Why Believe?

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Credit: Tim Meacham

Have you ever witnessed something so fantastic that you could not accurately describe it to friends or family? Have you thought, “They would not believe this?” Yet, you tell your story anyway. You tell it with vim and vigor, hoping that people believe the unbelievable. Some will believe you and speak to how incredible your story is. Some will not believe, but simply tell you that there has to be some underlying explanation that has not revealed itself. You feel validated by those that believe; and, for those that do not, you still feel accepted and certainly not denigrated. Yet, you desire for all to believe.

I have worked in public safety for almost 30 years. I have heard a lot of amazing stories, and experienced many, many more; some of these stories humorous beyond belief, and some of them tragic beyond comprehension. I know that were I to reduce what I have witnessed and heard to writing, there would be those that do not believe. I accept that. No one wants to believe some of the choices people feel forced to make just to survive. No one wants to believe some of the desperate acts I have witnessed.

As a younger patrol officer, I knew my functions were: 1) answer calls for service (reactive policing); 2) provide high visibility patrol and handle problems as I find them (proactive policing); and, 3) get to know the people living in my patrol area (community policing). In reality, I spent most of my time answering calls for service. That is the nature of the beast for law enforcement. You are supposed to handle a call to some resolution, quickly document your actions and head out to the next call for service. Resolutions were difficult to manage at times. Sometimes I could refer to another agency like Social Services, a counseling center, a church, or another government or non-profit organization. Sometimes I could refer the matter to my department’s Investigative Unit. Whatever the situation, though, I had to handle it and move on.
Even in the small agencies (where there are about 20 officers in the entire department), calls for service can stack up. There were times when I could spend some time working with community members who needed some extra help in navigating the problem, but I was always supposed to “stay in my lane”, which was patrol. Patrol, for almost every police department, is the primary function. When it came to community members reporting serious crimes, I was required to determine if I had enough information to call out one of our detectives. To do this, I quickly asked the: who, what, when, where, how, and why questions. Usually, most patrol officers can go through this information in about ten minutes or less. The thinking behind this efficiency is: 1) I have other calls for service to answer; and, 2) if this crime just happened, we are losing precious time locating the offender by standing around and talking about it.

Crimes that the above mentioned form of questioning fails are crimes of intimate partner violence. Intimate Partner Violence (or IPV) crimes include domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. With these crimes, it is not always as easy as who, what, when, where, how, and why. I have learned through many years and many, many calls for service that survivors of IPV experience a lot of abuse that someone would not be expected to tolerate. The reasons for this tolerance are as varied as the number of survivors. This is not assigning blame to survivors. I mention only to explain that everyone’s experience of abuse is different and people can exist with abuse in their lives for many reasons.

Survivors of IPV have some of the most extraordinary stories to tell. These stories can and will exceed a belief threshold. IPV survivors know their stories are extraordinary. Because a victim of IPV has experienced the extraordinary, the question format of who, what, when, where, how, and why cannot scratch the surface of what happened to them. Because IPV survivors have suffered trauma, they, most likely, cannot tell you everything about who, what, when, where, how, and why; although they want to. When IPV survivors tell this extraordinary story of what happened to them, they want to be believed.

When IPV survivors tell their story, they hear, “Why did you go back to him/her?”; or, “Why did you let it go on this long”; or, “Why did you drink (or get drunk) with him/her?”; or, “Why did you wear those clothes?”; or, “Why didn’t you ______ (call for help, scream, fight back, say, “no”)?” These are the questions they hear from friends and family. The IPV survivor blames themselves more than they blame the offender. The saddest encounter for the IPV survivor, though, is when the police ask those same “why” questions. The people sworn to protect and serve instead blame and denigrate.

