Sgt. Anthony Williams was upbeat. The Birmingham Police Domestic Violence Unit had just finished a weekend prayer breakfast, dedicated to raising awareness about the problem he and his team of detectives deal with each day.
The event had been well-attended — Williams felt good about that — featuring remarks from representatives of the BPD, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s office, Birmingham Mayor William Bell and an educator. The event also included two survivors of domestic abuse, one of them Tina Thornton, a local woman who was nearly beaten to death by her husband. The other survivor at the breakfast was Dale M. Wells, the keynote speaker, who shared a harrowing account of how his girlfriend’s at-first clingy behavior escalated to property damage, threats, before turning to actual violence — she shot him five times with a .357 Magnum outside his home in Columbia, South Carolina, before committing suicide with the same gun.
Williams, who like the other members of the team sported a T-shirt with a purple ribbon and the slogan “Rise Up Against Domestic Violence,” pointed out that the prayer breakfast was needed as it shined a light on the many ways domestic violence can rip lives apart. The more people learn about domestic violence in this community —where it remains a big problem — the better, he said.
“One out of three calls are going to be domestic violence calls and we average right now, per year, give or take, 11,000 or 12,000 calls a year,” Williams said. “That’s calls. But then actual reports could go anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000.”
The higher number of calls for service could come from the victim or from neighbors, or a child or other person in the household, Williams said, noting that violence can be perpetrated by any intimate partner or by relatives — and that sexual orientation is not a factor. “It could be male-female, female-female, or male-male.”
Domestic abuse can be physical, emotional, financial or mental, Williams and other experts pointed out, noting that many people who are or have been abused don’t necessarily recognize it when it happens. Some have grown up in households where they see such behavior as the norm.
“They feel that it’s acceptable, but it’s not,” Williams said. “The anger, the verbal abuse — it shouldn’t be acceptable because at some point, it’s going to turn physical. And when anger turns to rage, rage turns to homicides, murder, a punch in the face, a concussion, brain damage and death, ultimately.”
Despite efforts to bring the causes and effects of domestic violence into the open, many people still don’t want to talk about it, he said. “Domestic violence [is] getting more attention now, but the problem is still there,” Williams said. “And the problem is going to be there because most people don’t want to let you inside their private life. They think domestic violence is a private issue. Yeah, it’s a private issue, but at the same time, someone is being abused or being hurt, then it becomes — I don’t want to say public— but it becomes the business of the law. And at some point, we have to get involved with it.”
For many victims calling the police brings them what they want, and at the same time, what they don’t.
“Most victims want the pain to stop, right then and there,” Williams said. “So when they call us and we get there, the pain stops. That’s good.” But then, for some, that’s where the cooperation stops. When police follow up, offering counseling, protection from abuse orders or to help victims pursue a warrant against the offender, many don’t respond, he said.
“They feel that, ‘I’m good now.’ Everything’s back to the honeymoon phase again. Then the cycle starts over again. It’s a repeated cycle.”
When the cops arrive
Helping victims and offenders to break the cycle of abuse is complicated. For police called on to stop and investigate violent incidents, relationships with the parties in conflict begin often on the doorstep where the strife is taking place.
Many domestic violence calls in Birmingham follow familiar patterns, Williams said. For example, in single parent, multiple child homes, the violence often arises from a relationship with a significant other who comes and goes. “Some of the common issues are like not wanting to pay the bills or not having money for bills or not working, infidelity… those are common issues that I would say the average person deals with in our community,” Williams said.
When officers go out on domestic calls, it helps for them to have the right mindset, Williams noted. “Domestic violence incidents can be a dangerous call,” he said. “You go in there to help a victim — whether it’s male or female, [if] you’re going to put the offender in jail, victims will turn on you, actually.”
Sometimes the victim fears for the financial support that will stop with the offender in jail. Others try to “fight for his honor,” to project the status of the abuser. “We’ve had officers who have been hurt by male or female victims. [While] trying to arrest [a victim’s] family member, some of them have been stabbed or shot, some have been jumped. It can be very dangerous,” Williams said.
Officers going into such a situation must be alert and unbiased in their approach, Williams said. “You just can’t be a biased person and just accept the male’s point of view or the female’s point of view. You have to just listen,” he said. “For the most part, people just want to be heard.”
