The Stitch Rule 

Long treated by police as unpreventable, domestic violence is receiving renewed attention in the wake of some high-profile cases. But will new tactics work?

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To understand how far Virginia, and by extension, its police departments have come in addressing domestic crime, it's worth looking at where it started.

Years ago, when anti-domestic violence laws were largely absent from the state code, it wasn't uncommon for police officers responding to domestic disputes to arrest both the victim and the abuser. But even more likely, they defaulted to another popular strategy, which entailed doing as little as possible. Arguments between couples were considered by police best resolved by the couples themselves. Police responded to a call and only took action if blood had been spilled. It was called the "stitch rule," says Neff, the University of Richmond professor: "Unless someone needed stitches, they weren't arresting anyone."

That changed with the rise of the women's rights movement, when advocates began organizing in protest of policies that either failed or simply exploited victims. Eventually, police began to take notice that they could be more effective at preventing domestic crime by responding earlier and working to protect victims. Still, it wasn't until a 1982 study that domestic abuse emerged from a private affair to a public one.

The so-called Minneapolis Experiment was the first of its kind. During the course of a year, the Minnesota police department, in conjunction with the National Police Foundation, conducted a field experiment to test the effectiveness of police responses to domestic violence calls. Researchers found that making an arrest of at least one party in a domestic dispute reduced by half the number of persons who reoffended within the span of six months.

The Minneapolis Police Department soon changed its no-arrest policy. Police around the country followed suit, as department higher-ups realized their officers could devote more time to other projects if domestic calls for service were reduced.

"It became obvious that dealing with chronic cases is a huge hassle," says Nancy K. D. Lemon from her office at the University of California at Berkley, where she lectures law school students in the history of domestic violence policy. "It's about scarcity of resources. If police are going to the same house over and over again, they have less time for other investigations. And because the nature of domestic situations is to escalate, they know that if they keep having to go back, then they'll be investigating an assault, and then they'll be investigating a homicide. It's in the interest of everyone involved, police included, to address these situations effectively and early."

Through the years, technological advances and data mining offered a clearer picture into how much time officers spent dealing with chronic domestic-abuse cases. As a result, patrol officers began demanding better training in how to handle potentially volatile domestic disputes, concerned, as they were, for their personal safety. In some cases, victims filed lawsuits against the police for failing to adequately intervene, and the courts began ruling in their favor.

Three decades later Virginia has codified a host of guidelines that dictate how police should respond to domestic incidents. When the federal Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton in September 1994, suddenly there was federal money available to assist police investigating violent acts against women.

The act forced municipalities to revamp the regressive laws that victims' advocates long complained about. To be eligible to receive funding, state and local officials were required to certify that they no longer charged domestic-violence victims for things such as protection orders or rape exams. More recently, Congress in 2005 amended the law to require jurisdictions to certify that they do not force rape victims to submit to polygraph tests as a condition for proceeding with investigations or prosecutions.

In Henrico, every officer receives extensive training on how to do just that. As recruits, officers undergo 40 hours of training, with one portion dedicated to learning the applicable state laws, and the other participating in live simulations of typical domestic violence incident at a police training facility dubbed the Stress House.

Still, there the laws and training can do only so much. Of the 193,714 calls for service received by Henrico police last year, only 5,843 resulted in police reports classified as "domestic." Despite the volume of domestic calls to police, only 3 percent lead to actual charges.

Three years after being attacked and nearly killed by her ex-boyfriend, Davette Hayes struggles to put her life back together. On the morning of New Year's Eve 2007, she arrived in the parking lot at Richmond Community Hospital, where she works in the payroll department. After reaching the entrance, Paul Bratton, the man with whom she'd just recently ended a three-year relationship, charged her with a machete and began swinging.

Hayes, now 56, sustained significant head and eye trauma, while her left hand was nearly severed at the wrist. She was in the hospital for 38 days while doctors tried to repair the nerve damage in her eye.

click to enlarge Healing happens slowly, says Davette Hayes. Three and a half years ago, her ex-boyfriend attacked her with a machete. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Healing happens slowly, says Davette Hayes. Three and a half years ago, her ex-boyfriend attacked her with a machete.

The relationship had been on the rocks since Bratton injured his back and found himself out of a job working construction. Hayes had been supporting them both while he convalesced, and she grew frustrated as the months ticked by.

Reached by phone, Hayes now says the attack wasn't the culmination of a pattern of abuse, physical or otherwise. Prior to the breakup, she says she never had reason to contact police or file a complaint against him. But looking back, she says there were signs. There was the time he joked lightly about she might be forcing him into "catching a charge." The second: When Bratton wanted satisfaction and, upon not getting it, shoved her into the bathroom. She sustained a compression fracture of the wrist as a result.

The third and most ominous sign came just days after their breakup. Bratton ended the relationship in 2007, on Christmas morning, following an argument. Hayes says that he let slip to certain family members that he wanted to shoot her. She was visiting friends in Henrico County when word of the threat got back to her. She contacted police, who informed that she could file for a restraining order. But it required filing charges with a local magistrate, and a drive into Richmond. She opted not to. The next morning Bratton confronted her outside of the hospital.

A former convict with an established criminal record, Bratton was sentenced to life in prison for the attack. Police caught up with him shortly after the incident, sitting in the parking lot of a convenience store. He told police that he'd just consumed anti-freeze in attempt to kill himself.

Looking back, Hayes says she regrets not speaking up, which isn't to say that she assigns blame to herself or anyone other than Bratton for the attack.

"I didn't investigate whether there was something I could have done to prevent it, or whether there was something the police could have done," she says. "It's not going to change anything. Once a person makes up their mind to do this, a piece of paper isn't going to stop them. They are going to find a way."

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