Posted on 20 November 2012.
On Bainbridge Island, we’re no strangers to domestic violence. Police Commander Sue Shultz confirms that “there is a high amount of domestic violence on Bainbridge Island.” But she adds that the main reason she knows this is not primarily from records of 911 calls made to the police (by my estimate these result in about 2 to 3 police reports per week) but from the anecdotal evidence provided by YWCA advocates at the courthouse who tell her about how many contacts they get from citizens saying they are victims of domestic violence. That’s because many people, victims and witnesses alike, don’t call police in domestic violence cases, and so the call records represent just a fraction of the domestic violence that is happening here.
Barbara Saur, the Program Director of the YWCA ALIVE Domestic Violence Program of Bainbridge Island/North Kitsap, which is the only domestic violence program in Kitsap County, says, “People think there’s no domestic violence on Bainbridge Island. That’s not true. Certainly there’s a lot more than the police statistics say. A lot doesn’t get reported, and domestic violence is broader than physical assault.” At their local office, they’ve seen 80 families this year alone on Bainbridge. And my own unscientific and unverified estimate is that there are at least two domestic violence incidents in the police blotter per week, which comes to over a hundred per year and that’s just the ones that involve the police.
Domestic Violence at Lynwood
A recent example is a local domestic violence situation in one of the apartments in the Lynwood neighborhood that was escalating over months with no one reaching out to the police. It finally came to light on November 6 when the victim called 911. She indicated to the dispatcher that she had been hit in the face by a thrown wallet. She declined aid and left her apartment with her 11-month-old baby to wait outside for police.
Officer Mo Stich responded to the scene. When she arrived, she learned that the suspect (the woman’s boyfriend and the father of her baby) was still inside and aware that police had been called. When Stich met with the victim, she was crying and holding her baby boy. She said that things had been bad the night before. She and the baby’s father had been arguing, and he had hit her in the face and had choked her. They then decided to end their relationship. At one point, he had tried to slap her but had missed and hit the baby in the face.
In the morning, she said, the arguments had continued and she had left for a while. When she returned home, the arguing had started up again, and her boyfriend had flung his wallet at her, hitting her in the face. She had a welt on the left side of her cheek under her glasses. Stich checked for injuries from the night before. The woman had a slight bruise on her right upper arm where she said her boyfriend had grabbed her. She had no injuries to her neck area. She told Stich she was sick of being hit. She also said that her boyfriend was packing his things and leaving.
As Stich spoke with the woman, she was approached by the manager of the complex. The manager said that the neighbors had been calling her about the yelling and screaming that had been going on inside the apartment. She had found out via an e-mail from a woman who lives next door to the couple about the ongoing problem.
Officer Scott Weiss arrived, and Stich briefed him on the situation. They entered the apartment building and met the suspect coming down the stairs. Stich immediately handcuffed him for their safety. She led him downstairs and away from his girlfriend. She and Weiss walked him to the parking lot where they interviewed him. Stich asked him what had happened.
He was extremely emotional and agitated. He yelled cross the lot at his girlfriend who was still outside the building. He yelled that she had ruined his life. Stich asked him what had happened with the wallet. He said he had thrown it at the wall. He denied he had hit his girlfriend and then ranted about guys “always getting screwed.” He said his girlfriend was always getting after him and he was the one who was paying for everything, including her father who lives with them.
The man said that he and his girlfriend weren’t getting along and that she uses their child as leverage, which frustrates him. He said that “we get into it every night” and that he was leaving. He claimed that it was just arguing. After Stich left to speak again with the victim, the suspect told Weiss that the officers didn’t understand, that his girlfriend was on medications, and that she bothered him and was calling him a deadbeat father and other names. He then told about more disputes he had had with her.
Stich returned to the victim who was still crying and upset. Stich confirmed that the suspect had flung his wallet at her and hit her. She then returned to Weiss and the suspect and they double-locked his handcuffs, telling him he was under arrest for domestic violence assault. He became more animated and angry, yelling even louder at his girlfriend, blaming her for his arrest. The girlfriend started crying again. She said she was feeling guilty about doing this to him. Weiss and Stich had to instruct the suspect several times to get into the car. Stich read him his rights, but he was yelling so much she had to stop several times to ask him if he understood. He finally said, “I want an attorney.”
Weiss drove him to the jail. Stich returned to speak with the woman and look for witnesses.
She went to the apartment of the woman who had e-mailed the building manager. That neighbor said that on October 25th she had heard yelling and the suspect yelling, “I am going to f***ing kill you.” She said she could hear someone being slammed against the walls and furniture being broken. She confirmed that she had texted the manager.
Stich then went to speak with the victim’s father in the couple’s apartment. He was washing dishes at the sink. He said his daughter and her boyfriend fight all the time and mouth off to one another. He said he had seen the boyfriend push his daughter. He said that in the morning when his daughter had returned home, he had heard the sound of a loud smack and yelling, and then he saw his daughter crying and her glasses askew. He said he thought the boyfriend had hit her. He told Stich that the boyfriend had said, “I’m going to rip her head off and s**t down the hole.”
