In October 1996 the Macias civil rights lawsuit was filed against the Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde. The suit claimed that the Sheriff’s Department repeatedly denied Maria Teresa Macias’ constitutional right to equal protection in its response to Teresa’s more than 20 calls for help before she was finally murdered by her violent husband. The suit claims that the Sheriff’s Department discriminated against Teresa as a woman, a Latina, and as a victim of violence against women by never once arresting or even citing her husband despite a county mandate to do so, by failing to write reports, failing to investigate, ignoring evidence, and discouraging Teresa from calling.
In a unanimous, 9th Circuit Court Appellate decision, Macias established women’s constitutional right to hold law enforcement legally accountable for failing to provide equal protection of the law. Then, in June, 2002, an unprecedented million dollar award marked the first time police have been ordered to pay the family of a domestic violence homicide victim for failure to properly protect.
In the Wake of Macias:
How Does Law Enforcement Respond to Domestic
More than three years after Teresa Macias’ murder put the lie to local law enforcement’s claims that they take domestic violence seriously, a host of new programs and people have been put in place to improve the county’s handling of this deadly violence against women.
But just how differently is a domestic violence victim today treated by police, sheriff’s deputies and the D.A.’s office? Before you get ready to congratulate us on a job well done and move on to other things, get a load of this:
Although changes mandated by the state make it more likely that police can verify that a restraining order is in force, local changes have made the process of obtaining a restraining order even more difficult — and less certain — than when Teresa Macias got her court orders in 1995 and 1996. It now takes two days and two trips to the courthouse instead of one; and even at that, judges refuse to sign the orders more often than in the past. Emergency Protective Orders, which should be issued routinely on the spot of any domestic violence incident, are becoming more and more rare.
But what killed Teresa Macias wasn’t that she couldn’t get a restraining order, it was sheriff’s deputies’ utter refusal to enforce it. And that hasn’t changed one bit.
To this day, we have never seen a perpetrator arrested if his only crime was a restraining order violation. Both of the other victim advocates in the county report the same. Often an arrest isn’t made even after 10 or 15 violations are reported; and the victim is more than likely to be told that she is somehow to blame. No doubt, as with Avelino Macias, perpetrators are only emboldened by this failure to enforce the law.
In January, 1996, our local police protocols changed to include a mandated arrest policy in domestic violence incidents where there is visible injury. This was a big step for a county known for its law enforcement officers’ failure to even write reports, much less make arrests to protect women from their violent partners.
Unfortunately, the most striking result we’ve seen of the mandated arrest policy is a dramatic increase in retaliatory arrests of women for domestic violence. In some police jurisdictions, as many as 1 out of 3 domestic violence arrests are of women, with even more women reporting they were threatened with arrest if they insisted on reporting the violence against them.
With California Department of Justice statistics showing that only 6% of all domestic violence convictions involve a female perpetrator, these alarming rates of female arrest are retaliation, pure and simple. And the message they send is not lost either on women victims or on their batterers.
Women who’ve been arrested or threatened with arrest are far less likely to call law enforcement the next time. And the men, seeing the cops will let them get away with it, only escalate their violence and control. It’s a potentially lethal one-two punch, and a cruel perversion of laws intended to protect women, not to sink them deeper into despair.
Domestic Violence Court
The designation of a special court to handle all misdemeanor domestic violence cases has been lauded as evidence the county is finally taking this violence seriously. Instead, it seems to be just one more fancy way to ghetto-ize violence against women, lumping it once again with victimless crimes (see footnote 1 *) and sentencing batterers to counseling instead of jail.
In fact, all modern (read NOT Sonoma County) domestic violence policy is based on the fact that the only thing that has been proven to stop the violence is swift and early intervention by law enforcement, with incarceration each and every time while the violence is still at the misdemeanor level. Otherwise it surely escalates, all too often into homicide.
In fact, as it stands now one judge is handling all misdemeanor domestic violence and drug cases, which means he must be handling the majority of all criminal cases in the county! That’s what they call giving domestic violence the attention it deserves.
DV court also creates an easy way to blow off serious domestic violence without creating any of those pesky jail inmates. We continually see cases of repeated and potentially lethal domestic violence charged as a misdemeanor and shuffled off to DV court, rather than correctly charged as multiple felonies and taken to trial. In short, DV court is a dog-and-pony show that creates a gold mine for counselors, a stroke fest for batterers, and a dead end for victims.
Both outside investigations sparked by Teresa Macias’ murder severely criticized the way victims are treated by county agencies. In response, a gaggle of “domestic violence counselors” have been added to the D.A.’s office and the larger police departments. While victims are led to believe these women are there to fight for them, the truth is the counselors can do little more than act as a referral service and as mouthpieces for their law enforcement bosses, creating yet one more level of bureaucratic sugar-coating in the continuing practice of dumping or minimizing these cases.
Lest you think this is a personal attack on DV counselors, there’s a reason these women won’t fight for prosecution. While ostensibly hired by the YWCA (which runs the domestic violence program in our county), the counselors work directly with police and district attorney staff. If they were to actually stand up and demand police and prosecutors do their jobs, the counselors would soon find themselves without a job. And if the YWCA were to back up a counselor in a demand that police and prosecutors do their jobs, they would soon find themselves without funds. We know that’s true, because that’s exactly what happened to Women Against Rape.
The Cops’ Predictable Response: Retaliation
When the results of our Macias investigation began rumbling through the press, it didn’t take law enforcement long to respond in their all-too predictable way: Sonoma County’s ten police chiefs and the District Attorney set out, not to correct the problem, but to silence and strangle the messengers.
Most people don’t know that the core grant money for rape and domestic violence centers requires the annual signature of approval of all the county’s police chiefs and the District Attorney. Since at the time of carrying out the Macias investigation, Marie De Santis worked at the county’s rape crisis center, Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association retaliated by refusing to give their signatures to Women Against Rape’s annual grant application unless De Santis’ access to the press was curtailed by the agency.
For awhile, Women Against Rape held to principle and stood up to this extortion by law enforcement. But finally, unable to survive without the funds, they caved in to the police chiefs’ threats. (Later they even went so far as to change their name to “United Against Sexual Assault,” banishing both the words “women” and “rape” from their masthead!) Soon thereafter, De Santis went on to establish Women’s Justice Center, a women’s rights organization which, like the Purple Berets, is completely independent of government funds.
Silencing the Purple Berets was a little harder — first of all, we didn’t have any funds they could grab. Instead law enforcement employed the age-old tactic of divide and rule. Using whisper campaigns, disinformation and outright lies, they sought to divide the “good girls” from the “bad girls” (us).
Fortunately most women aren’t fooled; still, we must be vigilant and support those who still provide truly independent advocacy for victims. Otherwise, we are literally condemning our sisters — and particularly poor women — to an early death.
(Footnote *) Only drug offenses are similarly treated with such paternalism (periodic check-in with the daddy-judge) and diversion into “programs” instead of jail cells. While completely appropriate in non-violent drug offenses, such handling of society’s most deadly violence once again sends the message that domestic violence isn’t a crime, but only a counseling problem. Women’s rights groups fought hard to end this “diversion” in the wake of mounting evidence showing that such counseling completely fails to stop the violence. (Back)
© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets