Getting Serious About Protecting Survivors of Partner Violence

Thanks to Minneapolis Foundation for enabling us to continue deeper content and discussions about gender-based violence in 2024. Our gender-based violence stories and conversations won a 2023 community service leadership award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. 

As Minnesota Women’s Press has been writing about during the past year, gender-based violence is one of the most common crimes, though it tends not to get the same media attention as other crimes. Many people do not report it as a crime, because of shame, historical trauma at the hands of police, or not wanting the courts to solve a behavioral issue. Yet physical and sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression are consistently prevalent. Support services for survivors are underfunded, and people with lived experience who offer good peer-to-peer counsel are underpaid.

According to the 2023 U.S. National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence:

  • More than half of women (54.3%) and nearly one-third of men (31%) in the United States reported some form of sexual violence victimization involving physical contact at some point in their lifetimes.
  • About 41% of women and 26% of men reported having experienced, at some point in their lifetimes, contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner that resulted in injury or concern for safety, need for housing or legal services, or help from law enforcement.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is one of the most common forms of gender-based violence. If a survivor doesn’t feel comfortable contacting the police or reaching out to support services, situations of violence can rapidly escalate. The number of intimate partner homicides in Minnesota in 2023 was the highest ever since tracking began, reports Violence Free Minnesota.

This past March, Global Rights for Women led a webinar at the 68th annual Commission on the Status of Women titled “Preventing Intimate Partner Violence through Stakeholder Collaboration.” It focused on ways that communities can hold perpetrators accountable, and how survivor safety can be ensured through a shared responsibility of key players.

 The webinar featured speakers from the United States, Latvia, and Bulgaria, all of whom agreed that a strong coordinated community response (CCR) is one that revolves around the survivor and the survivor’s experience. It requires an interagency collaboration of all the stakeholders, including local police, prosecutors, judges, and probation officers, to protect the survivor throughout the entire process, from the initial 911 operator call to the offender taking reform courses.

A solid stakeholder collaboration involves a concerted step-by-step process.

  1. When a survivor calls the 911 operator, the operator will ask the survivor questions regarding how dangerous the scene is, and will accurately relay the emergent nature of the situation to the police. The operator might ask questions such as “Is there a weapon present?” or “Are there children in the house?” This information allows for immediate documentation and gives police expectations of the scene prior to their arrival rather than the standard questions asking for a location or what the victim’s house looks like.
  2. The police arrive and arrest the offender or create an arrest warrant for the offender if they have fled the scene. Nicole Lindemeyer, the director of programs at Global Rights for Women, describes a good CCR as one in which the police work in partnership with a victim service organization, either ensuring an advocate is on the scene or sharing contact information for victim services. This crucial step is often not taken by law enforcement. Sometimes police gather evidence, respond to violence, and take appropriate measures to deescalate a situation, but don’t offer the survivor support options for safety and prevention of further violence.
  3. Law enforcement also has an important responsibility to gather information at the scene that can be used as evidence by a prosecutor, questions such as: “Is there broken glass?” or “Are there injuries or potential witnesses?” Law enforcement must find enough evidence in order for a conviction to be made without the victim present at the trial, which can be important for their safety. Long-time advocate Ellen Pence talked decades ago about how much improvement was needed in police reports to build an effective case. The recent 2023 MPD Report: An Institutional Analysis of the Minneapolis Police Response to Domestic Violence reported that 61 out of 100 reviewed police reports found that a victim had an injury. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the Minneapolis police department was not taking photographic evidence of the injuries in many cases — documentation, if done consistently, that often helps hold perpetrators accountable. This was an error, as MPD report co-author Rhonda Martinson has pointed out. “In the 100 police reports reviewed, officers documented the location on the body, any symptoms (pain, dizziness, etc.), and how it was caused in 100 percent of the 61 cases when victims reported an injury. In the 54 cases where there were visible injuries, officers documented photographing the injuries in 83 percent of the cases.”

Perspectives From Latvia and Bulgaria

Ilute Lace, the founder of MARTA, a resource center for women, describes an approach some parts of Latvia have implemented as a response to a woman from Jekabpils who was murdered in front of her child by her ex-partner in 2023. The woman had sought out several protection orders and had written to local court systems and the general prosecutor’s office.

Despite the perpetrator having 18 criminal proceedings, the judiciary system looked at each proceeding separately, rather than together. This error made them deem the perpetrator to not be dangerous. Lace described this as a wake-up call to Latvia’s stakeholder collaboration. “It was the lack of cooperation [and the fact] that judges … didn’t look at it as one case.”

This sparked new processes. Latvia has since improved its National Action Plan on domestic violence and has strengthened its cross-institutional collaboration to better understand the risks victims face and increase accountability. 

Today, Latvia has a standard questionnaire that police must fill out when called to a domestic violence situation. The questionnaire details physical evidence of the scene to assist the victim in proving their story. This survey is sent to social services, which immediately connects the victim to support. The survey becomes evidence for the court to provide temporary protection services.

After the prosecutor obtains all evidence, they make a charging decision. A domestic violence–related charge requires a perpetrator to attend behavioral reform or intervention courses. A probation officer is assigned to monitor the offenders’ behavior. If the abuser reoffends, there is an immediate consequence.

If all steps of a coordinated community response are put into action, a survivor becomes more trusting of the system and can feel more comfortable calling the police when IPV initially occurs. 

The moderator of the webinar, Global Rights for Women executive director Cheryl Thomas, explained that “the power and control dynamic is … at the root of what inspires perpetrators to use violence.” If all stakeholders and government leaders understand this, a strong CCR and legal approach can hold perpetrators much more accountable than they are now.

Desislava Viktorova, who oversees law enforcement in Bulgaria, explained the significance of each stakeholder in a solid CCR. “We are not different parts of a chain,” she said. “We are different parts of a large mechanism and we have to work together.”