Pro-arrest policy blurs the lines in domestic violence


Published: Friday, June 20, 2014 at 3:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 20, 2014 at 3:29 p.m.

One victim was found with blood turning the floor red from multiple stab wounds.

In another case, punches left the victim with a swollen right eye and lacerations on the inside lip.

After sharing a bottle of vodka, a couple began arguing. Then it turned physical with punches being thrown and skin being scratched before one was hauled to jail.

These are details from recent arrests in Alachua County for domestic violence. Those arrested were women. Their targets were men. And there are many similar cases.

While the traditional image of domestic violence is a man beating a woman, a review of arrest records shows that many women are being charged in connection with violence against their husbands or boyfriends.

At the Gainesville Police Department in recent years, arrests of women on domestic battery or assault charges have sometimes outpaced the arrests of men. In 2010, for instance, 38 women were arrested compared with 29 men. In 2012, 35 women were arrested and 33 men.

Meanwhile, more than 27 percent of those arrested by all law enforcement agencies in the county on domestic violence charges have been women over the past three years.

Why are so many women now being arrested?

Are women becoming more violent? Are police more willing to arrest women than they were in the past? Are men more willing to report domestic violence? Are abused women fighting back? Are men who abuse women calling police to claim that they were the victims in a game of one-upmanship?

Law enforcement, attorneys, victim advocates and counselors say all of the above play a role.

But one theme, in particular, dominates.

More and more states and local law enforcement require or strongly encourage the arrest of the primary aggressor when officers are dispatched to a domestic violence call. The pro-arrest policies were intended to protect women from abusive situations, but experts say the strategy actually has resulted in more women getting hauled to jail.

“With mandatory arrest policies, what has happened across the country is that there has been an increase in the arrest of women,” said Laura Knudson, special services bureau chief with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. “But they have also created a lot of safety. It’s very hard when you get on scene with all of the chaos to determine the primary aggressor. The dilemma is trying to figure out what happened.”

The fallout from an arrest can be devastating. A woman arrested can lose custody of her children or lose her job. She also can lose her life.

Bruce Ferris, a former Gainesville police detective who investigated domestic violence cases and is now a mental health counselor with Village Counseling Center, said many women charged with domestic violence are themselves victims of batterers and are defending themselves or striking out against repeated abuse.

“When she gets arrested, I’m really concerned about that because what’s the chance she is going to call next time?” Ferris asked. “She was calling, reaching out for help, and all of a sudden she’s in jail. I’m concerned that type of arrest may lead to a victim of murder, that essentially she has no one to turn to now.”

The rise in mandatory or pro-arrest policies is traced in part to a 1984 federal court ruling that the Torrington, Connecticut, Police Department did not adequately protect Tracey Thurman from her husband despite restraining orders and other requests for help. She was left disabled and disfigured after a later attack. The court ordered the department to pay her $2.9 million in damages.

Also in 1984, a study in Minneapolis, Minnesota, funded in part by the National Institute of Justice, determined that arrest was more effective at curbing future violence than counseling or separating the parties without an arrest. Later studies had varying results.

Over the decades, more states have enacted arrest statutes. Some require arrest, while Florida is considered pro-arrest.

Statute 741.2901 states: “It is the intent of the Legislature that domestic violence be treated as a criminal act rather than a private matter.”

Ferris said officers cannot ignore a battery. In some cases, it is clear that one person committed the crime and must be arrested regardless of gender, Ferris said.

A Gainesville woman, for instance, was arrested recently on a domestic battery charge after allegedly grabbing her partner’s arm and pants and forcefully pulling him from the bed because she was angry at him.

But there are also recent cases such this: A woman was arrested on allegations she punched her partner multiple times, followed him in her car as he rode his bike away, threw her phone at him and hit him with her car.

The arrest report states the woman told police her partner was trying to get her in trouble because she was leaving him because of past abuse.

Ferris said past abuse cannot be considered at the point of arrest.

“We can’t go, ‘Well, she’s been abused by him, so I’m going to forgive her punching him out.’ It doesn’t work that way,” Ferris said. “It can’t work that way. I think it should be tempered — that’s why they bring me in on court cases as an expert witness. But a battery is a battery is a battery.”

Things get trickier if both parties are violent.

Florida Statute 741.29 addresses the issue of primary aggressor, stating that arrest is the preferred response for the primary aggressor but not for the party who acted in self-defense or to protect another family member.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Becky Butscher, who has worked many domestic violence cases, said determining the primary aggressor is a challenge that can take hours in a situation that already might be volatile.

The couple must be interviewed along with any witnesses. Wounds or injuries must be noted. Evidence must be collected.

Some men and women know the pro-arrest policies and use that against the other, Butscher added.

The officer then must evaluate all that and decide who to arrest.

“Every case is specific. Every case is handled differently. But they are very, very challenging because there are so many dynamics. They can be very time-consuming, and they can be very frustrating,” Butscher said. “I would say that probably the majority of the calls that we respond to are domestic calls.”

Theresa Beachy, executive director of Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network, said abusive men are increasingly calling police to allege they were beaten to pre-empt the woman from calling police.

Often, the woman was defending herself when she scratched or bruised the man. Police see the injuries and arrest the woman, Beachy said.

“They’ll get into an altercation where maybe he instigates it, and then he’ll call and she’ll get arrested,” Beachy said. “She is less likely to do what he does when she calls the police. He’ll get all puffed up — ‘Well, you don’t know how she is, she’s crazy,’ and will deny everything. Most of the time, the women freak out and start crying. They don’t put up their own defense in the same way that men do.”

Still, some of those arrested have histories of violence — domestic and otherwise.

In August, the Sheriff’s Office arrested Claudia Bunch Dallas, 53, of Hawthorne, on a murder charge after her 64-year-old partner was found dead on the floor with multiple stab wounds.

Deputies were familiar with Dallas — she had numerous previous arrests for allegedly battering boyfriends and family members. Some of the arrests resulted in convictions.

Eighth Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott said many of the women her office represents on domestic violence charges grew up in an environment in which pushing and slapping was a way of life that continues in their adult relationships.

Scott said mandatory or pro-arrest policies can be lifesaving, adding that some women are victims of extremely violent, ongoing abuse. Those women need all the resources they can get, she said.

But Scott added that mandatory or pro-arrest policies also can make situations worse because the arrest of a woman can have greater financial and emotional impacts on families.

“When these reforms were instituted, I think they were much needed. We feel sometimes the pendulum has gone too far in one direction,” Scott said. “Oftentimes we’ll see cases where 911 was called and the alleged victim will say, ‘Well, I didn’t want an arrest. I just wanted you to calm him down.’ It can start into motion a process that causes more stress than what originally happened. Other times, we’ll have situations where someone was angry with a person and know they can use 911 as a weapon.”

Ferris and others say cases of a woman habitually abusing a man physically and emotionally are rare.

While there is a legal definition of domestic violence involving intimate partners, counselors also use a non-legal tool — the power and control wheel.

The circle has various categories of behavior that indicate an abusive situation. Included are the use of intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, the use of privilege such as treating a partner like a servant or making all of the decisions, and denying, blaming or minimizing a partner’s concerns.

Power and control belong almost exclusively to men in the domestic violence cases that Ferris worked as an officer and experiences as a counselor.

“I don’t see women doing the power things. I see men doing the power things,” Ferris said. “The woman who popped that guy in the eye didn’t isolate him or minimize or blame him. She was angry, and she hit him. But the woman I saw yesterday in counseling who was told that she is ugly and won’t amount to anything and who can’t go to the mailbox to get the mail, that’s domestic violence — a pattern of power and control over a victim.”

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