By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco – It was a different conversation than we often hear surrounding the issue of domestic violence. The live summit held by San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin focused on the survivors of “interpersonal violence,” looking to create interventions that heal, not harm.
The event featured survivors of such violence, including two panel discussions where the participants, almost all themselves survivors of domestic violence, explored interventions to interrupt cycles of violence while centering on the ongoing needs of survivors.
DA Boudin spoke of addressing the root causes of interpersonal violence while also holding those who use violence accountable.
“As District Attorney, I work to ensure that we are using the most effective interventions available to address interpersonal violence,” said District Attorney Boudin. “On the eve of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we hosted this convening to highlight the voices of survivors and experts to develop interventions to end the cycles of violence and to instead foster long lasting healing.”
He explained, “October serves as an opportunity for us to unite, to connect, and to think about the many individuals and organizations who are impacted by and working on issues of domestic violence.”
Boudin said that his office is dealing with these matters every single day, but it “all too often gets ignored in mainstream conversation.
“When we talk about domestic violence,” he said, “we’re really talking about a broader category of violence that’s often referred to as interpersonal violence.”
On interpersonal violence, the DA explained, “It’s a category that can also include violence between people who know each other, but may not be intimate partners; some stalking cases, for example, fall into interpersonal violence, but don’t technically qualify as domestic violence.”
The cases he pointed out are not only prevalent, but difficult to prosecute.
“According to the CDC, one in four women and one in 10 men will experience physical violence by an intimate partner at some point during their lifetime,” DA Boudin said. “In other words, this is something that affects all of us at the same time. These kinds of crimes, domestic violence clients are notoriously difficult to prosecute, difficult to prosecute for lots of reasons.”
These are people who know each other, have some claim to a loving or intimidate relationship and, as the DA explained, “that makes the case more complicated legally” and “it makes it more complicated personally.”
He added, “It also adds levels of nuance when it comes to providing services and support to the survivors.”
The DA explained because of this, “traditional approaches to interpersonal violence often have unintended consequences for survivors.” He noted that the survivors can talk first hand about their personal experience and “some of the ways in which traditional criminal legal system has, or has not served their interests.”
Boudin explained that “traditional prosecution often puts survivors in a position where they have to leave their home, where they have to be separated from a caregiver or primary breadwinner, where they’re left without financial support or housing, and where the fact that they made a police report turns them inadvertently into a piece of evidence rather than into someone who needs support and services and protection.”
During the pandemic they have seen how shelter-in-place orders put survivors of domestic violence at unique risks. The system gives the survivors a horrible choice, “often choosing between sheltering at home with their abusers or choosing to report crimes to the police at the risk of ending up on the streets.”
He said upfront, “I want to be clear at the outset. We don’t have a thesis. We don’t have a magic solution that’s going to solve all these problems. What we have is a deep commitment to find ways to do better than we’ve done in the past.”
Under the traditional handling of DV cases, the police get called out on a 911 call, “when they police arrived and make an arrest, what happens next is largely out of the control of the victim.”
In other words, he explained, “they’re not generally centered, they’re not generally asked what their priorities and needs are.
“Those needs are largely ignored to the point that many jurisdictions will require survivors of domestic violence to testify against their will. In some instances, they will be jailed, awaiting trial so that their testimony can be dealt with on demand and rarely if ever are they provided with housing or other social services that would allow them to be empowered, to be safe, to be healed and to move forward with their life without falling back into an abusive relationship.”
DA Boudin explained, “In other words, all too often, survivors of domestic violence are treated not as human beings, not as people who can be uplifted and loved, but rather as pieces of evidence as prosecutors, as lawyers looking at evidence, we have to prove a case.”
Like everything else in the criminal legal system, there are extreme racial disparities.
“When we’re thinking about interpersonal violence, domestic violence, we must remember that the systems that have led to such extreme racial disparities in the United States through the legal system are also factors,” he said.
This is something that crosses all lines of race, immigration status and “this is something that affects everybody. It’s a universal reality.”
At the same time, there is a huge racial component.
“Black people make up about 5% of the population, but accounted for about 45% of those incarcerated for domestic violence charges,” he said. “That’s a 9X disparity. Black people are nine times over-represented in the jail for domestic violence as they are in San Francisco population. We need to address these disparities. We need to take them head on, and it’s not just about who commits domestic violence, because we know that happens in every household, regardless of race.”
The disparities occur because of where and when domestic violence is reported, the fact that the neighbors may be more likely to call the police when they hear fighting from their Black neighbors than their white neighbors.
Moreover, “What about prosecutorial decisions, charges, detention convictions, every step of the process, raising opportunities for exacerbating racial disparities or ameliorating them. And we have a lot of work to do in San Francisco.
“We know that in particular for women, women of color, transgender people, and then, who are not centered in this conversation, men are also victims of domestic violence, and that is often ignored.”