Assaulted, Then Arrested
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.)
Sergeant Anthony Miranda is president of the Latino Officers' Association and a 17-year veteran of the NYPD. Miranda says domestic violence, as a category of crime, poses exceptional challenges for police officers. The majority of cases, he says, are "in that gray area. How do you know who broke up the house? He says she did it, she says he did it. Who can tell?"
Miranda charges that the Giuliani administration puts cops under enormous pressure to arrest so much so that cops have lost the discretion not to arrest. He says that even in that rare instance when a woman is guilty of assault, not arresting her might be preferable, if it means protecting her children or other members of her household.
"The beat cops in the past were aware of those family situations that were extreme, and they provided a different level of intervention," Miranda says. But "we're not into helping the community anymore, we're into arresting the community." These days, Miranda says, cops think, "Let somebody else deal with it. If he comes back and kills her next week, we're covered."
Quota pressures notwithstanding, Miranda believes the new laws build in a financial incentive that is rarely discussed.
"An officer who is not getting paid enough, and who is struggling from check to check, is also looking to make some overtime. So I'm either an officer who's looking to make overtime, or I'm an officer who needs that arrest for the month. So I'm going to make this arrest, because this is a ground ball."
Anne Conners, executive director of the Coalition of Battered Women's Advocates, believes the police response to domestic violence is rife with sexism.
"This is a crime that overwhelmingly affects lower-income and minority women, [and] it's almost like women are being punished when they do call. Something like 90 percent of domestic violence incidents are men hurting women, so the masculine culture of the police department has not adapted well to these changes, even though on paper we have everything in place. But there's just an attitude that these are messy, they don't like domestic calls, [and they say] let's just take everybody to jail and let the courts sort it out."
Many say district attorneys are crucial not only in releasing a battered woman before she is arraigned, but also in working to make sure these arrests don't occur.
Last fall, district attorneys citywide met with the NYPD to address the issue of dual arrest. The result, according to Lisa Smith, a Brooklyn Law School professor and the executive assistant for domestic violence in the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, was one of the first programs training police in how to make the primary-aggressor analysis. Though not yet touting hard numbers, Smith said that dual arrests in Brooklyn seem to have dropped precipitously. (In another pilot program, the police are assigning sergeants who will supervise an increased number of domestic violence officers in 15 precincts citywide.)
Meanwhile, Etta Williams is still dealing with the psychic shock of her arrest. When she arrived in criminal court, she stood silent next to her lawyer for a hearing that lasted only two minutes. All charges against her were dismissed. Though Etta pressed charges against Bernard, and says she was willing to testify, the Manhattan District Attorney's office dropped all charges against Bernard as well. Etta says prosecutors never contacted her about Bernard.
Etta, who insists she once spent much of her time routing out drug dealers in the neighborhood, feels she deserved an award, not an arrest. "I couldn't believe it, the way they handled the whole situation," she says. "I see a lot of officers and how they treat people. And I never thought it would happen to me. But I was wrong."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.