How safe do you feel after going through the process of obtaining a Domestic Violence Restraining Order from your local Superior Court? Many would likely respond that they feel safer…right? After all, if a Judge/Court hears your case and finds that you’ve met your burden of proof, you have done your due diligence to demonstrate that you deserve a restraining order, the intent of which is to protect you from abuse and violence.
Would you respond differently if you were told that, in many cases, abusers are not arrested after violating a court-issued restraining order? It may be reasonable to respond with follow-up question, why should I obtain a restraining order if there’s a high probability that it will not be enforced? This is a valid question and raises a significant concern – why are some of our local law enforcement agencies refusing to arrest or detain violators of court-ordered restraining orders?
Those atop the law enforcement chain of command often point to lack of resources, unavailability of eligible recruits to increase and fortify police forces, diminishing budgets, and even potential glitches in the local CLETS database1, preventing officers from accessing real-time, accurate information about convicted and alleged abusers.
All of these excuses are offered to deflect responsibility for either not responding to a report of a restraining order violation, or for not arresting or detaining a violator. In short, the long list of predictable alibis given for inaction allows law enforcement to pass the proverbial ‘hot potato” around in order to avoid getting burned.
Clients who seek services from the YWCA’s Legal Advocacy Program often report inexcusable behavior and antagonistic attitudes from law enforcement officers responding to 911 calls reporting violations of restraining orders. Client reports indicate that law enforcement officers often lack empathy and display a lofty, patronizing attitude toward victims holding restraining orders. On numerous occasions, clients who are victims of domestic violence are told to avoid making “unjustified calls”. Many clients allege that when officers do respond, more often than not abusers are released with nothing more than a verbal warning.
In some cases, responding officers completely disregard victims’ circumstances. One client reported that a responding officer advised her to “put herself in her abuser’s position.” After all, he explained, “she doesn’t understand what the abuser is going through to commit such acts.” This statement is not only misguided, but also dangerous. Who cares about what the victim is experiencing? The responsibility of an officer is to uphold and enforce the law, not to assume the role of a mediator or conciliator. This is not only inappropriate, but up to the point at which domestic violence occurs, such options are no longer viable for either party.
In one reported case, a YWCA client called 911 on three separate occasions after a restraining order had been granted and was subsequently violated. On all three occasions, neither an arrest nor a detention was carried out. Deputy sheriffs responding to the calls flatly denied the victim’s request to arrest the abuser. The abuser knew of the existence of the restraining order, willfully disobeyed it and refused to leave the victim’s home. Despite sufficient cause to do so, no arrest was made. On each occasion the abuser was present at the victim’s residence and physical abuse and threats ensued, including one incident with a firearm. Still, the deputy sheriffs refused to arrest the abuser because according to their account of the facts, the CLETS database did not indicated that service of process had been performed. It should be noted that the victim showed visible signs of physical abuse, which were ignored and undocumented by the responding deputies. The victim’s 16-year daughter also alleges to have been abused and corroborated the victim’s declaration. One that basis alone, the responding officers have sufficient cause to detain the suspect and physically remove him from the victim. That, unfortunately, did not occur, which leads to a compelling question: If after the responding officers left the residence, the undetained abuser physically injured or killed the victim, would the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office be liable?
This victim’s statement regarding the conduct of law enforcement suggests a patronizing attitude by responding deputies, as well as a lack of empathy and regard for the victim’s safety and wellbeing and what she was experiencing.
These are actual cases that our clients have conveyed regarding less-than-helpful experiences with law enforcement officials in Monterey County. Domestic violence is a serious and pervasive issue within our community, and should be addressed with the same rigor and intention as other egregious crimes. Victims deserve to have their concerns and allegations treated seriously, with a high level of attention and care. They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity by law enforcement – the same individuals who purport to be the defenders of public safety. The burden of enforcing a restraining order should not fall upon the victim.
Without enforceability, a restraining order becomes less of a figurative bulletproof shield and nothing more than a piece of official-looking paper. It is imperative that both our community in general and law enforcement agencies specifically understand the importance of proactively responding to domestic violence calls, as well as committing to a positive change of attitude toward victim advocacy. As a domestic violence prevention and intervention agency, the YWCA is currently working closely with law enforcement agencies throughout Monterey County to assure that victims feel safer and have more trust for and confidence in their interactions with the law enforcement community. Those who work in victim support services are formidable and vocal advocates for evolving the perspective of law enforcement offers toward victims of domestic violence. Despite the occasional obstacle along the path toward victim safety, nothing will deflect our commitment, work, and advocacy towards our clients. The YWCA calls upon the leadership of all law enforcement agencies within Monterey County to adopt a victim-centric culture of internal operations and response interactions.
Daniel Gonzalez is the Legal Advocacy Coordinator for the YWCA Monterey County. He is a 2014 alumnus of the Monterey College of Law.
1 CLETS is an acronym that stands for California Law Enforcement Telecommunication System. It is a high-speed message switching system, which became operational in 1970. CLETS provides law enforcement and criminal justice agencies access to various databases and the ability to transmit and receive point-to-point administrative messages to other agencies within California or via the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS) to other states and Canada