Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says savvy abusers, particularly those with means, can cover their tracks. That power begins with the tendency of many police departments to seek out criminal behavior among the poor while giving respectable-seeming citizens the benefit of the doubt.
“The police would be much more likely to file a report in a neighborhood where there’s lower-income people living than in the wealthiest communities. I think it’s much less likely there would even be a paper trail. If there were a paper trail, the batterer might have the ability to have that record expunged,” Smith says. “I’m sure it’s happened. I can’t give you hard data about that, but I’ve talked to lots of women who’ve had batterers who were either a police officer or in city government or had very close ties to officials who could remove that type of data from a system: The police report somehow disappeared.”
SFPD Deputy Chief Abram Anaya says those assumptions are false—especially given that domestic violence calls tend to be the most dangerous for responding officers. “There’s absolutely no difference. We will respond exactly the same, whether it’s the housing projects or a higher-income home on the east side,” Anaya says.
That may be. Nevertheless, in several recent cases SFR reviewed, the paper trail stops short when it leads toward a wealthy person’s home.
For example: Last December, an SFPD officer responded to a domestic violence call at a home near Hyde Park Road worth more than $1 million. The homeowners are a prominent local couple, the type who serve on foundation boards and charity task forces. The officer’s report—at least, the summary available to SFR—lacked the kind of details prosecutors say they need to build a case. The summary report reads, in its entirety: “A couple was involved in a domestic dispute over marital discrepancies by the male spouse. Incident was documented as a domestic dispute and no further action was taken.” The report indicates alcohol was involved. The couple’s names were not included on the report, a courtesy not granted to everyone who gets in a drunken argument and has the police show up at their home.
Two days after the police came to the couple’s house, the wife of the house filed for divorce, citing “discord.” Within two months, the divorce petition was withdrawn. SFR is withholding the names of the homeowners because the events leading up to the police call couldn’t be determined. The reporting officer did not return a message.
So it remains a mystery why “no further action” was taken. There may simply have been no violence. On the other hand, there may be no record of violence or abusive behavior because no real investigation was conducted.
SFPD Lt. Wiggins says it’s possible the responding officer didn’t know what to look for or asked the wrong questions. Some officers, Wiggins says, are more concerned about other types of crimes, be they traffic stops or drug busts.
Which means when a victim calls police for help, she is rolling the dice. She can only hope the officer who shows up won’t be the kind who does the bare minimum, makes sure no one is bleeding, asks everyone to calm down and drives to the next call.
In that sense, too, wealthy victims can be in the same bind as that woman of modest means who stood up in the back of the County Commission chambers, and told how it felt when no one would help her.
National victims’ advocates fear 2009 could turn out to be one of the worst years on record for domestic violence, thanks in part to the recession. New Mexico has long been among the nation’s worst on this score. Last month, the Washington, DC-based Violence Policy Center said New Mexico had the seventh-highest murder rate per capita of women by men. Half of those murders were of wives, ex-wives or girlfriends—a statistic that likely skews low, because police don’t specifically track crimes involving ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends.
“This is a dangerous state to be in a relationship,” David River, co-facilitator of the Santa Fe Coordinated Community Response Council, a group established to combat domestic violence, says. “Our community isn’t the best set up to help [victims] escape.”
Last December, Diana McWilliams took over as executive director of the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center on Valentine Way. Years before that, she worked in Delaware, in both poor and wealthy areas. She found that women faced the same issues whether they were trying to protect the children from drug-dealing boyfriends who were in and out of jail, or trying to escape an abusive, embezzling husband with a string of capital letters after his name. “You see that families are struggling, and it doesn’t matter what their income level is—it just doesn’t,” McWilliams says. “It’s not race. It’s not money. It’s called being human.”
Regardless of their class, regardless of their stature, regardless of their excuses, domestic abusers “need to be held accountable for their behavior,” McWilliams says.
“With regard to sexual assault, we call that perpetrator a rapist and we go after them. They are considered a feral animal. Folks perpetrating domestic violence crimes are no different. They’re doing that crime behind closed doors, and they’re walking out, acting like everything’s fine.” SFR
WEB EXTRA: A group consisting mainly of criminal justice and social services workers met on Oct. 7 in Santa Fe County Commission chambers to discuss the worsening domestic violence in the area.