Story By: Natasha Senjanovic
When police showed up at their door at midnight, it marked a terrible end to a lousy day. The married couple had started fighting that morning, over their daughter’s birthday party, and by evening, a mundane argument over who would cook dinner exploded.
According to arrest records, the wife said her husband followed her into the bedroom and “grabbed her with one hand around her neck and began choking her.’’ He tells a different story: He only grabbed his childhood sweetheart by the wrists. Theirs was simply a verbal altercation, he said.
“We’ve been married 30 years,’’ the middle-aged Memphis man said last month, reflecting on the February 2019 encounter. “I’ve had to repair a door or two, but physical [violence] between the two of us was something we did not do.”
The man, who agreed to tell his story on condition he’s identified only by his first name, James, is serving two years’ probation. He’s also undergoing a novel court-ordered therapy, one of several new approaches aimed at reducing intimate-partner violence by taking the onus off victims and placing more of the burden on perpetrators.
“It’s crazy,’’ James said of the self-proclaimed batterers he met during his three nights in jail who were sent home without any serious consequence or intervention.
As the pandemic starts its slow ebb and prosecutors prepare for the return of jury trials that have been absent for almost a year now, one of the largest pent-up issues they’ll confront is domestic violence.
Even in the best of years those cases comprise half of all violent crime in Shelby County. Experts say one way to expedite some of the backlog and prevent future violence involves offender-based approaches like the therapy James is receiving that seeks to instill healthy behaviors in relationships.
Some jurisdictions are employing more extreme measures to break the “implicit misogyny’’ that often colors law enforcement’s treatment of domestic violence. Authorities in High Point, North Carolina, for example, have implemented a model called Intimate Partner Violence Intervention (IPVI), essentially an “offender based’’ or “forced deterrence’’ approach that targets chronic offenders with aggressive prosecutions by leveraging other drug, gun and violent crimes they’ve committed to obtain enhanced punishments.
Also growing in popularity is “evidence-based’’ (or “victimless’’) prosecutions that rely less on the willingness of a victim to testify and more on other evidence such as police body camera footage and witness statements, of neighbors, family members and medical professionals, including paramedics.
“There’s always a victim. The only question is whether or not we can prove the case with or without her participation,” says Casey Gwinn, a former San Diego City Attorney who for the past two decades has been a driving national force in creating Family Safety Centers, including the one in Memphis.
Gwinn calls evidence-based prosecution the “morally responsible” thing to do. He says asking someone who is already under the power and control of an abusive person, “‘Do you want to prosecute him? Are you going to testify against him? Are you going to press charges against him?’ Those are stupid questions. We’re going to [make] her responsible for what happens to him? He needs to be responsible for his own choices. From my perspective, that’s the job of the criminal justice system, not the job of the victim.”
That responsibility begins with law enforcement, said Gwinn, who almost always uses “she” and “her” when talking about intimate partner victims, because women comprise 80% of reported victims, and the majority of those killed in related homicides.
“If police officers are trained to build the case assuming that the victim will likely not want to testify six months later, or will recant six months later, that’s going to be a fundamentally different investigation,’’ Gwinn said, “than if they come to the scene and say, ‘Tell me what happened. Sign this affidavit. Thank you very much, ma’am. Have a good day.’ ’’
James is all for having police do more thorough investigations. He’d like to see them do follow-up interviews after a domestic incident like his, and definitely get more witness statements.
“If he’s beating on his woman, he’s beaten on somebody else too that is weaker than him. It’s going to be a child. It’s going to be his neighbors around him. You’re looking for a bully,” he said.
James does not put himself in that category. He said his arresting officer basically told him he had no choice but to charge him because his wife described an attempted strangulation. That’s one of the most glaring signs of a chronic, potentially lethal abuser, though James has no record of prior domestic incidents in Shelby County.
He said he’s still surprised his wife felt scared enough to call the police.
He agreed to a diversion deal that will wipe his record clean if he successfully completes two years of probation that expires in June. (He said he agreed after he’d been in court four times and didn’t have the money to keep going back.)
James was also ordered to move out of the couple’s home temporarily.
Still, if there’s a silver lining to the whole experience, he said it was going through Achieving Change Through Value-Based Behavior, or ACTV, a therapy program launched two years ago by the nonprofit counseling center Kindred Place, formerly known as the Exchange Club Family Center.
Amanda Russell, one of the two counselors who run ACTV, says they started it because research shows that standard batterers intervention programs aren’t much more effective than probation at curbing domestic violence recidivism. Those programs, said Russell, typically last eight to 10 weeks — though some are just four hours long and can be taken online. They tend to be anger-management classes that “focus a lot on changing attitudes and beliefs related to patriarchal attitudes that endorse power and control over women.”
But that’s only part of the problem, she said. Childhood trauma is another, which has a high correlation with domestic violence, as does substance abuse.
“But if someone has a substance use disorder and you try to only work with them on the violence, they’re likely going to reoffend because they’re going to continue to use alcohol or drugs,” Russell said.
So ACTV takes a more holistic approach in its 24-week program, which centers on the premise that “people have a difficult time accepting their difficult emotions, and do a lot of things to try to push or minimize those emotions. One form of doing that is trying to control the people around them.”
For instance, many abusers tend to be jealous, violently so. Russell said that’s a hard emotion to feel, so a typical response is to try and keep their partner from ever going out.
Or, as one of the men in James’ ACTV group said, “ ‘If you have a problem, you beat on it until it stops moving.’ I’m like, what?”
That was one of many breakthrough moments, said James, though initially none of the 16 men (most of whom were half his age) wanted to talk about anything, much less their feelings.
“But by week three, we were sharing, we were talking back and forth over each other. There was weeping and there was gnashing of teeth.”
