Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies and Law Enforcement, Part 2 of 2

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

This piece is the third in the blog series, “Dreaming Up a More Liberated Future” which will explore how we (as a country, and as a movement to end gender-based violence) have prioritized expanding and strengthening punishing systems over helping strategies, the impact of those choices on survivors of trauma and their communities, and how we can do better.

Over the past twenty-four years since the passage of robust domestic and sexual violence legislation in Virginia discussed in part one (“Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies and Law Enforcement, Part 1 of 2: A Movement History from a Systems Advocate“), I have worked closely and formed positive relationships with many individual law enforcement officers, prosecutors, court clerks, judges, and corrections personnel, many of whom are passionate, dedicated public servants who want improve our justice system. In some jurisdictions, the response to sexual and intimate partner violence has improved for some individuals. When we examine fatality statistics, we find that while we have slightly reduced the number of white women killed by intimate partners, the rate of Black women being similarly killed remains horrifyingly steady, and is three times that of white women.

Having spent the past ten-or-so years working in communities, and with law enforcement, to address the concern of police response to marginalized communities, coupled with my past 35+ years of working to change the criminal legal response to this violence, I have conceded that even hundreds of good and passionate people cannot fix such a broken system. This is a truth that women of color have been saying since the inception of the modern movement to end gender-based violence.

While the movement to end gender-based violence has always used multiple strategies to address this violence, none have commanded more investment of time and resources with as little progress as the criminal legal system. It remains a system that works for a few at the expense of many, requires constant monitoring to keep it working for those few, and is entrenched in domination, control, fraternity, and self-protection.

Train tracks at a switch in brown tones. Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash.

Beyond law enforcement, our criminal legal system is built on a foundation that most often compels defendants to lie and withhold rather than accept responsibility for their actions. It offers punishment rather than restoration. Once victims and defendants are engaged in this system, they are again on that moving train that leads neither to healing, restoration, or reconciliation, but to additional dehumanization. In some cases, the system can provide physical safety for victims and others, particularly around the effective enforcement of civil options like protective orders.

This brings me to our system of corrections. With 2.3 million people incarcerated, the U.S. has the largest prison population of any industrial nation. Virginia, where 779 people for every 100,000 are incarcerated, stands out internationally with rates higher than the U.S. overall, as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Italy. More than 50% of those incarcerated individuals are Black. According to a 2014 study by the Virginia Department of Corrections, our state spends $27,462 annually per inmate. This is an enormous investment in a system that has little or nothing to do with healing, rehabilitation, and restoration. Imagine if we invested into violence prevention just a portion of what it costs to incarcerate an individual.

So, let us return to this whole issue of defunding the police, and some of the questions raised in part one of this blog. While I believe we will always need some type of “law enforcement” to help protect and deter some bad behavior, I do not believe it has to look anything like it now does in this country, and I believe our movement can actively work towards a transformation of our current criminal legal system.

So, what is a systems advocate to do? For one, keep working to make changes. Reflect on your own behaviors and interactions with survivors. Hold yourself accountable first. Then, connect with law enforcement officers and others who work within the criminal legal system who want to create a system that is more responsive to victims. Practice holding folks accountable —  this is how we all learn about accountability and what it can look like. Do not just “go along to get along” — call out behaviors that are harmful, and call in the ones who are engaging in those behaviors. Practice being direct, honest, kind, and respectful – never complicit. When an officer, SART member, CCR member or other colleague is engaging in behaviors that are not in alignment with healing-centered values, let them know, and make suggestions on how that can change.

If our focus is on creating relationships and spaces that center the values of consent, understanding, compassion, kindness, restoration and accountability, and we ourselves are acting out of those values, then we are being effective agents of change.

Dismantling systems of oppression and harm can’t happen overnight. Transforming our systems to promote resilience, healing and thriving may take even longer. As advocates, we can speed up that process by being conscious, directed, active participants in the building of safe, equitable, just, and liberated communities. We can continue to work towards safety and justice for victims in partnership with individual law enforcement officers, prosecutors, magistrates, and judges, while simultaneously transforming the systems in which they exist.

Photo of a dirt trail amid green foliage and trees in Shenandoah National Forest. Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash.

I have been fortunate in my years as an advocate. I have seen our system work to bring safety, healing, justice, accountability, and even liberation. It was individuals that made that happen — all of us working together with the same outcome in mind: safety, healing, justice, accountability, and liberation. It happened because we all stretched ourselves, believed in possibilities, treated each other with respect and compassion, and held one another accountable when we lost sight of those values. Only by not allowing ourselves to be defined by a flawed system can we bring about the transformation we long for.

By developing skills for community accountability, we can rely less heavily on the old systems of control, domination, and punishment. When we practice community accountability while engaging with friends, family members, co-workers, and individuals within those systems, we are being the change we want to see – we are actively teaching others and modeling accountability. When we act on our values, we bring about change; when we become complicit with systems of domination, they change us.

We may never get to a place where community safety doesn’t require isolation of some individuals, but we will never get to a place where sexual and intimate partner violence no longer exist if we do not change course and focus on a long-term vision for ending violence. We cannot continue to rely on law enforcement and the justice system to be the only place accountability exists – this not only gives those systems too much power, but also places an unfair burden on one system. When we center our values, there are many ways to hold someone accountable for their behavior.

If we are willing to embrace a “both/and” approach to ending sexual and intimate partner violence, to practice being accountable as well as holding others accountable, to engage in dialogue, to continue to learn and grow, to be open to change and possibility, and to live into our values, we can create a world where all relationships are healthy and safe. Moving forward in our work to end sexual and intimate partner violence requires us to invest in a bold vision for our future while balancing our day-to-day work in a way that allows us to care for ourselves and our colleagues. There is still much work to be done — let us make sure our spaces center the values we espouse.

Further reading: Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators by Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan

Photo of a person smiling while holding her hand under her chin and cheek.

Ruth Micklem is the Action Alliance’s Community Initiatives Manager. As a trainer and passionate advocate of justice for more than 35 years, Ruth has worked with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, magistrates, corrections personnel, elected officials, and community advocates across Virginia to improve the community response to sexual and intimate partner violence. She believes that active engagement and relationship building, combined with truth telling and collaborative problem solving are key to creating a world where justice and equity exist. Ruth also advocates with constant gentle (sometimes not so gentle) pressure, tenacity, and effective strategic planning in bringing about change that shapes an effective community response and sustains a thriving community for everyone.

The first blog in the series, “Dreaming Up a More Liberated Future,” can be found here: “Punishment is Not Accountability.”

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