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Right to Life

Almost eight years after Maria Theresa Macias' death, where are we in the fight against domestic violence?

By Joy Lanzendorfer

It was 1996. Maria Theresa Macias was living in the town of Sonoma in constant fear for her life. Her husband, Avelino Macias, had been stalking, threatening, and beating her for years, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.

Not that she hadn't tried. Maria had done everything right. She got restraining orders; attended counseling; solicited the help of friends, women's groups, churches, and Latino organizations; stayed at shelters; and even tried to learn English so she could explain her situation better to the police.

Most importantly, she continually reported every new incident to the authorities. From January to April, Maria approached the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department 18 separate times for protection from Avelino. She even brought them a meticulously recorded diary of incidents involving Avelino, but as it was in Spanish, it was never translated.

On April 15, 1996, Avelino came to the house where Maria was living with her mother, Sara Rubio Hernandez. Hernandez immediately dialed 911, but hung up when she heard a gunshot outside. She rushed to lock the door, but not before Avelino shot her twice in the legs. Avelino then killed Maria and shot himself in the head.

Soon after, the police closed investigation of the case. The women's advocacy group Purple Berets was appalled to learn how the police's neglect had contributed to Maria's death, and began looking into the situation. A lawsuit soon followed against the sheriff's department. After one dismissal and an appeal, the case was retried. In 2002, Sonoma County agreed to pay Maria's family $1 million. It was the first monetary award ever paid by law enforcement for failure to protect a victim of domestic violence that escalated to homicide.

After Maria's death, police departments all over Sonoma County began studying how they handle domestic violence. New protocols, checklists, and more victim advocacy were just some of the changes. The assumption was that the new procedures would keep what happened to Maria from ever happening again. But almost eight years after Maria's death, how much have things really changed?

"It's a mixed bag," says Marie De Santis, director of the Women's Justice Center in Santa Rosa. "Things got better after Macias, but recently, the last couple of years or so, things have not been going well at all."

Most women's groups seem to agree that some police departments in Sonoma County do a better job overall of addressing domestic violence than others. The sheriff's department, for example, has made a lot of changes. Others have not.

"It really varies department by department," says Tanya Brannan of the Purple Berets, who spearheaded the Macias lawsuit. "It's still way far behind where it should be across the board, but some departments are worse than others. Rohnert Park is the worst. Santa Rosa is not as good as it used to be. None of them are doing what they should."

Both the Purple Berets and the Women's Justice Center said that the Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa police departments are the worst at handling domestic violence. De Santis listed off case after case of domestic violence that she alleges were not dealt with correctly by the police from one of those two departments. Brannan claims that every case she has seen under Rohnert Park's jurisdiction has had a problem of some sort, including missing police reports and insufficient investigations.

"I've seen two rape cases that Rohnert Park has completely botched up," she says. "Without exception, every case I've seen under Rohnert Park has been messed up in some way."

Lt. Dan Murray of the Rohnert Park Police Department was surprised to hear that the Purple Berets had a problem with how they handle domestic violence. He had only heard of one complaint from the group.

"I don't know if I'm able to respond to that," he says, "other than to say that the Rohnert Park police takes all domestic violence seriously and follows the mandated criteria."

The Santa Rosa Police Department did not return repeated attempts to talk to them about this article.

While several women's groups were critical, some remain enthusiastic about Sonoma County police.

"The police have been extremely helpful to us," says Jennifer Lake, director of the YWCA Safe House, a shelter for abused women. "They are sensitive to our needs here and have worked with us and advocates."

It's hard to tell how big the domestic-violence problem is in Sonoma County. The YWCA 24-hour hotline has received nearly 5,500 calls in 2003, over 2,000 more calls than it received in 2002. The YWCA also filed 9,700 temporary restraining order petitions in 2003, up from 5,500 in 2002. According to the Safe House, one out of every 10 women in Sonoma County reports domestic abuse.

As for how seriously the police take domestic violence, there are very few numbers. According to the Women's Justice Center, the police make around 2,500 domestic-violence-related crime reports a year in Sonoma County. That is a high number if you consider that only about half of domestic-violence incidents are reported in the first place. And of those that are reported, some police officers never write up a crime report.

In 2001, only 43 percent of reported domestic-violence crimes in Sonoma County led to conviction. That is far below the average conviction rate of 60 percent in other Bay Area counties. Some California counties that have prioritized domestic violence show a conviction rate as high as 80 percent.

The Sonoma County district attorney's office is quick to point out all the improvements that have been made since the Macias case. But nothing is perfect, admits Chief Deputy District Attorney Larry Scoufos.

"The treatment of domestic-violence cases is certainly much better than it was in the past," Scoufos says. "But there is always room for improvement. Police certainly need to give serious consideration to any case of domestic violence."

One of the biggest problems in domestic violence is when an officer doesn't take the situation seriously. Domestic-violence reports routinely sit on desks. Some police don't respond to calls from women, or when they do, they side with the men. And as should be clear from the Macias case, ignoring domestic violence can have dire consequences.

"Some of it is the usual bureaucratic laziness that causes these cases to be ignored, but mainly it is an attitude within the police departments," says De Santis. "Law enforcement is a male-dominated culture. Many police officers have a very high tolerance of the attitudes that drive violence toward women."

The attitude among some officers may simply be that they got into law enforcement for the excitement of, say, car chases and slamming criminals up against walls. Dealing with crying children and desperate women was not what they pictured when they first envisioned themselves in their uniforms, and thus it is not high on their priority list.

