President Donald Trump has repeatedly said one of his top issues is protecting police officers; the White House website even included “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community” as part of its priorities. But his budget proposal, which includes cuts to federally funded domestic violence programs, says otherwise. These changes, combined with any additional state cuts, would put countless lives in jeopardy—because as we see frequently reported in the news, officers are more often killed when responding to domestic dispute calls than other calls.
A 2016 report from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services cited domestic dispute calls as being the most dangerous domestic calls for police to respond to.
Ashley Guindon, Scott Bashioum, Nicholas Ryan Smarr, Jody Smith, Houston James Largo, Alex K. Yazzie, Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez, Carl Howell, Daryle Holloway, and Lloyd Reed: These are just a few of the police officers who have been killed while responding to domestic disturbance calls in the past three years.
Officer Scott Bashioum was shot on November 10, 2016, while on duty with his partner, Jimmy Saieva. Michael Cwiklinski, a 47-year-old with a history of domestic violence, fought with his pregnant wife, 28-year-old Dalia Sabae, a native of Egypt. Neighbors called the police at 3:15 a.m. After killing Bashioum and injuring Saieva, Cwiklinski reportedly pulled the trigger and killed Sabae. Shortly after the killings, he died by apparent suicide.
Sabae had previously filed for a protection-from-abuse (PFA) order. Reports claim she was restricted in her ability to remove herself from the situation due to the immense control Cwiklinski held over her. According to one local report, when police asked Sabae about past incidents of physical violence, she explained, “He will have sex with me even if I say no … he used sex as a way to threaten me about my green card.”
At the time of the murder, Sabae had a second PFA; a judge dismissed the first one when she failed to show up to court.
Cwiklinski enacted classic abuse tactics such as isolation, threats, violence, and emotional control. In the past, he had reportedly prevented his wife from receiving medical care for injuries he had inflicted. Horrifically, this story is not an isolated case.
In 2016, Officer Ashley Guindon died on her first shift after responding to a domestic dispute where Crystal Hamilton, a Black woman, was murdered by her husband as their 11-year-old son was reportedly fleeing the house.
Black women are three times more likely to be victims of partner homicide than people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. They are also less likely than other populations to seek help when suffering abuse, according to legal experts and advocates.
If Hamilton had been protected from her spouse, Guindon by extension would have seen similar protections.
The Importance of Officer Training
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), signed into law as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, officially recognized domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault as crimes nationwide. Nonfatal incidents of intimate partner violence declined 67 percent from 1994 to 2012, and the number of women killed by their partner decreased 24 percent between 1994 and 2010 and by 26 percent between 1996 and 2012. Before VAWA, intimate partner violence was often treated as a private matter not to be spoken about outside of families. Now it is seen by many at all levels of our society as a problem that needs a public solution.
VAWA has provided funding for more than half a million criminal justice employees every year including law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges. This training teaches officers how to understand the injuries commonly seen in domestic violence incidents and to be able to identify the true perpetrator (the difference between injuries caused by self-defense and other injuries). This training, as 27-year police veteran Officer Michael LaRiviere explained in an interview with the Trace, teaches officers to understand the dynamics of domestic violence.
According to LaRiviere, “That’s why training is so important—both to understand the dynamics of domestic violence and also the safety piece. If you don’t get through it safely, you’re not going to help anybody.”
When that knowledge is absent, officers are ill-equipped to safely approach DV confrontations. Police training on de-escalation techniques is sorely lacking in regions across the country, and more intensive overhauls are needed. Increased funding for noncriminal services and improved training for officers helps contribute to a steady decline of DV and protects officers who respond to domestic disturbances.
Every fiscal year, Congress appropriates funds to VAWA and several other important programs that support domestic violence victims—such as the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). VAWA has received bipartisan support since its inception, though in 2013 Republicans stalled its reauthorization for months before reinstating it as law. The automatic budget cuts caused significant damage.
Now, the proposed budget would further limit these programs. On the chopping block is funding that supports law enforcement training and support, which have been strongly correlated with lower rates of aggravated assault and rape.
