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Andrea Shorter

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Can San Francisco Continue the Fight Against Domestic Violence?

Posted: 03/29/2012 3:35 pm

Here's what you didn't hear in the din of the media circus around San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi's domestic violence plea and suspension -- San Francisco has figured out the formula to dramatically reduce domestic violence and, as sheriff, Mirkarimi's presence threatens to roll back the clock.

When women's rights advocates call for Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi to be permanently removed from office, it's not personal. As recently as last year, Supervisor Mirkarimi voted consistently to protect funding for domestic violence victim services. He strongly advocated for a childcare center on vacant property owned by the local school district.

But that was then. This is now.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi has pled guilty to the false imprisonment of an intimate partner -- a form of domestic violence. He is no longer in a position to advance domestic violence policy reforms. If Mirkarimi survives an Ethics Commission investigation and possible recommendation to remove him from office, San Francisco's decades-long reform effort would come to a grinding halt. Why? Because the city's approach to combating domestic violence relies on criminal justice agencies like the county sheriff to work with community organizations that protect battered women every day.

In recent weeks, these advocates have conducted public protests on the steps of City Hall to demand that Mirkarimi resign.

San Francisco's unique model to combat domestic violence touches every city department, including the sheriff's office. For example, domestic violence homicides often involve stalking. In response to a community call for action, the Police Department announced a new code in to identify stalking and assigned dedicated staff for stalking cases in March 2010. Identifying stalking at the beginning of a case has a ripple effect throughout the criminal justice system.

The city also invests nearly $3 million to support a diverse network of community-based agencies that provide emergency shelter, legal aid, counseling, and job training. These agencies advise the San Francisco Commission the Status of Women based on what they are seeing everyday. Since 2001, there has been a historic 80 percent decline in domestic violence homicide in San Francisco.

But domestic violence continues to be a major problem in San Francisco today. In only three years, over 4,000 cases of domestic violence were reported to the Police Department. What's more, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates only about half of all cases are reported.

The shocking 2000 murder of Claire Joyce Tempongko by her ex-boyfriend Tari Ramirez forced San Francisco to change the way it was handling domestic violence cases. Claire Joyce was a woman that had by all accounts followed all the right legal steps to protect herself and her children.

She filed police reports and was granted emergency stay-away orders against Ramirez. But the system failed Claire Joyce. An an investigation launched by the Commission on the Status of Women, experts documented San Francisco's many failures to properly respond to Ramirez' repeated violent acts, including beatings and strangulation. Ramirez wasn't supervised during his part of his probation.

Despite Claire Joyce's best efforts to work with the system, Ramirez viciously murdered her, stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife at home in front of her two children. Ramirez fled to Mexico immediately but was apprehended in 2007 and extradited to a courtroom in San Francisco, where he was convicted of murder.

Since 2002, the Commission's Justice & Courage Oversight Panel, a committee of community advocates who provide crisis services, legal aid, and housing to domestic violence survivors has focused on domestic violence policy reforms. Importantly, the committee includes the director of a batterer's intervention program.

The Panel made 84 recommendations to criminal justice agencies to strengthen communication formally between the Police Department, the District Attorney's Office, and the Adult Probation Department. If those measures were in place in 2000, the full record of Ramirez's violent history and stalking of Tempongko would have been accessible to officials during a number of court appearances. He likely would have been in state prison, not on the loose to stalk, and eventually murder, Tempongko.

Meanwhile, San Francisco has steadily increased its investment in direct services to survivors of domestic violence from roughly $1 million in 2003 to $2.7 million today. The Commission funds 24 agencies that reach the diverse populations within the city; organizations such as the Arab Cultural Center, Asian Women's Shelter, Jewish Families and Children's Services, La Casa de las Madres, and other agencies serving homeless women, lesbian/bisexual/transgender women, and high school students. Last year, the agencies served nearly 35,000 survivors of violence by providing 24-hour crisis hotlines, emergency shelter, legal services, case management, transitional housing, and, importantly, prevention education.

The charges of official misconduct against Mirkarimi are damning. But beyond one politician or one news cycle, there is a long-term danger facing the city's domestic violence strategy.

The mayor's decision to appoint Vicki Hennessy as the city's first woman sheriff is historic. And we've worked with her before. As director of the Emergency Management Department, she consulted with us to add protections to first responders on domestic violence calls by replacing a haphazard system of slips of paper posted to a bulletin board with a computer-based premise hazard warning system.

Ross must go, or we risk an erosion of gains and a return to the bad old days of double-digit murders of women victims of domestic violence.

***

About the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women: The commission, one of the strongest in the country, has advocated for the human rights of women and girls, not just in San Francisco but throughout the country and the world, for over 30 years. The commission seeks to bring the fifth U.N. World Conference on Women to the San Francisco region in 2015.

Andrea Shorter, San Francisco Commissioner on the Status of Women, has served on the commission for 12 years. An expert on juvenile and community justice issues, she chairs the Justice & Courage Oversight Panel.