Assaulted, Then Arrested

How Laws to Protect Battered Women are Landing Them in Jail

For many battered women, summoning the police can be nearly as threatening as facing an abuser.

On a quiet evening after work, Etta Williams, 39, was home in her pajamas, making dinner, when neighbors called her to the hallway of their Harlem building. There, she says, her 18-year-old nephew, Bernard Williams, was shaking down her godmother for money. Etta asked him to stop, and, when it seemed he was backing off, she returned to her apartment. Next thing she knew, she was lying on the floor, face first. In a fit of rage, Etta says, Bernard had tackled her, pinned her between a wall and some moving boxes, and begun to choke her. "He's trying to put me to sleep," she said to herself. "I thought I was gone." Etta says Bernard also punched her 10-year-old son, Antoine, in the face, and bit her finger to the bone.

When the police arrived, they took Etta's statement, went upstairs to her nephew's apartment to question him, and then returned to her door. Still dazed, bleeding, and in her pajamas, Etta was asked to step into the hallway, where she was arrested and handcuffed before being led into a freezing February night by a sergeant and two officers from the NYPD. Her son pleaded with the cops not to take her. Her mother begged them to let her dress.

Bernard had apparently told the officers that Etta and Antoine had injured him, though Etta says it was in self defense. Neighbors argued her case, Etta says, but police apparently made no effort to take statements or sort out the conflicting stories. They simply arrested Etta along with Bernard. (Bernard Williams was contacted for this story, but refused to speak to the Voice. His lawyer insists there was no solid evidence against him.)

Etta accused the arresting officers of not listening. "I was crying and I was bleeding. What I said went in one ear and out the other."

As a result, she wound up at Central Booking, one of a growing number of women who are actually suffering from legislation designed to protect them. The law now says that police must arrest somebody in domestic disputes, and often both batterers and victims are being brought in. The problem is so severe that the NYPD recently produced an educational video in which an officer mistakenly arrests a battered woman. According to Inspector Ed Young of the NYPD's Domestic Violence Unit, it is now being shown in every precinct throughout the city.

Battered women have long struggled to get a suitable response from the police and the courts. In the past, advocates say, police responding to domestic violence calls would often ignore bloodstained walls, black eyes, bruised necks, and broken furniture, and do little more than walk male batterers around the block. After pleas from social workers and lawyers, the New York state legislature in 1994 passed a "mandatory arrest" law, which required the police to actually make an arrest any time there was clear evidence that a violent crime between family members had been committed.

As a result of the mandatory arrest law, many batterers got their first taste of jail. Before long, however, abusers began to manipulate the new law against their victims. In a typical scenario, a batterer, about to be arrested, would make a cross-complaint against his female victim. With little investigation being done on the scene, police began arresting both parties — the batterer and the victim— even if it meant putting children in foster care.

In 1997, the New York state legislature passed a further corrective: the "primary aggressor" law, intended to protect victims from dual arrest. While the law seems admirable on paper, advocates say the police often ignore it, and for many reasons refuse to make the primary-aggressor analysis. As a result, they say, battered women are still getting caught up in the must-arrest dragnet.

Advocates argue that arresting a woman who's just been assaulted creates exceptional trauma. And even when police identify and arrest only the primary aggressor, many women are still getting locked up some time later, when the batterer gets out of jail and files a "retaliatory complaint," alleging physical abuse toward him or their children.

Jill Zuccardy is a public-interest attorney who has specialized in domestic violence since 1992. Citing the NYPD's own statistics, Zuccardy reports that arrests of women between 1993 and 1997 jumped more than 70 percent. (Zuccardy says the NYPD released those statistics by accident; she's been unable to persuade the department to supply any current data.)

"The cops are using the gender neutrality of the law to apply it inappropriately and excessively against women," Zuccardy says. "Cops have said, 'I don't care if it's a man or a woman. The law says mandatory arrest.' " According to Zuccardy, that attitude disregards the language of the primary-aggressor law, which requires the police to consider "the physical strength of the parties. As a practical matter, have you ever heard of a woman killing a man with her bare hands?"

Etta Williams says she is haunted by the words of one of the officers who arrested her, Stanley Parker. As he handcuffed her, she says, Parker told her she'd never have been arrested if she hadn't pressed charges. "I was just hearing his voice telling me it was my fault. I was hearing his voice all night to the next morning. It hasn't left me yet." (Parker did not return calls.)

Next Page »