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A new law offers protection for battered women. But will police enforce it?
By Mark Donald |

YVETTE LEWIS THOUGHT she’d done all she could. No longer willing to submit to the physical and emotional torture inflicted by her battering husband, she packed up her two kids and left. She hired a lawyer. She appealed to a Dallas family court judge to grant her all the protection the law might afford. And that’s what she thought she had: a protective order, a judicial commandment forbidding her husband from committing any act of violence against her, going anywhere near her or communicating with her at all. Finally, after years of abuse, Yvette Lewis had begun to take control of her life. Her husband’s criminal behavior had been publicly condemned.

But within two weeks, he was at it again. He broke into her apartment. He beat and kicked her unmercifully. Two Dallas police officers arrived at the scene, but not before the husband had made his escape. Yvette Lewis wanted him arrested, but the officers said nothing could be done. He was already gone-and besides, it was a family matter, a civil case.

Several weeks later, on March 2, 1985, Yvette Lewis came home to what she assumed was an empty apartment. But her husband had broken in through a window and was lying in wait for her. In front of both of her children and her sister, Yvette was repeatedly beaten with a large stick. Although her cuts and bruises were visible to both officers who arrived at the scene, although her husband was still present, although she insisted that he be arrested, the police said they could do nothing. It was a family matter.

On March 26, 1985, Yvette Lewis filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Dallas, the mayor of Dallas, the city council, the city attorney, the police chief and the assistant police chief on behalf of all battered women in Dallas County. Her attorneys at North Central Texas Legal Services allege that Dallas police discriminate against battered women on the basis of sex by failing to enforce Texas laws regarding physical abuse of women in family situations.

If Yvette Lewis’ case stimulates much public debate and draws attention to battered women and their shared experiences, perhaps the city council will persuade the chief of police to educate his officers on the necessity of criminal enforcement in cases of family violence. That education will soon include a lesson from the Texas Legislature in the form of new laws enacted this session -a reform package aimed specifically at the methods police employ in responding to domestic violence cases. Although the Family Violence Protection Act faced little opposition in Austin, some local police departments may resent legislative meddling in what has traditionally been a matter of police discretion. “The act removes many police excuses for failing to treat family violence as a crime,” says Joyce Dorrycott, lobbyist for the legislation. By placing the act in the Code of Criminal Procedure rather than the family code, legislators sent a clear message to law-enforcement agencies: Family violence is a crime and must be treated accordingly. To ensure this result, the act binds police by law to protect abused victims by arresting perpetrators of family violence. They will be under a legal duty to treat battered wives as victims of crime, advising them of the existence of local shelters where they may seek refuge. Further, abuse incident reports must be filed by all police investigating domestic disturbances, and a separate designation for multiple assaults must be created in all police computer banks to more readily isolate and identify the parties to the crime. The legislation was signed into law by Governor Mark White on June 17 and will take effect on September 15.

Perhaps anticipating this legislative mandate, Dallas Police Chief Billy Prince announced in January that it is now official police policy not to take the relationship of the parties into consideration when making arrests on assault charges. Says Assistant Police Chief Leslie Sweet: “Today, if a woman wants to press charges against her husband for assaulting her, an officer would be derelict in his duties if he did not arrest the man.”

But actions speak louder than policy. On May 16, 1985, Yvette Lewis was again assaulted by her estranged husband after he broke down her front door. Despite a protective order, a class-action lawsuit and the official policy of the Dallas Police Department, officers at the scene told her once again that there was nothing they could do.

MANY BATTERED WOMEN continue to complain of callous and cavalier treatment they receive at the hands of Dallas patrol officers. Workers at local battered women’s shelters continue to hear the same stories from victims about the police. One officer told a badly beaten woman that if a single article of the accused man’s clothing was at her apartment, it was a family matter, and there would be no arrest. Another officer told a North Dallas woman to go back into her nice house and do what her husband told her to do. Sometimes police respond too slowly to such complaints; sometimes not at all.

