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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Learning the Lesson of 911 the Hard Way

February 05, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

This is a story about a wife, a husband and a call to 911. It is a cautionary tale about two phenomena that are intersecting more and more: a growing intolerance for domestic violence and the economic interdependence of husbands and wives.

The wife is a tall and robust woman, who traded a job in the entertainment business for motherhood. The husband is a short and slightly built Asian immigrant who owns a small business in Los Angeles. They dated for six months before they married and had a child soon thereafter.

The wife is articulate, forthcoming and embarrassed. The husband is industrious, tireless and, though he speaks only rudimentary English, you can see that he, too, is mortified about what happened.

After a rocky first year of marriage that included some incidents of what she described as "mutual combat," they sought therapy, which helped a great deal.

But therapy ended when the insurance ran out. And then their recent round of troubles began: Business has fallen off. Both their mothers became ill, forcing them to borrow money to make visits.

These stresses, they claim, came to a head on the night of Jan. 15 when what began as a verbal altercation escalated to violence when he pushed her to the floor. Enraged, she says, she kicked him in a tender spot. He went to the kitchen, filled a coffee cup with cold water and threw the water at her. She charged him. He whacked her on the head with the cup. She called 911.

How she wishes she had not.

*

For many years, police were criticized by advocates for battered women for failing to take complaints of domestic violence seriously. But those days, especially in these parts, are over. Take the husband for a walk around the block? Wipe the wife's tears away and tell her to stop nagging? History.

And when there are visible injuries--say, a trickle of blood from a scalp wound inflicted by a coffee cup--officers are required to arrest the person they suspect of causing the wound. Cops don't care about the subtleties of the relationship. They don't care if your husband's father hit his mother. They don't care how much therapy you've had.

They see blood, they whip out the cuffs.

The husband was taken to jail. His bail was set at $50,000. The wife gathered up her toddler, who had witnessed part of the fight, and drove herself to the hospital to have her head stitched up. When she got home, she spent the next couple of hours raising $5,000 to post bond.

To the utter astonishment of the wife, the husband was charged with misdemeanor spousal battery, which carries a penalty of up to a year in county jail. His arraignment is set for the middle of February. (Lawyer fee: $1,500.)

She thought by calling 911 she would scare her husband, teach him a lesson. But she had unwittingly unleashed a powerful force she could not control: society's growing intolerance of physical violence between loved ones.

*

The next day, she did what many women do: She went to see a police detective to plead for the case to be dropped.

He is not a chronic abuser, she said.

He came from an abusive family, she said.

If he goes to jail, we lose everything, she said.

The police detective was unimpressed.

"This is typical of a lot of women," he told me. "She fits the description to a T. Initially, they call 911 because they want the world brought down; they never want to see him again. The next day, it's, 'I forgive him and don't want anything done.' "

What often brings on the remorse, said the detective, is the stark realization that a husband in jail is a husband without a paycheck.

Tough luck.

"If a crime has been committed," said the detective, "we are going to act on the information that we know. Nobody can tell me, 'Well, I didn't know it was against the law to hit my wife.' "

Said the wife: "I am acutely aware that this is what a woman needs if her life is in danger, but they are not listening to me as an individual at all. It is shocking."

Not shocking at all, explained Donna Wills, the L.A. County deputy district attorney in charge of prosecuting family violence.

"To victims who are concerned with the economic impact of their husbands going to jail, we say we are concerned with the economic impact on the whole community if she is seriously injured or killed or the children have to be placed in foster care," said Wills.

"Our community is at risk by allowing this conduct to continue unabated. What we say is that the arrest reinforces society's intolerance for the conduct. The arrest is good for society."

Should she have called 911?

Draw your own conclusions.

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