditions from the state. If the abuser violates them, they can be arrested immediately.
Gill says the sanctions have helped tremendously. "No one wants to go through the system at 201 [Poplar]. It's slow; it can take maybe 24 hours to get booked and that's on a good day. If it's a holiday, forget it. They don't want to go through that," he says.
When people hear about domestic violence, especially cases where years of abuse end in homicide, the question arises: "Why didn't she leave?"
"We have to stop blaming the victim," says Elizabeth. "We have to hold batterers accountable. It's almost always 'Why didn't she get out?,' not 'Why did he hit her?'"
Elizabeth says her husband began beating her two weeks after they got married. It took her 23 years to escape. "I tried everything I could think of to please him," she says. "I was at my wit's end." He'd lock her out of the house in the middle of the night in her nightgown, even in winter. Once he sharpened knives in front of her and mentioned O.J. Simpson.
She compares a domestic violence situation to being on a hijacked airplane. "The hijackers say anyone who leaves will be killed. Then sometimes the hijackers won't be so bad, and you think they kind of like you," she says. "It's difficult to sneak out and get away, and you have a horrible fear that if you do, he'll find you and he'll kill you."
In fact, 75 percent of domestic-violence-related homicides occur when the woman is attempting to leave or has recently left. Elizabeth says that even after victims leave, their lives still feel in turmoil, and there's often a desire to go back.
"The men they left go on creating the cycle," she cautions. "Until they find someone else to abuse, it can be very dangerous for her. He might stalk her. He might try to do more."
A. Gonzalez is a court advocate for abused women. She offers advice and emotional support to abused women trying to file orders of protection or get a divorce. She says it's what domestic violence groups call the "honeymoon phase," which keeps women in abusive situations.
The "honeymoon" is when the husband and wife make up, he says he's sorry, he'll never do it again, and she wants to believe he's telling the truth. "It helps victims hold onto the relationship," she says. It gives them hope.
Gonzalez cites the case of a woman, an immigrant who is trying to leave her American husband of almost 10 years. They met in her country, came here, got married, and had kids. It was almost the American dream except that, as the years passed, the abuse grew worse until she finally decided to get out. Now she's embroiled in both custody and deportation issues, as well as a domestic problem.
"A lot of times, women don't see themselves in a domestic violence situation at the starting point," says Gonzalez. It may be verbal abuse, name-calling, or nonviolent aggressive behavior. "The first time she's hit, the woman is so surprised that she's in denial. Then it gets more and more dangerous."
"I used to think that I would have to be lying cut-up on the floor before I could call it abuse," says Elizabeth. But no matter how it starts, the violence will only get worse. "I don't think there's ever been a case of domestic violence that stopped without an intervention," she says.
"People know to call 911 and that's about it," says the MPD's Gill. "You need to know if you've got a relative you can stay with. You need to set aside some money. You need to be prepared."
Elizabeth says she wishes that a neighbor would have called the police. That way, the abuse would have been reported. "A lot of times, it would be much easier on the woman if someone else reports it," she says. "The husband might get mad at the neighbor, but he probably won't kill the neighbor."
In the past 20 years, the MPD has vastly changed how it treats domestic violence cases. Gill says when officers used to respond to domestic violence calls, they "just told the individuals to stop. We'd say, 'If we have to come back here, we're locking somebody up.'"
By Tennessee law, all officers responding to a domestic violence situation have to file an incident report, at the very least. "If we can determine a primary aggressor, an arrest is preferred," says Gill. Until 1997, the Memphis Police Department didn't even have a domestic violence unit. Gill says it was the prominence of the O.J. Simpson case that changed everything.
But the problem was so great in Memphis that when police director James Bolden took over, he increased the unit's size. In a perfect world, Gill says he would add even more personnel.
So why does Memphis have such a problem, and how do we fix it?
Barbara King is executive director of the Exchange Club Family Center, which includes the Domestic Violence Assessment Center. She says that Memphis has "a high presence of risk factors in this population -- low education levels, high poverty, and high unemployment. There are a lot of stress factors here, more so than in any other city in the state."
But Gill is quick to admit that domestic violence crosses racial and socioeconomic lines. Elizabeth and her husband, for example, were both professionals -- educated and employed.
King says the family center's main focus is children. "Children are learning every day in violent households that this is what life is like, this is what love is," she says. "Family after family come in here and the parents say, 'We don't fight in front of the kids.' But we sit down with them, and every one of those kids knows."
A study done in 1998 found that 100 percent of children in violent households knew what was going on. Worse, a national statistic finds that male children who see their mothers beaten are 1,500 times more likely to become batterers.
"Children who witness domestic violence suffer as much as, if not more than, children who have been abused," says King. "The community doesn't understand that, because they're not hurt physically." King believes the only way to stop domestic violence is to start with the children.
"The point is, people need to stop hitting," says Elizabeth. "I heard a judge speak once who said, 'It's not against the law to be a bitch, but it is against the law to hit one.'"
The YWCA Abused Women's Services runs an emergency shelter for battered women (725-4277).The Family Center offers free counseling for adult and child victims of abuse (276-2200).