My opinion piece regarding the plight of my friend Eliana Lopez  and San Francisco’s approach to handling domestic violence in her case has generated a lot of discussion since it was printed last week. I have heard from a lot of folks who tell me that it has challenged their assumptions about the particular situation but also about the unintended outcomes of handling all domestic violence through the criminal justice system. It has also generated quite a bit of defensiveness from some anti-domestic violence advocates, who have suggested that questioning their methods is an attack on their goals – it is not, and people who dedicate themselves to helping victims of domestic violence have my very highest respect and admiration.
So allow me elaborate that a little further on that point:
No one is advocating for the return to the bad old days when we looked away from the abuse of women. I am pointing out that for many, having the police automatically open a criminal investigation, regardless of the nature of the problem, which is then followed by prosecution, is a strong deterrent to seeking help. Defining progress by rates of conviction while we know that more than half of domestic abuse incidents go unreported suggests that something in our approach is not working.
Domestic violence seldom begins with a murder. It usually begins with the putdowns, the sarcasm, the psychological and emotional abuse, and then, often, to escalating levels of physical abuse. Of course, not every guy who makes sarcastic remarks will eventually hit his girlfriend. Instead of opening a criminal case when the first call comes in from an affected party or a well-meaning neighbor, how about we create a support system within mental health and family support that has a trained health professionals who can answer questions and guide a path to rehabilitation?
San Francisco has led the way in showing the country how an integrated, public health-oriented healthcare system, community rooted and accessible to all, ought to be run. We have the technology already to share data among health care professionals that can be immediately transferred to criminal justice professionals when needed. A system that has only one gear -- criminal prosecution -- that treats women as children, robs them of their voice and their rights, and renders them incapable of making their own decisions at the slightest evidence or even accusation of abuse is a system that needs to evolve. We can do better. We need to stop domestic violence while at the same time working towards equal rights and the empowerment of all women individually and as a whole. Those two things must never be mutually exclusive goals.
Despite the strong reactions my opinion has generated in the past week among people who defend the current system, no one has addressed the problem that the zero-tolerance criminalization approach has created in communities where there is fear of the police. It seems that everyone wants to talk about Eliana Lopez, mostly as an appendage of Ross Mirkarimi, but the many women facing this issue remain seemingly invisible in this conversation, their fears and issues unaddressed. I have heard from immigrants’ rights advocates that they have been voicing these concerns for years, and have gotten nowhere within the domestic violence community. We can do better.
In her essay on March 29 in the Huffington Post , Andrea Shorter of the Commission on the Status of Women explains that the current system for dealing with domestic violence came about as the implementation of 84 recommendations by a group of advocates in response to the gruesome 2000 murder of an Asian immigrant woman at the hands of her boyfriend. In the past 12 years, great progress has been made in reducing domestic violence related homicide rates, both in San Francisco and across the country.
But 12 years is a long time, and a critical look at the system that we have created is needed. It's important to note that immigrant women are still overrepresented in the domestic-violence homicide statistics in San Francisco. We can do better. We need a system that is both capable of responding quickly and decisively to cases where women’s security or lives are at stake, but of also handling the far more numerous and ambiguous cases in which domestic troubles have not reached that point, but in which families need help to make sure that they do not.
Finally, I feel I must address a couple of the specific accusations that have been made that are just not true. I have never worked for Ross Mirkarimi. I didn’t even contribute to his campaign. (It is, after all, possible for a woman to have an opinion independent of a man’s agenda). I care about my friend Eliana, and the issue of domestic violence. My interest was in addressing what I saw as an thoughtless reaction both by our government and much of our media, which produced results that were needlessly cruel and counter-productive to the people directly involved, and that also, ironically given the supposed purpose of the whole exercise, sent a bad message on how to respond to domestic violence.