I have had uncountable number of people tell me that someone stole something from them. I have had innumerable people tell me that someone broke something that belonged to them. I have had numerous people tell me someone broke into their house. I have had copious amounts of people that someone hit them. I do not ever recall asking those victims if their behavior led to the criminal behavior of their offender. Instead, I have accepted what they said, recorded what they said and applied my authority as appropriately as possible in their situation.
Survivors of intimate partner violence deserve the same respect as other victims of crime. They deserve more compassion and less hurried response. Most of all, survivors of intimate partner violence deserve to be believed. A simple gesture such as talking to them in a place that is safe is a great start. Telling this person that they do not have to convince you that they are telling the truth lets them know, from the start, they will be believed. Instead of asking the: who, what, where, when, how, and why, simply ask them to describe their experience and thank them for trusting you. This response can lead to them feeling validated in telling their story. It is that simple.

Have you ever wanted to be believed when you had an extraordinary story to tell? I have. This is why I Believe.

Tim Meacham is a detective for a Central Virginia university. He is currently assigned to investigate criminal complaints of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. He has over twenty years of experience in Law Enforcement, beginning his career in 1990. Tim teaches sexual assault investigations for a local prosecutor’s office and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Tim earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 2009 from Liberty University in Criminal Justice, and earned his Master of Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, in 2011. Tim has worked for a private police department, a municipal police department and campus police department. His training background is in investigations, crime analysis, and accreditation.

Start By Believing is a campaign of End Violence Against Women International

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Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335.

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Two young women lost their lives to domestic violence in Prince William County last weekend.

Crystal Hamilton was doing what many of us do on Saturdays—she was at home with her family and making plans for her evening. She will never see her son become a teenager, graduate from high school, find the love of his life or perhaps even start a family. Her 11 year-old son has lost his mother and has endured a trauma that will forever change his relationship to his father, will forever leave him feeling unsure and unsafe. Ronald Hamilton is charged with killing Crystal, his wife.

Officer Ashley Guindon was doing what law enforcement officers do on Saturdays and every day of the week—responding to a 911 call indicating possible domestic violence. Having just started on the force, she will never know the feeling that comes with making a positive contribution to public safety. Whatever dreams she may have had for her future will never become a reality. Ronald Hamilton is charged with killing Officer Guindon as she approached his home and with shooting two other law enforcement officers who responded with her.

Crystal Hamilton is one of an estimated 50 people who will die in Virginia at the hands of their intimate partner this year. Like Crystal, most of those victims will be women killed by a current or former partner who uses a firearm.

Ashley Guindon is one of an estimated 50 law enforcement officers who will die responding to domestic violence in the United States this year. The majority of those deaths will occur as officers approach the scene…before they even have the opportunity to apply the skills they have learned for responding to domestic violence.

The media coverage and the response to these two deaths has caused me to pause and reflect in my work. Initial reports focused almost exclusively on the shootings of 3 police officers. There was immediate and heartbreaking coverage about the death of Officer Ashley Guindon and the fact that it was her first day on the job. Crystal Hamilton then became visible as coverage continued; she was often referred to as “his wife” or as “the victim” of domestic violence.

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picture credit: Fox5DC

The law enforcement community across the Commonwealth responded swiftly and viscerally to the killing of a fellow officer. Rituals reserved for this specific tragedy were there as a support and as a public statement in the wake of this trauma. These rituals gave language to the grief felt by colleagues. And as the posts from law enforcement officers past and present appeared on my Facebook page, as the articles appeared in the news, as policy leaders spoke in the media about Officer Guindon’s tragic death, I was keenly aware that those of us in the domestic violence victim advocacy community are nearly as invisible in the public conversations that follow domestic violence homicides as Crystal Hamilton was in the coverage of this event. Perhaps because we sadly witness these horrible deaths nearly once a week across the state. Maybe we are immobilized by the weight of all of the violence and trauma and death.

I can not help but wonder what might happen if we were no longer quiet in the wake of each domestic violence homicide. What might happen if we created public and powerful rituals around each death—to bring strength to the survivors, to help us through our fear and grief, to offer hope to our communities?

Two 29-year old women lost their lives on Saturday. They lost their lives to domestic violence–to a public safety and public health scourge that is preventable. Let us all remember both of these women as we continue to work together for safe and respectful relationships for all. ALL.

Links:

“Why Crystal Hamilton’s Life Matters Too”

#CrystalHamilton

Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for nearly 40 years. 

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Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org