Erin Bistricer
Senior Staff Attorney , Shalom Task Force: Sarah's Voice
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Challenging our awareness: Police response to domestic abuse

When Orthodox domestic abuse victims do call the police and don't get the help they need, community support is all the more important - and may be less forthcoming
Illustrative. (Adobe Stock Photo)
Illustrative. (Adobe Stock Photo)

Shaindy’s ex-husband follows her and yells at her on a public street. She calls 911 and is assured that a car has been sent. Ten minutes pass, then a half hour, with her ex hovering around her the whole time. Forty-five minutes after her initial call, Shaindy walks to the police station. It is only then that her ex-husband leaves her alone. She files a report, but her ex is not arrested because he fled the scene. Shaindy is scared that her ex will continue harassing her.

Talia gets numerous private and public messages from her ex-boyfriend on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. He calls her throughout the day leaving messages, begging her to get back together or cursing at her for not returning his calls. She recently spotted her ex by her job. She makes a police report, but the police do not investigate. Talia feels anxious all the time and cannot sleep.

Miriam goes to a precinct to report how her partner beat her the night before. She is traumatized. She asks to speak with the domestic violence officer but is told that the officer is not available until tomorrow between the hours of 12-2. They offer to make the police report that day, but she will need to do it in a crowded room with no privacy. Miriam leaves.

Yehudis’s husband punches her in the stomach and breaks her phone when she tries to call for help. A neighbor overhears screaming and calls the police. Yehudis’s husband is arrested and he is ordered not to come back to the home while the criminal charges are pending. Yehudis feels conflicted; she does not want her husband to face criminal charges, but she is also relieved that she now feels safe in her home.

Hadar speaks fluent Hebrew, and does not know English well. Her partner has a history of hitting her. She calls the police after her partner threatens to kill her. Hadar tells the police in broken English that her partner threatened her and has hurt her in the past but cannot express more detail in English. The police report says the couple argued. The police tell her to go to family court if she has more problems. Hadar does not know what the Family Court is.

Leah is leaving the marital residence, but her husband is not allowing her to get her personal belongings. She calls 911. When the police come, they tell her they have more important things to do and give her only 20 minutes to pack up. She is rushed out of the home and leaves behind lot of her belongings, including sentimental family photographs, personal documents, and her child’s favorite toys.

The above cases highlight the disconnect between individuals who seek police protection from abusive situations and the help they receive. They demonstrate that in order to address domestic violence in the Orthodox Jewish community, we cannot only focus on the existence of abuse. We must also address as a community how to better support victims. Improving police response is essential in assuring options and safety for those seeking help from violence.

I come across cases like these and others in my work for Shalom Task Force: a non-profit that provides free legal services to victim/survivors of domestic violence and educates young people about healthy relationships in the Orthodox Jewish community. As the senior staff attorney, I frequently receive calls from those who need help speaking with the police. Some are afraid to call them. Some are angry by the lack of response or insensitivity when they do call. Others have successfully connected with the police but are confused as to what will happen next.

As another domestic awareness month has come and gone, I ask myself what awareness really means. This year has been particularly complex as questions of policing, health/safety, and women’s issues are heavily debated on the national stage. As these topics swirl around in the news, I see how these issues directly speak to the questions that my clients face as they combat domestic violence.

Awareness for me used to be largely about educating on the dynamics of domestic violence. Yet, in my conversations with people who recognize that domestic violence is underreported in our community, there is still a simplistic, almost naïve, belief that survivors will receive “justice” if they come forward. This leads me to realize that awareness needs to involve more than an understanding of what domestic violence is. Attention needs to be called to the obstacles that abuse survivors experience in accessing victim services.

For many in the Orthodox Jewish community, there is a distrust of secular institutions and therefore fear of the police. There are multiple considerations that have long been explored in discussions about what may prevent a Jewish abuse victim from calling the police: community ostracization for making a “chillul hashem”; being perceived as giving up on “shalom bayit”; fear that contacting the police will lead to the involvement of children services; distrust of authority figures and fear of institutionalized anti-Semitism or cultural insensitivity; and doubt that the police will believe their experience.