So the officers responding to a domestic case need to be sure that the scene is safe for the parties and the first responders. That includes determining whether there are weapons involved. Most of the time, there are not. Sometimes that’s unknown.
Then, if both parties in a conflict are present — sometimes the offender will have left before the police arrive — officers have to make sure that the parties are separated on the scene, Williams said. That could mean moving them to different rooms, for instance, or talking to one on the porch and the other in the house.
Doing so stops the immediate conflict and gives each a chance to speak. It also stops visual contact. “Intimidation can be a number of ways,” Williams said. “A lot of people use that visual contact as intimidation.”
Putting the parties in separate areas also allows police to determine who is the “predominant aggressor,” Williams said. “A lot of people feel, ‘Because I got pushed, I can shoot somebody.’ No. That doesn’t make it right… You get pushed and you come back and stab the person – you’re the predominant aggressor.”
If it’s not possible to be sure who the predominant aggressor is, officers may list both in their report as offender and victim. “In some situations, we’ll do a dual arrest — arrest both of them,” Williams said, while noting that they prefer not to do that.
“We try to avoid doing that in most [cases] because it actually re-victimizes the actual victim,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to ask a lot of questions, to check their actual history, how many calls have been [made] there, who’s called — whether the woman has called a number of times, whether the male has called… and who’s the reporting person.”
Sometimes police are able to determine who the main aggressor is because of the tone and appearance of the people on the scene. Making the right determination is important because, “you have people’s freedom in your hands, pretty much,” Williams said. “You have to be able to discern who did it — the who, what, when, where and how. The why doesn’t really matter… You want to be able to determine what happened, especially when it’s a felony assault, somebody got stabbed or shot, or got beaten severely or got strangled.”
Especially in felony cases, officers have to get victim and witness statements, take photos and collect evidence at the scene, he said. “Prosecution right now is more evidence-based,” he said. That includes the content of 911 calls, photos of injuries and sometimes medical records.
Even after collecting evidence and passing it along to the district attorney’s office, even after a case finds its way into court, in many misdemeanor-charged cases, the victim doesn’t show up. That can delay or even eventually kill a case. If it’s a felony, and the victim doesn’t show up, that’s where all the other evidence comes in for a prosecutor to use.
Even after the police have become involved, much of what happens next can depend on the victim taking some action. Many find it hard to do, said Williams, who noted that most domestic abusers are repeat offenders. And most victims, he said, stay with their abusers long after the first sign of trouble.
It takes most victims seven or eight attempts to leave, he said. For some, the reasons are economic. “Not having that support system, not having someone to help you out financially — it’s hard,” Williams said. Some people have to save money or plan how and when to leave, and where to go when they do, he said. That’s where services like the YWCA can help, he said.
Using such resources doesn’t always even involve the police, Williams said. Going to the YWCA can access counseling, child care services, safe housing and a path toward getting protection from abuse orders. Such resources include legal assistance, which could include getting a divorce, or relocation help — all resources the YWCA offers confidentially. “A lot of people don’t understand what kind of resources they have. We try to tell them. Some may take it. A lot of them don’t,” he said.
Before a victim can get help, though, he or she has to take pride out of the picture — to get over worrying about people in the community learning what kind of situation he or she is living in, Williams noted. And, he pointed out more than once, the victim must accept that the controlling, abusive behavior they’re being subjected to is wrong, which for some means realizing that elements in their upbringing and personal history must be viewed in a different light.
A personal issue
Domestic violence is a problem Williams is passionate about — because he can relate to it from personal experience. He willingly shares that experience in workshops and talks, because it sheds light on how violence in the home can manifest itself in children, and offers an example showing that those whose personalities have been molded by such trauma can make changes.
“I have a great passion for it. I experienced it myself, in my household, growing up as a kid,” Williams said. “I tell people, it’s a learned behavior, a behavior that you have to focus not to be a part of — controlling your anger and being able to manage your anger [as well as] conflict resolution.”
Williams said that after seeing domestic violence at home, he developed a problem controlling his anger. When he was upset by any number of things he would find himself saying and doing things he normally wouldn’t. It had negative effects on his relationships, he said.
Not everyone was willing to call the wrongness of his behavior to his attention. But in time, he said, not being specific, that changed. “Fortunately, I had a companion who made me aware,” Williams noted. “That helped me out a lot.”