To be sure, the current funding levels have been inadequate, as demands outpace the resources available. According to a chart produced by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, federal appropriations for State Victim Assistance Grants for VOCA declined by $370 million between 2016 and 2017. Budget restraints due to reductions in government spending have resulted in staff layoffs and service cuts nationwide. Stipulations on federal funding awarded to domestic violence programs also have forced organizations to look elsewhere for funding.
Stephanie Nilva, the executive director of Day One, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that works with youth to combat domestic violence, said in an email interview with Rewire that the risks to domestic violence survivors are multifaceted. She explained, “Domestic violence shelters and organizations rely on grants that range from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars and more. Those grants fund counselors who support survivors suffering from trauma; offer a safe place to sleep for someone who fled a home with children; help a teenager get an order of protection against a classmate stalking them. From another angle, removing or redirecting resources that support enforcement of Title IX … places young people at extreme risk.”
Rebuilding Community Trust
Cutting funding to domestic violence programs puts officers and victims at greater risk. Further, Trump’s tough on crime stance adds to the erosion of community trust between police officers and the residents they are theoretically there to protect.
Many police departments have put out public statements claiming that the hardline stance Trump has taken on law enforcement puts public safety at risk and destroys trust in communities. Criminologists agree and point to the decades of research that proves America’s tough-on-crime system has been a “massive failure.”
So, while many do contact the police for intimate partner violence, some people—often those most in need of support—do not, in part because of a lack of trust.
Two-thirds of women victims thought the police would either not believe them or do nothing, according to a study from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. More than half of women believe getting the cops involved would make things worse. A study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that almost half of those included in the study who sought sanctuary in a battered women’s shelter never sought help from police.
One group that experiences high levels of anxiety related to police involvement is immigrant women. They experience an extra level of vulnerability that U.S. citizens do not; their place in the country is strictly regulated via a complex system of immigration laws, and they may be entirely dependent on their spouse if their spouse is a citizen and the victim is not.
For those who do contact the police, one-third of those who did reported that they felt less safe after contacting the police, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline study. Programs offered through VAWA could help to bridge the gap between needing help and seeking help from law enforcement.
True, such programs won’t change relationships between police and communities overnight. For people of color, relying on the criminal justice system to solve domestic violence is extremely concerning. Historical and current events make it clear that racism and anti-Blackness are rife among law enforcement. The consequences of this have been deadly. Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant Black woman, was shot and killed when police responded to a call she made earlier this year to report a burglary.
Those who identify as LGBTQ are also particularly vulnerable. Some surveys have found that 50 percent of trans-identifying individuals have reported being hit by their partner when they came out as trans. The data available are scarce and more research is needed, but it is estimated that less than 3 percent of trans folks who experience abuse report it. Police harassment and discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community is an ongoing problem that may prevent many from seeking help.
These are exactly the sorts of issues the administration should be focused on, instead of suggesting officers increase incidents of police brutality.
As Nilva explained, “Additional issues would arise with funding cuts to programs that support services for LGBTQ and immigrant or undocumented survivors. Members of these groups face grave danger and compounded barriers accessing help from law enforcement, language access issues.”
Additionally, Nilva said, “People who share these identities are experiencing daily attacks from the administration. Providers … are seeing increased demand from young people anxious about their immigration status or survivors of sexual assault requesting counseling because they are being triggered by an onslaught of misogynistic language and behavior among government officials.”
When services that support DV survivors are shuttered, the survivors who sought help there are frequently forced to return to their abuser. Homelessness is a huge problem for abuse survivors. It isn’t a hypothetical; according to an annual survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, more than 12,000 people are turned away from domestic violence service providers on any given day.
Evidence shows this is a major problem, one that only worsens when the government cuts funding designed to bolster needed resources. There is no way to stop all IPV, and we seem to be light years away from preventing abuse. We must continue fighting against the domestic violence that threatens victims and those coming to their aid. The way to do that is by increasing support services for affected people and training for officers, while also working to dismantle the systems that perpetuate racism and violence.