James said what he noticed about the most violent members of the group was that “their biggest fear is being alone. And [your] significant others know things about you that … you hide from everybody else because you see them as weaknesses. She knows. And what they’re trying to do, they’re trying to control what gets out about them.”
So they “lash out. That’s the only way they know how to do it. That’s the only thing they’ve seen coming up,” James said.
That was what he and his seven siblings also saw growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. He said he made a choice early in his teens that he wasn’t going to use his fists, but he thinks that if any abusive man — or woman — could learn what ACTV teaches early on in life, “you’re going to have a lot of different outcomes.”
That’s the point of working with offenders. Because while victims need protection, domestic violence isn’t their problem to solve.
Yet even ascertaining how much danger they’re in from a partner doesn’t directly address the root of that danger.
A few years ago, Memphis police began conducting a Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP) when responding to domestic calls, to determine whether a victim is at risk of being killed. If so, they will immediately connect them with support, or take them to a shelter.
But “if the victim’s considered high risk, that pretty much automatically means that the offender is a high-risk offender,” said Russell. So she and her colleagues have suggested that the offender assessments they prepare for prosecutors also be done at the scene of a domestic incident. But that idea “never really never got traction.”
Victim advocates say while it’s imperative to get that victim to safety, if those in the position to do something act as if they too are afraid of an offender, and don’t hold him or her accountable, what message does that send to the victim? That’s why Gwinn, the Family Safety Center advocate, thinks evidence-based prosecution is so necessary. Victims often don’t testify against an abusive partner, for any number of reasons, only one of which is fear of retaliation. They may be financially dependent on the partner, or they don’t want to drag children or themselves through the ordeal. Or they simply want the abuse to stop, and not be responsible for sending someone to prison.
Gwinn said the reason it’s still standard procedure to expect a victim to participate in domestic violence cases is because the crime itself isn’t taken as seriously as, say, drunk driving: “Nobody ever asked the drunk driving victim if they want to press charges against the driver.”
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, who has made prosecuting domestic violence one of her top priorities, doesn’t think the analogy holds. “If you are hit by a drunk driver, of course we’re going to put you on the stand. But you don’t know this person. You didn’t love this person and are still in love with this person and have a family with this person.”
There’s also the constitutional right of the accused to confront witnesses in court.
But Weirich does acknowledge the system still has a long way to go to shed past prejudices. She recalls a veteran officer — at the ribbon cutting of Memphis’ Family Safety Center in 2012 — telling her that when he was a rookie, they didn’t even respond to domestic violence calls. Those were private problems that happened behind closed doors, and to many law enforcement, religious and political leaders, that’s where they belonged.
Another MPD veteran, Col. Darren Goods of the Homicide Unit, says, when he started out, if there were no visible injuries on anyone when they responded to a call, they didn’t take the incident seriously.
“As much as I hate to say this, I think if you go back to the O.J. [Simpson] trial, that kind of opened everybody’s eyes nationally, and me personally, about just how serious domestic violence is and just how serious it could be,” Goods said.
Police have come a long way since the 1990s. Nationally, they introduced warrantless arrests of domestic violence suspects, based on probable cause, and Tennessee is one of several dozen states that implemented mandatory arrests for primary aggressors in cases of domestic violence.
Police have come a long way even in the past five years, said Marianne Bell, an Assistant DA in the Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit, and the liaison between the DA’s office and Memphis’ Family Safety Center. Since she began training all new officers with MPD and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, in 2016, she said she’s noticed an improvement in the quality of their reports, including in the pictures they take of injuries and the scene, and interviewing witnesses.
But, she said, “We have to also remember that scenes can be very chaotic, and that family, friends, neighbors, witnesses, and even those non-victims who call 911 may refuse to cooperate and tell the police what they know because they ‘don’t want to get involved.’ Witnesses may also only choose to tell part of what they see or hear based upon loyalties to either the victim or the accused.”
That’s why police have to be more proactive when it comes to domestic violence, from the time they answer the call, said Chief Travis Stroud of High Point, North Carolina. Their IPVI model shift wasn’t just introduced overnight. It took several years of strategic planning and establishing community, legal and advocacy partnerships as well as a Family Justice Center, which opened two years ago and where all the partners come together as a “one-stop shop” of services to victims.
Part of the planning process was also educating police, said Stroud, to shift away from the mindset that there was little to nothing they could do about repeat offenders, but just “get the call and deal with it.”
Today, “The first time that we even have a hint that this could be [an] intimate-partner incident, [we] get on that person and let them know, ‘Hey, we’re watching you now. We’re not going to let you hide behind the closed doors anymore.’ ”
In the past decade, High Point’s domestic homicide rate fell sharply, and from 2016 to 2019, the total number of domestic violence calls to police (including intimate partner violence) fell anywhere from five to ten percent year-on-year. In 2020, those calls spiked, but that may be a good sign because in many cities, Memphis included, police have been receiving fewer domestic-related calls in the pandemic, but seeing more severe violence, as many victims are trapped with abusers and waiting longer to call for help, if they call at all.
That terrifies Weirich, especially since Memphis nearly doubled its intimate-partner homicide rate from 2019 to 2020. She has said she wants to streamline the process for getting victims help, especially now that so many procedures are being done virtually. Although unlike many other cities, even in the pandemic, victims and offenders have still had to appear in-person in court in Memphis for orders of protection, and that’s usually the simplest part of a domestic violence case.
Weirich does point out that her office has prosecuted cases even when a victim has declined to participate: “If we’ve got somebody with a history of this abuse and we know our job and our responsibility is to uphold the law and to protect the public, that’s a case that we’re going to do what we can to put together with or without the victim.”
However, only the strongest possible cases are brought before juries. And that’s hard to achieve without victim testimony, she said, because “juries, judges want to hear from a victim. They want to see the victim.”