He appeared to minimize the violence going on. The father said that when the couple fight, he usually retreats to his bedroom.
Stich left and went downstairs. She met a woman coming out of the elevator who said she lives directly below them. She too confirmed that there was a lot of yelling and violence.
Stich gave the victim domestic violence information and the number for letting her know when her boyfriend was released. Then she had Officer Aimee LaClaire obtain the manager’s statement and information.
The manager told LaClaire that she had some information regarding prior fights between the couple. She said that the neighbor had sent her an e-mail on October 25 that detailed a fight she heard between them. The e-mail said, “It is 12:30 and the neighbor guy was hitting his girlfriend . . . . a man screaming horrible things and banging and I heard a door slam. . . . . I opened the door and the girl was throwing his stuff at the end of the hallway crying. I asked if she was okay and she said she was just sick of being hit. . . . I am worried about her it sounded really bad.”
The manager said that the neighbor had contacted her again the day before and said “there was fighting again.” The neighbor had heard the man say, “I will kill you.”
The manager also said that another neighbor had reported information to her. The neighbor who lives downstairs had left a voice mail about a week earlier saying that she had heard fighting “and it was frightening.”
The manager, councilmember Sarah Blossom, told me that in October she had spoken with the victim who had expressed a desire to “keep her family together” and said she and her boyfriend were going to seek help through services offered at Helpline House. On the 6th, Blossom received a phone call from a tenant who told her there had been another fight. Blossom was already on her way to the building and, when she got there, she saw the police were speaking with the victim. She volunteered to share what she knew and the messages she had received and then helped care for the baby as the victim spoke with police. Blossom also said that she didn’t know until then that the victim’s father was living with the couple.
What to Do
Commander Shultz said, “Domestic violence affects everybody, not just the victims. It affects the community, so it’s important for the community to take a stand against domestic violence. Making that call has the potential to save someone’s life. This is why we spread the word about how important it is to call 911 when they hear something.”
I wondered why people hadn’t called the police and I asked Blossom for her insight into the situation. She said that her impression from a couple of the neighbors was that they were worried about making the situation worse for the woman. Blossom also believed that in at least one case a person might have been afraid for her own safety. And she stressed again that the victim herself was vacillating on the situation and wanting to avoid doing anything that would break up the family.
I asked Saur what she thought. She said, “Call 911 in the moment if someone is being hurt.” She added that Shultz used to head the Kitsap County domestic violence task force, and she is “very happy to have her in the police department.” Marilyn Gremse of Helpline House agrees: “Geting the police there is a really good idea.” But different actions are called for when the violence is over.
Sauer said that usually a large component of domestic abuse is not physical. In fact, she said, in many cases an abuser only has to hit once. After that it’s the mere threat that achieves the desired response. Domestic violence can include
forcing someone to leave their job or not get a driver’s license, requiring someone to bring back receipts for everything they buy or to be accessible 24/7 and answer the phone at all times, or preventing someone from having access to their finances.
Victims, she said, “need to be listened to and believed, having someone outside that experience and relationship say, ‘I’m concerned.’ Domestic violence is truly a devastating social problem that affects us all. Not talking about, keeping it ‘behind closed doors,’ only helps create a climate in which abusers can get away with their behavior.” She recommended acknowledging the person’s difficult situation and encouraging him or her to make a plan. She added that witnesses, friends, and neighbors should feel free to call her office for advice on how to respond. She said to call “if you’re concerned. They don’t even have to say who they’re calling about for advice. I like getting a call like that and talking to that person.”
The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence recommends the following steps for helping a victim of domestic abuse:
- Listen to their story and believe them.
- Hold what you are told in confidence.
- Encourage your friend to think about safety. Help your friend make concrete plans that deal with the most likely “what ifs.”
- Reach out to a domestic violence program.
Sauer said victims often make the mistake of thinking that getting a protection order is a cure all. She said, “It’s not necessarily even the best route to take.” That’s because ”In domestic violence, the most dangerous time is when someone leaves. You have to think about how to leave safely.” The YWCA program can help victims figure out how. For example, there is a confidential shelter in Kitsap for women who need to escape their abusers. There is no similar facility for men, however, and Sauer acknowledge that sometimes, the victims are men. She also pointed out that gay and lesbian relationships are not exempt from domestic violence.
Sauer recommended some websites for victims of domestic violence:
Sauer says the YWCA of Kitsap County is the only agency in our county that specifically serves domestic violence victims. They have a shelter in Bremerton that also staffs a 24-hour hotline number: 1-800-500-5513. For assistance here on Bainbridge Island, call 780-2931 or (360) 551-3140 to speak with an advocate. The YWCA’s ALIVE program on Bainbridge Island is located at 10255 Northeast Valley Road.
Image by Ted Curran.