Realizing he had an anger management problem was the first step toward getting control of his emotions, and “understanding that it’s not them, it’s me,” Williams said. “In order for me to make my relationships work, I had to get counseling, and seek better guidance…. I had to address the fact that I had anger issues. I … talked to my minister, getting counseling both from my minister and from professional help. It helps a lot. It helps a lot. That way you learn how to channel your emotions in different ways… a better way. So I was able to do that.”
In his case, staying focused and listening to and accepting the counsel he was getting, Williams was able to see a change in his attitude and behavior in six to seven months. “Really, it’s like gradual change. You’re working on yourself…. Focus on the positive instead of the negative. And being able to communicate more and just listen,” he said.
For some people the seemingly simple matter of being willing to listen presents quite a challenge, Williams noted. For some it’s not easy to listen to someone else’s counsel, or to give up a need for power and control over the other people in their lives.
Most domestic violence contains an element of “power and control,” Williams said. “That power and control – it can be male or female – they want to have that control over you.”
Williams said he changed because he didn’t want to be “this guy” — the guy who lost control of his temper, and whose relationships suffered because of it.
Still, his experience is not atypical. When kids witness domestic violence, it affects their behavior, at home, at school and otherwise. That, experts agree, is a serious long-term problem.
An article in Frontiers in Public Health carries the title “Child-Witnessed Domestic Violence and its Adverse Effects on Brain Development: A Call for Societal Self-Examination and Awareness.” Written by Areti Tsavoussis, Stanislaw P. A. Stawicki, Nicoleta Stoicea, and Thomas J. Papadimos, the article makes the case that when children watch domestic violence happen, it can leave significant emotional scars.
“There is substantial evidence indicating that children who witness domestic violence (DV) have psychosocial maladaptation that is associated with demonstrable changes in the anatomic and physiological makeup of their central nervous system. Individuals with these changes do not function well in society and present communities with serious medical, sociological, and economic dilemmas… A child witness of DV, where no intervention occurs, may develop PTSD that results in permanent changes to their personality as well as their ability to interact effectively in society as an adult… there is a relationship between a history of childhood maltreatment and an internalizing of the symptoms of anxiety, depression, somatization, and externalizing antisocial behavior.”
The authors argue that “the commission of DV in the presence of a child should become a stand-alone felony.”
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network put it this way:
Children are exposed to or experience domestic violence in many ways. They may hear one parent/caregiver threaten the other, observe a parent who is out of control or reckless with anger, see one parent assault the other, or live with the aftermath of a violent assault. Many children are affected by hearing threats to the safety of their caregiver, regardless of whether it results in physical injury. Children who live with domestic violence are also at increased risk to become direct victims of child abuse. In short, domestic violence poses a serious threat to children’s emotional, psychological, and physical well-being, particularly if the violence is chronic.
Still, as Williams’ case demonstrates, even after witnessing violence at home, surviving children can see their lives change for the better. The same is true for adult victims.
More resources needed
From the standpoint of a longtime police officer — Williams has been on the job 20 years — more could be done to help those suffering under domestic abuse situations. “Domestic violence is a huge issue,” he said. “In my opinion, it needs to be given more attention. Yes, lawmakers say they want to eradicate domestic violence, they want to do this, want to do that. But, still, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. You got to put the resources there. There are resources there as far as counseling, but you’ve got to have personnel, too. …The majority of cases need investigation, need a follow up.”
More detectives trained in domestic violence cases would allow police to be more proactive than reactive, and prepare them to deal with cases that could involve anyone in a domestic situation regardless, for instance, of sexual orientation, Williams said.
Having more investigators would also allow police to go beyond outreach through workshops — often attended primarily by people who are not experiencing the problem. Outreach more directly with victims, he said, would give police officers opportunities to explain the available resources, and even to help people grapple with the idea that their situation may need to change. Many victims just need to see their way out of destructive living arrangements, and being under the burden of abuse may be obscuring their vision, he said.
“I have seen instances where the offender had the person so screwed up they didn’t go around their family, around their friends. They didn’t even work anymore,” Williams said. “The person wanted to know where they were 24 hours a day…. ‘You get paid, bring your paycheck here.’ People have got to understand, that’s not a right way to live,” Williams said. “A person controlling you like that can and will hurt you.”
The Birmingham Police Domestic Violence unit is part of the Special Victims Division, which also includes the Juvenile Unit, Project SAFE and Youth Services. For more information, visit police.birminghamal.gov.