More ominously, some officers may actually sympathize with the man in a domestic-violence situation. For example, a recent case brought to the Women's Justice Center's attention involves a Santa Rosa woman who called the police because her husband was beating their 14-year-old daughter. The father had broken one of the daughter's teeth and busted her lip, among other injuries, because she was alone in her bedroom with a 19-year-old boy.

According to De Santis, the responding police officer sympathized with the husband and even lied on his police report to protect him. The officer said that if it were his daughter, he would have done the same thing.

This attitude, though perhaps rare, is an unfortunate reality among some officers, admits Tara Shabazz, director of programs for the California Alliance against Domestic Violence.

"Sometimes the police and the batterer have this man-to-man thing that happens and the man gets away with it," she says. "That attitude still happens."

A police officer who sympathizes with abusers may be one himself. Two separate studies have found that 40 percent of police officers' families experience domestic violence compared to roughly 10 percent of families in the general population.

When domestic violence involves a police officer, it takes on a whole new level of complication. Rohnert Park citizen Mitzie Grabner says that her two-year relationship with California Highway Patrol officer Curt Lubiszewski was filled with abuse. Lubiszewski allegedly screened her phone calls, banned her friends from the house, and obsessively checked everything she did. She says he regularly showered her with verbal and physical abuse.

When Grabner left Lubiszewski, she reported the abuse to the police. After an investigation, the district attorney refused the case, citing lack of evidence. Two requests for restraining orders were also denied, because, according to some, the no-gun provision put into domestic-violence restraining orders would jeopardize Lubiszewski's job as a police officer. But Lubiszewski's attorneys say the restraining order was denied because of a lack of evidence.

After her case was denied, Grabner called the Purple Berets. The group claims that while Lubiszewski's abuse was well-documented with statements from witnesses, CHP protected Lubiszewski because he is a police officer.

"The CHP was unilaterally hostile in this case," says Brannan. "They protected Lubiszewski and continued to blow Grabner off. They were disdainful and rude to witnesses."

Soon Lubiszewski's ex-wife Bonnie Garrett spoke up as well, saying she sustained years of abuse at Lubiszewski's hand but never reported it because she was afraid of him. The Purple Berets called for a meeting with eight high-level law enforcement officials, including Rohnert Park police chief Tom Bullard, CHP lieutenant Dan Moore, and Scoufos. For two hours, Grabner, Garrett, a witness, and Brannan laid out the abuse charges. By the end of the meeting, the officials agreed to reopen the case.

Since then, Lubiszewski has been charged with three counts of battery against a spouse or girlfriend. The case is now set to go to trial in January. However, the defense has filed a motion to put Lubiszewski back on the job at the CHP, and to return his gun to him. They are also requesting a recusal (a request for disqualification by a judge because of prejudice). The defense says that the district attorney is biased against Lubiszewski because he is a police officer and because law officials caved into political pressure from the Purple Berets. They point to the fact that the allegations against Lubiszewski were previously dropped by judges, and the only reason they have been reopened it is because he is a police officer and therefore under more scrutiny. The hearing is now scheduled for December 19.

"They are treating him differently because he is a police officer," says defense attorney Stephen Turer. "They have had pressure from the outside group the Purple Berets, a group that has an axe to grind with police officers. They hear an accusation against one, they assume the officer is guilty. Brannan is a biased advocate, a zealot. I find it offensive that the DA would meet with her behind closed doors without representation for the defendant."

The defense maintains that Grabner and Garrett brought this case up against Lubiszewski in an attempt to get revenge against an ex.

"It's all bullshit," says Turer. "Much of these complaints came up after Grabner broke up with him. It is the case of a woman scorned; after they broke up, she claimed all these abusive acts. They were brought up against the judge and rejected."

The Purple Berets maintain the opposite point of view. They say that Lubiszewski evaded prosecution for so long only because he is a police officer.

"Had he not been a cop, the number of reports of domestic violence would likely have been numerous over a period of 14 years, and by now he would probably be in prison," says Brannan.

The Purple Berets add that the idea of the DA caving into the Purple Berets is "simply laughable" and that the DA and the Purple Berets have always been adversarial. They were not expecting Scoufos to attend the meeting, and he only filed the charges against Lubiszewski after seeing the facts of the case.

Whatever happens with the case, it illustrates that when it comes to domestic violence, case history makes a world of difference. When meeting with the eight law enforcement officials, the Purple Berets laid out the abuse chronologically to establish the pattern of Lubiszewski's alleged abuse.

In many situations, this is essential to understanding domestic violence. When officers look at case history, they can see how a breach in a restraining order or another abusive phone call is part of a man slowly moving in on a woman.

Unfortunately, looking at history is rarely done by even the best police officers, according to De Santis.

"In the case of stalking where there are multiple small offenses, the cops can't get it in their heads that these are pattern crimes," she says. "They are supposed to look back on the case history when they are on call, but they don't. It's very dangerous."

Domestic-violence cases are fraught with entrenched biases. In many cases, women are arrested for defending themselves in domestic-violence situations. But even more common is the question, why doesn't she just leave?

The answer is usually one word: fear.

"When women leave their batterers, that can be the most dangerous time for them," says Shabazz. "When they decide to leave, that's when they get murdered."

Other reasons women don't leave include economic problems and not wanting to break up the family for the sake of the children. And when they see little or no response from police officers, they can give up hope.

"That's why when law enforcement squashes cases, it can be devastating to the community," says Brannan. "The message the guy gets is that it's OK to do this sort of thing. You steal a TV, you go to jail, but if you beat the hell out of your wife, you go to counseling. That's not a good message to send.

"Look at what Avelino Macias said to friends," she adds. "He said, 'If I were doing anything illegal, they would have arrested me--right?'"

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From the December 18-24, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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