In the days when there were newspapers, every cub reporter’s first job was to go to the local police station and mine stacks of police reports looking for good stories. In my first job, as is common, a desk sergeant sat with me once a week and sifted reports for me. He handed me the “interesting” reports that might lead to stories; the dull and routine went back into his desk drawer.
Week after week, he handed me DUI after DUI. The “dull” pile? I can still hear his voice in my head.
“Domestic. Domestic…..another domestic.” And into the drawer.
In the peaceful little suburb I covered, a majority of police reports were domestic violence reports that landed in the sergeant’s desk drawer. I eventually got up the courage to ask about them, and I was told it wasn’t fair to embarrass families involved. A fight with the police chief ensued, but that’s not the story I’m writing today.
On days like today, I can’t help but wonder if Omar Mateen’s name was hidden in a drawer like that.
When news broke that Orlando monster Omar Mateen had an ex-wife who says she was abused, Katie Ray-Jones wasn’t surprised. More often than not, mass murders are preceded by domestic violence, she says.
“Those of us working in domestic violence have recognized this link for some time,” said Ray-Jones, ?CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “We are seeing a strong correlation between domestic violence and mass murder, and we have the data to support that.”
A website that tracks gun violence published a study recently of the 133 mass shootings in America between January 2009 and July 2015. Its conclusions were stark:
“There was a noteworthy connection between mass shooting incidents and domestic or family violence. In at least 76 of the cases (57%), the shooter killed a current or former spouse or intimate partner or other family member, and in at least 21 incidents the shooter had a prior domestic violence charge,” it said.
In other words, mass shooters commonly attack intimate partners, but even when they don’t, the shooter often has a domestic violence background. It should seem obvious that a person capable of harming someone they supposedly love is capable of far greater destruction.
“Often they are not labeled domestic violence in the headline. But people who work in this space are not surprised when there is a history,” Ray-Jones said.
We don’t know if Mateen’s ex-wife called police on her husband after he allegedly abused her — probably not, give reasons we’ll discuss. Plenty of facts remain unclear. But regardless of how this story turns, we do know there’s a clear link between family abuse and mass murder. We just haven’t been listening carefully enough. And as we all scramble to do something — anything — to stop the next Omar Mateen — one critical step is to listen better to abuse victims. Because odds are high the next mass shooter is sitting in a police department desk drawer right now.
It might seem natural to wonder why Mateen’s ex-wife didn’t ring a louder alarm bell, and Ray-Jones said she used to ask those kinds of questions when she started working in domestic violence. But not any longer. A Raleigh domestic violence victim is scared for their lives, for good reasons.
“Clearly this is a man capable of tremendously heinous acts. Women know their partner the best. When he says, ‘If you call police, I’ll kill you’ you have to believe he’s capable of that,” she said.
But fear of the violence spouse is only part of the story. Many victims who call her hotline say calling the police would do more harm than good.
“We recently surveyed survivors’ experience with law enforcement, and a lot of women say they did not have a favorable experience when they did call police. Sometimes, no one is arrested. Or police say, ‘Just go cool off for a few hours… Even female officers often don’t respond well sometimes,” she said.
We also live in a time of decreased trust in law enforcement, Ray-Jones said.
In a survey of hotline callers, 80 percent of those who had called police previously said they were “somewhat or extremely” afraid to call them in the future. And 1 in 3 said they felt “less safe” after calling police.
But even when police handle the calls well, there are other frustrations. District attorneys prosecute violence as misdemeanors; victims recant testimony, often out of fear.
When we mishandle domestic violence cases, we miss a very important opportunity to stop a future, heinous crime. Very few domestic abusers turn into mass murderers. But it’s also true that men who beat their wives rarely do it just once. Instead, the level of violence often increases.
“When I worked at the local level supervising a team of 15 people who responded to 911 calls …so many times staff on this team would come back and talk about a different victim, but the same perpetrator, someone we’ve encountered before,” she said. “He leaves and finds someone else to control. We know that it’s rare that someone who is an abusing person does it once.”
Guns also play a big role in domestic violence cases. The hotline surveyed 5,000 victims and found that 10 percent of time, a firearm had been discharged as part of the abuse. In other cases, guns are used for psychological abuse, such as “the husband cleaning the gun while staring at the wife,” Ray-Jones said.
“We are finding that there is not enough protection for women in violent relationships where firearms are a part of the relationship,” she said.
It’s too early to draw specific conclusions from Mateen’s case, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from focusing on the connection between domestic violence and mass murder.
It’s hard to imagine the Orlando tragedy feeling any worse, but the idea that an obvious warning sign might have been missed adds to the torture for victims’ families, and it should fuel our resolve to not let it happen again. Ray-Jones is advocating for more funding to train law enforcement so they can better handle domestic violence cases and support victims.
The rest of us? We should all learn to listen better. And to open a few more desk drawers.
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