“If one man assaults another in a barroom brawl, the police have no qualms about arresting the aggressor for assault,” says Joselle Albracht, one of the attorneys for Yvette Lewis. “But put that same assault in the context of a marriage and the police don’t even think it’s a crime.” Although the police deny these accusations, Yvette’s case raises serious questions about the customs and practices of nearly every law-enforcement agency in the country regarding the proper police response to domestic violence.

Although official policy may be in place, old attitudes die hard. According to Sweet: “I’m not altogether sure that enforcement action is the answer-putting a man in jail for a few days does not make a new man out of him.” Conventional police wisdom has long held that once a man is released from jail, he will retaliate against his wife with even greater violence.

Not all experts would agree. According to a 1984 study conducted in Minneapolis and endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice Task Force on Family Violence, researchers discovered that even one night in jail can have positive, rehabilitating effects on the abusive husband. During the six months of the study, only 10 percent of those arrested for family violence repeated that violence, while 19 percent of those involved in mediation and 24 percent of those ordered to leave the scene repeated their violence. As one battered wife from the study says, “The fact is that he knew he wouldn’t get away with it. And he was punished. He’s a different man now, a totally different person.”

Based on these and similar findings, the task force advocates the arrest of violent spouses. “The chief executive of every law-enforcement agency should establish arrest as the preferred response in cases of family violence,” the study concludes.

IN THEORY, the Dallas police are changing their policy toward family violence, but the daily practice of the cop on the street must embrace that change. For many officers, this may entail adopting a new attitude about criminal behavior. A more enlightened approach to family violence recognizes that, without police intervention, spousal assaults become more frequent and more violent. And with one in five murders in the United States occurring within the family and one in two between acquaintances (lovers, etc.), the patrol officer must give priority to family violence calls. Officers must be educated in the psychology and dynamics of spousal assault.

Historically, Dallas police have responded to domestic violence by treating it as a family matter, better suited to the jurisdiction of the family courts than the criminal courts. Police have seen their function in this sensitive area as mediators of the peace rather than enforcers of the law. They know that more police officers are killed in answering family violence calls than in any other type of call. They see an emotional woman reeling from a recent beating, ready to press charges in the heat of the moment. Then they see the woman drop those charges after several days of calm reflection or family pressure. Explains one Dallas police officer: “No officer wants to put his life on the line when he knows that two days later things will be back to status quo.”

No doubt, some police officers’ feelings mirror antiquated social attitudes lingering from English common law that gave legal protection to wife beating. After all, the expression “rule of thumb” evolved from English law that considered battering reasonable discipline if a husband “chastised his wife by using a rod not thicker than his thumb.” American jurisprudence is replete with historical precedents recognizing wife beating as an accepted male right, a justifiable method of maintaining control over the man’s marital estate. But due to a number of forces-among them the women’s movement, a more permissive sexual attitude and more women in the work force-wife beating gradually lost its legal protection and came to be viewed as cruelty.

Despite this more enlightened attitude, a 1978 study of 2,143 couples concluded that approximately 1.8 million American women are abused each year. Taking into account that the study considered only acts carrying a high risk of serious injury, as well as the tremendous underreporting that is common to this type of violence, statisticians estimate that 12 million women will experience some physical abuse from a husband or boyfriend.

By treating family violence as something less than criminal, law-enforcement agencies may be giving their tacit approval to the behavior of the battering husband, legitimizing his psychological bent and unwittingly perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Many bat-terers have witnessed their fathers beat their mothers with no legal consequences or social ostracism. Violence begets violence, and a child can learn all too quickly that physical abuse is an acceptable and efficient way of maintaining control. Police inaction reinforces this belief. For the woman, this “benign neglect” compounds her victimization by feeding her feelings of helplessness.

For victims of spousal abuse like Yvette Lewis-battered women who daily risk the uncontrolled wrath of their husbands and boyfriends-any change in policy or practice that replaces inaction with enforcement will be welcomed as relief long overdue.

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