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Not a private matter: Domestic abuse center takes a stand on Ross Mirkarimi



Sheriff Mirkarimi had many supporters when he was facing losing his job, but there were also many vocal opponents to his reinstatement. In fact, the majority of San Franciscans polled did not want Mirkarimi as Sheriff after his conviction. “Citizens for an Accountable Sheriff” was created calling for his resignation – and many women’s rights activists spoke out against Mirkarimi’s reinstatement during the ethics committee hearing when they were considering his case. Among them was Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa de las Madres, a local shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“It defies common sense that a sheriff convicted of a domestic violence crime would then oversee the incarceration and rehabilitation of others convicted of committing these crimes,” said Black. “I’m concerned about the message it would send to survivors and batterers if one of our city’s top public safety officials is permitted to stay in office after admitting to a domestic violence crime.”

Jamie Cox is Outreach and volunteer Coordinator for La Casa de las Madres. She says this past year, calls to La Casa have gone up over 20 percent – and that partly the reason is increased awareness about the issue and about the help that La Casa can provide. KALW’s Holly Kernan asked her to explain why as an organization, La Casa chose to take a stand on the Mirkarimi case.

JAIME COX: We felt compelled to speak out that one of our top public safety officials in San Francisco admitted to having committed a violent act against his wife, under oath, and admitted that, at the time he knew it was a crime and was convicted of a domestic violence crime, was sentenced to batterer intervention for three years. We felt that San Francisco deserves better, along the way our community was hearing a lot of messages minimizing the abuse. These instances in the media are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the prevalence of abuse. What actually gets covered in the media or actually gets reported to the police is just a small fraction of people’s experiences. So we want to make sure that people that are out there in their homes, feeling alone and isolated, being told it is there fault, that no one cares, that they feel like there is help available. The person who is in that leadership position should be a reflection of our community’s response – and those are the messages we want our community to hear from our leaders.

HOLLY KERNAN: Tell us about the billboard.

COX: The billboard read that domestic violence is never a private matter.

KERNAN: So this is responding to something that Ross Mirikami said at the time – that “this is a private family matter.”

COX: Right. This was in response to that message, which has been used historically to minimize and to keep people silent. It is a particular phrase that the anti-domestic violence community and La Casa has worked for years to stop – that belief that it is just a private family matter. Again, this is something the public needs to take seriously. People need to know that there are safe places for them to get help if they are experiencing it. So when that was said, we felt that it was important to counteract that. That it isn’t a private family matter – it is a crime. It is a public health concern. It is something that we as a community should all take seriously and pay attention to. The billboard also included our 24-hour hotline number, for those that might be feeling unsafe or are concerned about their relationship and want to talk to someone.

KERNAN: Let me be the libertarian here and point out that his wife, Eliana Lopez didn’t want help, wasn’t seeking help.

COX: What we know that 70 percent or so of victims choose to recant or choose not to work with law enforcement. I can’t speak to her situation or her choices, but that is the data that we have more broadly. There are so many reasons why that might happen. For some, there may be a fear of retaliation. There may be emotional manipulation to create sympathy for the person they love and care about and don’t want to see go to jail or face repercussions. There can be a lot of reasons for that. And I don’t intend to speak for her specifically. But I think that our system is set up in a way, the criminal justice system is setup so that survivors of domestic violence don’t have to participate, they don’t have to cooperate with law enforcement or choose to press charges. It is the state – it is a crime against the state. So that process can happen without that person having to testify against their loved one.

KERNAN: I think when a lot of us think about domestic violence, we think about violent battery. Do you include emotional abuse? What is your definition?

COX: Domestic violence is an escalating pattern in which one person exerts control over their partner. There are many ways in which that control can manifest. We think of it as a number of things that can include emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, physical abuse, as well as things like isolation. Really, preventing someone from seeing friends and family or from seeking services or keeping them physically in the home, preventing them from working. Intimidation and threats.

KERNAN: It is hard to wrap my head around something that is that broad and it feels like it is hard to know what is the line between someone being a jerk for a day or an hour or a minute and a pattern of abuse.

COX: That is a great question – and that is where we would look at the pattern piece, escalating pattern. Domestic violence, generally speaking, is different, but it often happens in a cycle. There is the hearts and flowers and honeymoon phase where things might feel really good and positive, with bonds of love and commitment. Often times, after that, a period of tension building where you hear people say a lot “I feel like I’m walking on eggshells all the time. Where every little thing I do might set them off.”  It doesn’t have to be something physical. The way our legal system defines domestic violence is different from our definition, but I am speaking for La Casa when I say that we define it as an escalating pattern of control, where there is an imbalance of power in the relationship that can be used to manipulate and coerce and intimidate.

KERNAN: Can perpetrators of domestic abusers be reformed?

COX: I think it takes that person to be totally committed to and ready to accept and change their behavior. We do believe that domestic violence is a learned behavior. Someone has often learned from the course of their lifetime, from various messages, and various places that that person really wants to change their behavior and get very specific intervention for that. That is where the minimum of 52 weeks of battery intervention comes in, because it has been found that if this is a pattern of behavior that someone has learned throughout the course of their lifetime, even 52 weeks is not a lot. You have to unlearn that behavior and really change the way a person thinks and acts. So yes, I do think it is possible. I also think it is then about that person choosing to use the tools that battery intervention program provides. You will hear battery intervention program experts, our partners at RSVP, say it isn’t about whether the battery intervention program works or doesn’t work – it is about that individual choosing to utilize the tools that it provides. If that happens, then yes, it can work. There are a lot of things that have to be in place for that person. In terms of their readiness and acceptance and decision to change.

Click the audio player above to listen to the interview. 

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.