We can’t incarcerate our way out of this
By Cat Brooks
Sep. 16, 2021
Las Vegas, Nevada circa 1992.
I was 17 when I met him. In the rooms of a 12-step program. Scared. Alone. Confused. He was 28 and my sponsor’s boyfriend. Charming. Funny. Handsome. I didn’t realize I was being lured in until I was trapped. Though that’s not what I would have called it then. I was a kid. I thought I was in love.
The verbal abuse started first. A “bitch” here. A “whore” there. A slow wearing down of my confidence. An erosion of myself esteem.
At 19, we were married. Eloped in Reno. Off to college I went. But that wouldn’t last long. He needed me, he said. Home I came.
The hitting began.
A slap here. A punch there.
One night, I came home from rehearsal late. He was incensed. Where had I been? Who had I been with?
I laid on the floor. Bloody. Bruised.
I heard him make a call.
“My wife has attacked me and I need the police.”
He was white. I was Black.
I was relieved. The police were coming. The beating would stop.
The police arrived.
They were white.
Talked to me. Talked to him.
I was covered in bruises.
He had a scratch.
The cops decided that I was the primary aggressor.
A law my mother had fought for and won. She was a frontline DV warrior in the desert. The law stated that law enforcement’s job was to determine who “started it” and that was the person who went to jail.
They called the transport cop. We waited.
Transport cop arrived. Moved directly toward him.
“Not him,” the responding cop says. “Her.”
“Please turn around ma’am.”
I hate that sound. The sound of cuffs.
Cheap metal. Promises of pain.
My freedom and my dignity were squeezed into two small metal cuffs.
On the way to the car, he apologizes. He knew it was wrong.
He was brown. I was Black.
They were white.
We knew what it was.
I was in jail for a little less than 24 hours.
Released into an alley with 30 men.
There he was.
With a rose and a teddy bear.
Then got in the car to go home.
The D.A. tried to throw the book at me.
His red face even redder with the excitement of punishing me.
But my abuser wasn’t done with me yet.
He bombed the prosecution’s case.
He wanted me home. Not in jail.
Case dismissed. I was free.
Well, kind of.
I left not too long after that. My mother had to get involved so the cat was out of the bag as it were.
I had learned a valuable lesson.
The cops were not my friend.
Like all of us, I had been taught from a young age that the police were who you called for help. They were who you called when you were in trouble. They were supposed to stop bad things from happening.
But that night, like thousands of other battered women have learned, I came to understand the police made things worse, criminalized the survivor and had the potential to be just as violent and deadly as my abuser.
I had no way to know it then, but this incident would later be part of the bedrock of my political work to build alternative responses to community crisis.
My lived experience would shape my argument that police were not who survivors, families or communities needed to find a pathway out of violence and pain toward healing and peace.
And then there’s the data.
75 percent of survivors who called the police for help concluded that police involvement made them feel less safe according to a 2015 survey by the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
25 percent of those surveyed said they were either arrested or threatened with arrest when engaging police around partner abuse or sexual assault. Citing concerns of prejudice, invasion of privacy, wanting to protect their partners and children or concern that the cops would make the violence worse – about 50 percent of survivors never called the police at all.
The Anti Police-Terror Project grounds our work in the ethos that those closest to the problem are best equipped to design the solution. Survivors have clearly said they want alternatives to law enforcement, they are not utilizing law enforcement and that more violence will not bring them peace.
But municipalities, institutions and the so-called criminal “justice” system continue to ignore the demands of survivors with an almost paternalistic response to domestic violence. Forcing law enforcement onto survivors who reject them means there is no one to call for help, thus abandoning survivors to suffer in silence, ensuring ongoing abuse, placing the lives of them and their children in grave jeopardy.
American jails and prisons are some of the most violent institutions in the world. Where is the logic in sending perpetrators of violence into violence, providing them with no resources or support and then spitting them back into our communities to start the cycle all over again?
Strong and healthy families are some of our most powerful vehicles for creating safe communities. This means we must heal all of the parties involved, survivors and perpetrators. Whether families choose to stay together – or not – we should be focused on interrupting the trauma cycles that cause violence and healing the entire family through a transformative justice paradigm.
On the heels of our successful Mental Health First program, which provides non 9-1-1 responses to mental health crisis, the Anti Police-Terror Project has spent the last year and a half working with frontline domestic violence advocates to build a non 9-1-1 response to interpersonal violence.
The key principles of our model are:
- Local, Local, Local! A community first model will be most effective if it is highly localized — at the neighborhood level, or even block by block.
- Need broad community involvement and ownership: Community interventions require broad participation of community members and leaders, in addition to the more formalized domestic violence survivor service organizations.
- Survivor-Centeredness and Self-determination. The survivor must get to call the shots. Any community-response model needs to center the survivor and their family.
- Safety. Responding to any form of violence involves an inherent degree of risk, and civilian first responders must recognize and assess the risk of any given situation.
- Culturally rooted and appropriate: Healing is cultural, and first responders must be culturally competent, especially if they do not know the survivor or person causing harm.
- Whole Family Interventions: As Survivors who are in familial relationships often just want the violence to stop and for somebody to work with the person who was causing them harm so that they can heal together as a family. They do not want their loved one to be arrested, incarcerated, deported, placed on probation, or murdered by law enforcement.
- Strong Network of Referrals for Ongoing Support: Any community intervention will need to have a strong network of referrals and resources to point families towards for ongoing support.
- Importance of Relationships: Responding to crises like IPV requires strong relationships and trust, which can’t be formed overnight. Building these relationships — with your neighbors, with service providers, with local businesses, with people on your block — is essential to building a community response.
- Law Enforcement Must be the Last Resort: Until we have created viable, accessible, and fully operational alternatives for survivors, and brought these alternatives to scale, it may not be possible to avoid law enforcement involvement in every situation. Law enforcement should only be involved as a last resort when the survivor deems it absolutely necessary and has given explicit informed consent.
America was founded on violence. Violence against Black folks. Violence against brown folks. Violence against women. The violence is not going anywhere any time soon. But we can choose how we respond to violence. We can choose transformative justice over a violent carceral state. We can choose healing over punishment. We can choose to invest in community care for community crisis rather than badges and guns that are either not utilized by survivors in danger or that bring more harm and violence when they are.
In this moment, when the entire world is reimagining how we define and implement public safety – our focus should be on creating small replicable models rooted in abolitionist paradigms that build on Indigenous and African healing practices our communities have engaged in for hundreds of years. We have always known that our safety could not be found in the house of our oppressor. It is beyond time that we define and implement safety for ourselves. Because, beloveds, We Take Care of Us.
To get involved with the Anti Police-Terror Project, please visit our website at https://www.antipoliceterrorproject.org/. There you can donate, sign up to volunteer, sign up for our newsletter, and learn more about the work we do.