The tail of a salmon and the words of a girl are the slipperiest things on the planet.
“Have you got any children he knows aren’t his? Does he spy on you, or leave threatening messages?”
Who: Family Crimes Division, Department of Police
What: Prioritise cases of violence against women.
As soon as she has put the phone down, police officer Brandon McCloud sets off in his Ford Crown Victoria. He puts on his blue light and switches on the siren. At the same time, at least one of his colleagues does the same. Although the police officers travel alone in their cars, in cases of suspected partner violence they never go in alone. Arrests in connection with violence against women are among the most dangerous tasks a police officer faces.
The police arrive to find the abuser has left the apartment. The woman wants them to take her to hospital. The ambulance pulls up outside Laurel Regional Hospital in Montgomery County and Brandon Mc Cloud escorts the crying woman into ER. She is lying on a stretcher. One ankle is badly sprained. This is not the first time she has been beaten, but this time she wants to have a full medical examination. Officer McCloud photographs her visible injuries – a bump on the head, and the swollen ankle. She also has a pain in her stomach. He interviews her, using a printed questionnaire:
“Has he ever threatened you with a weapon? Has he threatened to kill you or your children? Do you think he might try to kill you? Does he have access to weapons? Has he ever tried to strangle you? Is he jealous, and does he control most of your daily activities? Have you left him after living together? Is he unemployed? Has he ever tried to kill himself? Have you got any children that he knows aren’t his? Does he spy on you, or leave threatening messages?”
Does he spy on you, or leave threatening messages?”
One of the purposes of the report, Domestic Violence Lethality Screen, is to assess the risk the woman is facing and to protect her if the man appears to be truly dangerous.
“This is probably the tenth time she’s been beaten,” sighs Officer McCloud. “But she’s still not ready to report him. And since the guy’s disappeared, and wasn’t living with her permanently, it’s difficult. If they’d been cohabiting she could have been granted a protection order.”
Brandon McCloud’s boss is Kathi Rhodes, a tough woman who takes few steps without her police gun. When telling us why her officers have become better at dealing with violence against women, she begins by telling us about Tracey Thurman, a housewife in Torrington, Connecticut, who was stabbed and almost killed by her husband in 1983. Tracey Thurman sued the police for ignoring her pleas for help. She won her case, a result that led to a wave of new laws and regulations throughout the US. In Montgomery County, they take the work seriously.
“I remember what it was like when I joined the police in 1996,” says police officer Rod Cox. It was no big deal. We wrote our reports but no-one really cared. Today, partner violence is given top priority and goes before almost everything else. When there are visible signs of violence we arrest the abuser on the spot, whatever the woman says.”
“The thing that has surprised me,” says Kathi Rhodes, “is that there isn’t a stronger link to alcohol. No more than half the abusers have been drinking.”
Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington DC, has almost one million inhabitants who speak a total of 220 different languages. Almost 2,000 reports of violence in close relationships are dealt with every year.
It is one o’clock on Tuesday, and the Domestic Violence Unit is having its weekly meeting. Representatives for the police, the public prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s office meet to go through the current cases. The sheriffs enforce the court rulings, for example bringing people in for questioning and issuing protection orders. They are armed, and their job also includes visiting addresses with protection orders to check that the protection order is being followed. The prosecutors have received special training in the different stages of the circle of violence, partly so they will not be too disappointed when the women change their minds and withdraw.
They are armed, and their job also includes visiting addresses with protection orders to check that the protection order is being followed.
Today they are discussing a family of Chinese origin. The man is being held in custody after beating his wife, who has cancer. He is angry because she is sick and her medical treatment will be very expensive. He has been charged, and the date for the trial is approaching. The woman has undergone surgery and is too weak to testify. She wants him to be released so he can earn the money to pay her medical bills. The police and prosecutor are having trouble communicating with her because of the language barrier. The couple’s ten-year-old son, who witnessed the beating, has taken his father’s side. He is convinced his mother is going to die and that in future he will be alone with his father. At the meeting, it is decided that the boy will receive counselling. There is a police officer in the force who speaks Mandarin. He will talk to the woman. There is little doubt that the group will have more to do with this family.
Another woman has withdrawn her police report. She no longer wants a protection order against her abuser. She is entitled to use her ‘partner privilege’, which means that people who are married can withdraw their report and thereby close the case. But only once. The police think that the ‘privilege’ should be abolished completely. The woman now says they were both fighting. She wants to change her story. The police officer sitting at the end of the table recognises the man’s name.
“This person is dangerous. He was actually convicted of manslaughter in another state in 1992. Do you think she knows that?”
Meanwhile, out in the patrol cars, another call comes in: “Domestic violence in Silver Spring.”
At least four cars switch on their sirens and race off.
At the same time, two sheriffs pull up in front of a house in a run-down residential area. A young woman with a can of beer in her hand is sitting on the decking. She tells the police that the man they are looking for is round the back, indicating the way with her beer can.
This person is dangerous. He was actually convicted of manslaughter in another state in 1992. Do you think she knows that?”
The man has been reported to the police by his ex-wife. She says he has threatened her, and the sheriffs have come to issue a protection order against him. The woman holding the can of beer wanders over. She is the man’s new girlfriend. When the sheriffs hand over the court decision, the man just shakes his head.
“She’s crazy,” he says. “She came round here yesterday and started arguing. I don’t want to go anywhere near her. But what about the boy?”
He and the sheriffs read through the court order together. No, there is nothing to say that he cannot meet his son. But he is not allowed to call his wife. So what can he do?
“You’ll have to call,” he tells his girlfriend, and signs to say that he’s taken delivery of the protection order.
The sheriffs drive on, to the next address.
Maternal deaths: 16 deaths per l00,000 births
Number of children/woman: 2.06
Abortion legislation: Right to abortion. Some states have regulations making certain information to pregnant women mandatory, including the size and appearance of the foetus.
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: one woman in six has been subjected to sexual violence.