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Oprah Was Right: What Law Enforcement Can Learn from the Chris Brown Case

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Leslie Crocker Snyder is a Former Judge and Candidate for District Attorney, Manhattan

On Monday, Chris Brown pled not guilty to charges of assaulting pop star Rihanna, a turn of the screw in a story that shocked the world, but has surprised few in law enforcement.

As the co-author of early legislation protecting victims of sex crimes and domestic violence, the rapid and intense response we have seen in the mass media is heartening to me. Oprah Winfrey spotlighted the issue by hosting an emergency episode dedicated to the topic of domestic violence, decrying: "Love doesn't hurt, and if a man hits you once, he will hit you again."

But Oprah's comment, provoked by this particular incident, shows me that our shared outrage is not just related to this one situation, but to the horror of witnessing the tragic tendency of domestic crimes to repeat themselves - that somehow, despite all of the work we have done to reform attitudes about domestic and dating violence, it is still all too prevalent and victims of domestic violence often cannot take steps to remove themselves from danger.

Obviously it is Mr. Brown's right to plead not guilty, and as the accused he is presumed to be innocent. But this case should make us think once again how those of us in criminal justice and law enforcement can do more to protect the victims of domestic violence and prevent these crimes from happening again.

Many laws have been passed over the last thirty years to help victims of domestic violence. But in courtrooms across the country, domestic violence cases continue to follow the same pattern. The accused pleads not guilty, frequently in the realistic hope that the victim ultimately will not testify. Meanwhile, victims of domestic violence will often avoid proceeding with a criminal case because of intimidation by the accused, because of fear of the accused, or because they are simply afraid of losing the financial support on which they and their children depend. Because of this, the cycle of violence never ends, except in tragedy.

There are various techniques, however, that law enforcement can and should use to press forward in prosecuting violent abusers. First, injuries should be documented as soon as possible after an incident and law enforcement should take care to record all statements made by victims and witnesses. Such statements may, in limited circumstances, be used at trial in the absence of a live witness. Second, prosecutors need to be well-trained and equipped to understand victims' conflicting emotions and fears. They can play a key role in encouraging them to take the first step toward independence by ending the abuse and seeing their abusers brought to justice. Third, if that fails, prosecutors should generally go forward in cases which can be tried without the victim (assuming there are no constitutional prohibitions such as violations of the Confrontation Clause involved, a complex legal issue). Domestic abusers will likely abuse again and again, and prosecutors must protect the public, including potential future victims, from violent predators.

Prosecutors need help from the public as well. As a society, we all need to protect victims of domestic abuse. We need to provide them with some measure of security in their homes and workplaces. We need to provide safe houses where victims and their children can seek refuge when they are confronted with violence or the threat of violence. We need to give victims the tools they need to survive on their own, independently. And we need to teach our children that abusing others and allowing ourselves and our friends to suffer abuse is not acceptable. We must start that education early on in school, and take an expansive view of abuse to include cyber-bulling and internet abuse and stalking, just as we educate against drugs and violence in general.

Rihanna has indicated that she will cooperate with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office's investigation. I hope this is the case. To serve as a symbol of such a horrible crime is an excruciatingly heavy load to carry. My heart goes out to her and I respect whatever she decides to do because it is her life to live. But personally I hope she has the courage to have empathy for the thousands of victims of domestic violence who are watching her closely, and to demonstrate what strength looks like for those who find themselves in a similar situation.