The call came in reporting a domestic disturbance on the third floor of an apartment on Chicago’s West Side.
When Chicago Police Department officer Dan Dowling and his partner arrived at the scene that night three years ago, they saw a woman shaking alongside her two young children, who seemed nervous, too.
The officers separated the woman and her husband. The man seemed calm. After talking to the couple, the officers decided not to arrest the man because his wife insisted that nothing happened, and there weren’t any visible physical injuries on her or the children.
Though Dowling said he had a bad feeling about the situation, there wasn’t anything else they could do but advise the woman to dial 911 if things turned ugly.
Situations like this happen far too often.
“There are approximately 400 calls a night across the city on domestic violence,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last month at City Hall as he honored two police officers for their bravery on helping a domestic violence victim.
“About 10 percent of all the homicides in the city of Chicago are domestic related,” Mayor Emanuel said.
There are approximately 210,000 calls each year and 65,000 arrests stemming from those domestic violence reports, according to statistics compiled by the Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that analyzes data from criminal justice agencies.
“Domestic violence is unique. It is one of the few charges that I can actually arrest somebody and sign the complaint on their behalf,” Dowling said.
However, many charges don’t lead to convictions because victims are often reluctant to testify. Charges get dropped too often, victim advocates say.
Dowling said that may be why some police officers don’t push these cases.
One problem according to Tracy Siska, founder and executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, is that police are not as well trained as they should be in handling domestic violence cases.
The police and prosecutors should not be focused on winning a conviction but instead making the victim feel safe at that moment in her life, Siska said.
For many years, the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network has worked alongside law enforcement agencies such as CPD. They train and educate police departments, ensuring officers have the basic knowledge and skills to help victims professionally and to hold offenders accountable for their actions, said Lillian Cartwright, the network’s court watch program coordinator.
Cartwright emphasized the importance of commitment at the very top of a police agency.
“only goes so far if there isn’t institutional commitment to implement what is learned in those trainings,” she said. “There needs to be measures of accountability … all throughout the ranks of CPD, from the top down.”
Besides that, Siska said the rate of victimization that occurs within the CPD — among police officers who are abusing loved ones is high and the discipline system is not taken very seriously. That makes it hard for the police department to do its job efficiently, he said.
“It’s hard to imagine them taking abuse by others very seriously,” Siska said.
Cartwright said instead of relying on the criminal justice system for help, society needs to work together to create safe communities for victims.
“If we exert 90 percent of our energy toward building community and 10 percent toward responding to the actual violent incident rather than the other way around, I think that we would be in a more peaceful space,” Cartwright said. “Our role isn’t to rescue or to save, it’s to walk alongside someone.”
Domestic violence victims are less likely to pursue charges for several reasons, but ultimately it comes down to the control a man has over his family, advocates and experts say. Economic dependence, access to housing and the custody of their children also make it hard for a victim to leave her abuser.
“[We need] to make sure that there is adequate resources to help women get on their feet,” Siska said.
He said there’s a huge stigma to being victimized.
That’s why everyone needs to pay attention.
“Domestic violence is not a private matter, it’s a public crime,” said Mayor Emanuel. “It needs to be dealt with, it needs to be confronted.”