By Rachel Bussett
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month but December is when I tend to see violence flair.
Tensions are high with the business of the season, the close proximity of family and the added stress of holiday buying. Relationships teetering on the brink of ending tend to go over the edge.
Lately I’ve felt like there has been a slew of new cases in this area. In particular I have a close friend going through this and law enforcement has not been supportive.
An attorney, like law enforcement, has to keep an open mind to get to the bottom of what really happened. However, that doesn’t mean that common sense and gut feelings should abandon you. If something feels like abuse, sounds like abuse, and looks like abuse, then odds are it’s abuse.
In my role as a defense attorney I’ve had to defend people on criminal charges for domestic violence that I thought were inflated and should not have been filed but at the same time, I understand that officials would rather be safe than sorry when a victim is complaining. So what do we do?
Well, as first line to see what’s happening law enforcement needs to spend time talking to the alleged victim to get to the bottom of what’s happening.
When an alleged victim is in a relationship that results in a Victim’s Protective Order with a no contact order, when the opposing party starts contacting the victim or the children if the children have been included in the order, there is a violation. When law enforcement is contacted, they have a duty to respond to the complaints, in my opinion the response should not be “call me when there is a real violation.”
Violence starts with harassment and intimidation and escalates. It concerns me when an alleged aggressor cannot follow a simple rule like “do not contact the victim in any capacity.” It further concerns me when law enforcement cannot take that order seriously as how is the victim supposed to be protected?
I understand that officers are concerned about victims using VPOS as a weapon in a divorce or custody case and that is widely inappropriate, but I have found that to be the exception and not the rule. This is where my frustration lies.
In my experience, it takes a lot for a woman to come forward and disclose abuse. We are trained to overlook it. Boys hit you in grade school because they “like you.” Your boyfriend is being protective of you he’s not isolating you from your friends. The client who makes vague threats and innuendo when I or my staff won’t be intimidated, I’ve e been told “Well Ms. Bussett you just misunderstood his intent.”
No, that’s not OK for me or anyone else to be talked to that way. I promise you that I have overlooked a lot of inappropriate conduct and comments long before I got to the point of calling the police. Why? For me, I don’t want to be called a vindictive female who cried wolf. When a victim does finally call it’s not OK for the police to make light of the situation.
From working in this field so long, I know and have experienced that it is not necessary for a victim to be cooperative for the police to file charges. So why do we have these problems? I submit part of the problem is we punish cruelty to animals more harshly than we do cruelty to humans.
Under 21 OS 1685 – cruelty to animals charges are automatically subjected to being charged with a felony regardless of the manner of abuse. However, as per 21 OS 644 domestic abuse against a spouse or former spouse starts as a misdemeanor and does not escalate to being charged as a felony until it is either the second or subsequent offense or the offender uses a weapon or strangulation.
Further, under the statute, the first time an offender commits assault and battery on a pregnant woman with knowledge of the pregnancy, such acts are only a misdemeanor and only when it’s a second or subsequent offense is it charged as a felony.
I’m one of the last people to argue for an increase in our prison populations in Oklahoma but I have always thought that these statutes were odd. Mistreatment of an animal is automatically a felony but mistreatment of a person, especially a pregnant person has a sliding scale of liability. This falls under things that make me say “Hmmm?”
Additionally, the ability to get a VPO is limited. First, there has to be some sort of blood or dating relationship. If there is no familial or blood relationship then there has to be a police report. Well you know what experience tells me that the police don’t want to file a report. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked clients “did you file a police report?” and the answer I receive is “no I called the police but they told me they weren’t filing the report.”
First of all that is not acceptable. If you call the police there is a record of the call. Second of all if you make a report, then they have to take the report. They cannot “refuse to write a police report.” Literally their whole purpose is to handle reports of crime and prevent crime. Officers please do your job. Refusing to write a report is not reporting and preventing crime.
I understand that you have many important things to do but if a victim is calling you and reporting harassment, be polite and respectful, do your investigation and write your report. If you do that then you’re either going to clear a suspect whose name is being besmirched or you’re going to protect a person who believes they are a victim. Either way it’s a win-win situation!!!
If there is no familial/dating relationship between the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator, then the filing of the police report and the follow through by the officer are critical for the individual to seek protection.
Oklahoma law only allows a non-dating/non-familial relationship to have a victims protective order if there have been police reports on harassment and stalking. It is critical that the victims report and that law enforcement take seriously these reports of criminal activity.
A VPO may only be a piece of paper, but that piece of paper is often the first line of defense for victims of harassment and stalking to have criminal charges filed. Today harassment and stalking moves over into internet crimes as well. Revenge porn and social media blasting are also forms of harassment and stalking and our laws have not fully caught up to all the changes in technology.
If you are the victim of domestic abuse, stalking or harassment please reach out and seek help. Oklahoma has many resources available to victims. The YWCA has shelters and will help. They can be reached at 405-948-1770.
Palomar in Oklahoma City has resources for victims and families of abuse and can be reached at 405-552-1010. The domestic violence hotline is 1800-799-SAFE (7233). Please seek help if you or someone you love is the victim of abuse. Love should not hurt.
Rachel Bussett is an Oklahoma City attorney. She can be reached at 405-605-8073 or Rachel@BussettLegal.com