When a call for help gets victims arrested
She was bloodied, her eye nearly swollen shut, still groggy from being knocked unconscious by her date. Gertha Lee waited for a safe opportunity to call the police.
“I came to, and that’s when I realized I wasn’t dead. I had my phone in my pocket, and I dialed 9-1-1 the first chance I got,” Lee recalled. “I didn’t think they were going to arrest me, though. They charged me with breach of peace. I guess I was making too much noise while I was screaming for my life.”
Lee’s story is not uncommon. In her suburban Hartford town, one out of every four times police are called to a family or domestic violence situation, both the offender and the victim are arrested. Statewide, about 20 percent of the incidents police are dispatched to end with both parties being arrested, according to Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection data from 2010.
This high dual arrest rate has attracted the attention of state lawmakers, law enforcement and advocates for better domestic violence laws.
“This is a very real problem. We need to whittle down the chances of the victim getting arrested when they make that call,” said Karen M. Jarmoc, the interim executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
She and other advocates attribute this steady 20-percent dual arrest rate as an unintended consequence of major changes in state law in the 1980s, following the attempted murder of Tracey Thurman in 1983 and a subsequent lawsuit accusing police in Torrington of ignoring the escalating signs of abuse by her husband.
Thurman complained that police took lightly her husband’s repeated violations of restraining orders that preceded an attack in which she was beaten, stabbed repeatedly and left with a broken neck and partial paralysis.
The attack led to a national wave of new laws on domestic violence. Connecticut required police officers to arrest anyone they had probable cause in breaking the law when called to the scene of a domestic dispute, leaving them without discretion.
“Sometimes when you change the law to solve one problem you create another,” said Michael P. Lawlor, the longtime Judiciary Committee co-chairman before becoming Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy. “This was the impetus that lead us to all these dual arrests.”
Connecticut legislative leadership formed a task force to determine if the law needs to be changed, if the mandatory arrest requirement should remain, and whether police training and data collected in this arena are working. Their final recommendation is due Dec. 1.
The American Bar Association reports that 19 other states also have mandatory arrest laws.
Lt. Stan Konesky Jr., who runs the training school in Meriden that municipal officers are required to complete, said state law often does tie the hands of officers in making their own call.
“Connecticut is a mandatory arrest state. There’s no way around it. …They have to arrest if the elements are present,” he said. Those elements that require arrest include if there is violence present and probable cause that each party was violent. Self defense is not considered violence and police do not have to arrest someone if they believe an injury resulted from someone defending themselves.
“I really don’t think Connecticut wants to go back to giving discretion in the arrest. Police do not go to the scene to conduct a trial. It’s to keep people safe,” Konesky said.
For Lee, when her date told officers she hit him first, that was all the officer needed to hear to require him to also arrest her.
“When I saw through the trees the police lights I thanked the lord that they were here,” said Lee. She asked that her hometown not be identified because of concerns for her safety. “The next thing I knew I was in the back seat of the cop car. I thought, ‘I’m the victim and they’re arresting me. This isn’t right.’ ”
The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, reported in 2008 that dual arrest laws like Connecticut’s increases the likelihood of the victim’s being arrested.
“If states want to increase arrest rates and avoid making unnecessary dual arrests, they should consider passing a preferred arrest law and enhancing police department’s policies and training,” the institute wrote.
But the Thurman case has pushed the state to err on the side of caution, some of the members of the task force say.
“Of course it’s easier to just arrest everyone and just let the courts figure it out. That doesn’t make it right for the victim,” said Jennifer Lopez, the advocacy program director of Interval House, a coalition of the state’s domestic violence programs and shelters.
Kathy Barron, who runs a program in Enfield that women are sent to by the courts after domestic disputes, said women like Lee that are sent to her are often confused.
“They’re angry they have to do this,” she said. “They don’t understand why they are being re-victimized by having to go through this.”
The same applies to male victims, who are three times more likely to be arrested when police get involved than females victims. In 2010, nine out of every 10 male victims were arrested, reports the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. Meanwhile, three out of every ten female victims were arrested.
“The dual arrest rate is a very real problem. It’s obviously worse in some areas of the state than others,” said. Lawlor.
Konesky fears there may be some inconsistencies and over-reporting of duel arrests in the various municipalities throughout the state, and has urged the panel to make sure they have a standard and accurate figures before they recommend changing the law.
In the end, Lee’s public defender was able to get the charges dropped against her. But she said that doesn’t erase her memory of being treated like she had done something wrong as she sat in the back of the police car that night.
“I replay it in my mind all the time. I ask myself, ‘Could I have done something different?’ ” she said. “I called someone for help and I ended up getting arrested. I might have to think again before I call if this happens to me again.”
That’s the worst possible outcome Lawlor told a meeting of advocates last week at the state Capitol.
“We have to have victims ready, willing and able to ask for help,” he said. “We have to make sure they feel safe to ask for help.”
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