Yet, for the caller who takes the significant step of contacting the police, I have not seen much discussion about how the caller is received. As the above stories illustrate, domestic abuse survivors in our community do call the police, but they do not always receive the help they need. I commonly review domestic incident reports that indicate that an “offense” – a crime – was committed but that no arrest was made. The reason for the lack of arrest is commonly left blank or states that the abuser was no longer “on scene.” Survivors are instead told to “file in Family Court.” In fact, filing in Family Court is a strategic decision that has implications a victim should be aware of.

Thus, callers must weigh not just whether the community will support the decision to call the police, but whether calling the police will exacerbate their safety concerns. For one who calls and does not get a satisfactory response, will this embolden their abuser to escalate his behavior? Will the caller feel broken down emotionally and be even more hesitant to seek help in the future?

In New York, domestic abuse survivors have the option of pursuing an order of protection against their abuser in two separate courts, or both: the criminal courts, which require police involvement and an arrest, and the civil family courts where the victim needs to start a case by filing for an order of protection. There are pros/cons to each forum and under the law the survivor is supposed to have a choice based on their specific needs. However, what these case stories show is that for many there is no choice because the police are not making an arrest required to initiate the criminal action.

In conversations with victims, they express frustration, anger, and fear. They are deflated. After mustering the courage to call an institution with which they have little familiarity, they are now left holding a pink piece of paper (the domestic incident report) and more questions about what to do next. They may feel confusion that their experiences were not important enough for police attention. This could lead them to dangerously downplay their abuse experience and justify the abuser’s actions – “It was not so bad; the police would have arrested him if it was.”

For others, they are left feeling hurt that they were cast aside by authorities from whom they sought help. It is yet another example of how their abuser has “won.”

The intersection between domestic violence and police interaction is complex. Advocacy efforts continue to improve the relationship between callers and the police. Progress has been made, including a revised domestic incident report form that is more comprehensive. However, as the nation ponders the role of policing in our communities, it is important to think about these questions and the work that still needs to be done.

The described barriers to police access are not limited to Orthodox Jewish domestic violence victims, but also to abuse survivors in other communities and general crime victims. These different communities have the same goal of ensuring that they are treated sensitively when reporting a crime and receiving protection. Being aware of the commonalities that domestic violence survivors share with other groups can create a louder voice to highlight their needs and decrease their sense of isolation.

We expect the police to be there for those who reach out to them, but there is still a long way to go that can only be accomplished by reform. Even commonplace and basic changes can meaningfully improve victim experience: providing language services to crime victim, expanding available social service support services within the police department, increasing access to the domestic violence officer and providing survivors with a private space to create a report, timely responding to calls, increased training for tech abuse and cultural considerations in minority communities, and having a transparent process in place for victims who wish to make a complaint against police response, including a mechanism for the victim to follow up on their complaint.

Trust in the police is important but we will not get there without awareness of the obstacles that still impede access to the criminal justice system. With this awareness hope for improvement awaits.

About the Author
Erin Bistricer, ESQ, is a Senior Staff Attorney for Sarah's Voice, a legal project of Shalom Task Force that provides free legal services to New York domestic violence victim-survivors from the Orthodox Jewish community. Erin is passionate about bringing awareness of domestic abuse related issues to the court system. Erin has litigated complex order of protection, custody, support, divorce, and immigration cases. Her work often involves the intersection between the civil courts and the rabbinical courts (Beth Dins). She has helped numerous callers navigate the differences between these two forums and has strategized and advocated for clients on issues relating to the religious divorce (“Get”). If you are interested in speaking with Sarah's Voice, please contact us by calling or texting 347-592-2124 or emailing us at legalintake@shalomtaskforce.org.
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