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Norm Stamper Headshot

House Ready to Give Finger to Violence Against Women Act?

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It was a cool fall night in 1966, approximately ten o'clock when the police dispatcher sent me on a "415-family," one of the most common, and potentially dangerous calls for cops, and for those involved.

I pulled up to the curb two or three houses down the block from the modest dwelling in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood, pocketed my jangling keys so they wouldn't announce my arrival, and crept up to the house and onto the porch. I paused a moment, listening for clues about what might be going on behind the closed door. It was quiet inside, no porcelain knickknacks or 90-decibel threats bouncing off walls. Just a low, moaning sound.

I knocked. "San Diego Police!" Seconds later, a short, shoeless man in khaki trousers and bloodied undershirt opened the door. His hand was wrapped in a blood-soaked towel. In the background, a woman in a housedress. More blood, a lot more of it. She stared blankly at me.

It's okay, I thought. I can see your old man beat you up. I'm here to help you.

Man, did I get that one wrong. It was the woman who went to jail that night. For cutting off her husband's pinky with a cleaver. They'd been arguing all night. He'd drunk himself to sleep. She'd had enough of his sloth and inattentiveness.

In three and a half decades as a cop I saw a lot of "family beefs," as we called them in those days. What about this particular one causes me to remember it after all these years? Hint: It was not merely the severed digit. No, it was that the woman was, in today's parlance, the "primary aggressor."

To that early point in my career, every single "415-family" I'd responded to -- there were many -- had a male suspect, female victim. I learned that night that women can be DV offenders, and I've not forgotten it.

In fact, a couple of years later I rolled on a DV homicide whose suspect, a white-haired, grandmotherly type, had stabbed her husband to death. On their anniversary. Which, her hubby, having spent the evening in a neighborhood bar, had forgotten. On one occasion I found myself in a knock-down/drag-out with a another woman DV offender, this one a 170-pound light heavyweight with the tenacity of a cobra and the strength of an ox.

So, yes, I know women can be physically violent DV offenders. Ignoring this reality in individual cases is not the answer, especially for those men who have been victimized by their women partners, and who have been disbelieved by the authorities, thrown out of their homes, convicted in court, lost their kids, their jobs, their freedom. It happens, and it's wrong.

However.

Numerous studies make clear that women are significantly more likely than men to be stalked, sexually assaulted, seriously injured or killed by their intimate partners.

Which is why it is critical that congress reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, including its new provisions that offer help to Native American women, the LGBT community and immigrants, groups that, to date, have been denied the full protection of VAWA.

The Senate has passed the new bill. But the men of the House, perhaps a majority, now threaten to defeat it. I don't think that will happen, but it is possible they will water it down. And that would be a tragic mistake.

Most police officers understand that family violence is a precursor to all other forms of violence, that children who grow up in a violent home are far more likely, as they move into adolescence and adulthood, to resort to fists, guns, knives, baseball bats or hammers to resolve differences. Cops know that early intervention can save a life. They also know that how they handle the call can have a tremendous impact on the future lives of any children present in the home.

If one of the reasons for House opposition is that the bill is unfair to men (a notion they'd most likely express only in secret), those opponents might want to look at VAWA's effect on police training.

It wasn't all that hard for me to ascertain the primary aggressor on that call in San Diego, but discerning legal culpability can be a tricky proposition. The more training officers have the more likely it is they'll make the right call. Throughout the country VAWA training grants have dramatically improved police and criminal justice effectiveness in combating sexual and domestic violence.

Listen to this kid, and you'll understand why that's so important.