Police Are Cutting Ties With Domestic Violence Programs That Support Black Lives Matter
Over the summer, Embrace, a domestic violence organization in northwest Wisconsin, decided to post "Black Lives Matter" signs at its four locations.
It was a small but significant mark of alliance amid a national reckoning of police violence and systemic racism. Embrace serves domestic violence and sexual assault survivors in four rural, mostly white counties - Rusk, Washburn, Barron, and Price - and Katie Bement, the general manager, wanted to make sure people of color were comfortable visiting.
"We are getting closer to the accessibility point of view," she told HuffPost on Thursday via Zoom. "We had to show that we were safe for these color communities."
In September, Bement said, she received emails from local law enforcement agencies that were disrupted by the signs, interpreting them as anti-police. Around the same time, mass protests had broken out in Wisconsin over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. After some private back-and-forth movement, Embrace made a formal statement online to explain its support for Black Lives Matter. "If we want to end intimate partner violence and sexual violence, we must grapple with our country's long history of racism, slavery, genocide and colonization," said the letter posted on Facebook on September 30th . "We hope that with us you will break the trauma cycle caused by racism and violence."
The goal was to clear up any misunderstandings, said Bement. Instead, it has sparked a widespread revolt by local officials and law enforcement agencies, who have since severed ties with the domestic violence agency.
Katie Bement, executive director of Embrace, poses at the Rusk County Office & Safe Shelter in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. The agency recently lost both funding and police support after signs reading Black Lives Matter were posted at its four locations. (Photo: Nicole Neri for HuffPost)
Eight days after Embrace's statement went online, Barron County voted to strip the organization of $ 25,000 for 2021. The county health and human services director resigned from the board of Embrace. Since then, a majority of the 17 law enforcement agencies working with Embrace have indicated that they will no longer work with the Domestic Violence Organization, including all law enforcement agencies in Washburn County. This means that women who seek help from the police, for example, may not be referred to Embrace for help with security planning, advice and assistance.
Embrace isn't the only domestic violence organization feeling the backlash. In several states, a number of groups have similar settlement with law enforcement agencies to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Support is withdrawn, alliances broken.
When emotional dialogue about police brutality and racial justice upset the nation, domestic violence agencies have found themselves in a troubled position. Many founded on anti-violence principles have felt compelled to ponder how their historical dependence on the criminal justice system has excluded and even harmed some victims, especially people of color. Domestic violence lawyers have been searching for the soul in internal meetings and on private email lists. A working group of national leaders was even formed to discuss the issue.
However, staking out a public position that might be perceived as anti-police can be dangerous for domestic violence groups that rely on partnerships with local law enforcement agencies and often receive funding from criminal justice sources. Some still chose to do it. In June, 47 state and territorial coalitions against sexual assault and domestic violence signed a letter describing the consequences of centering police and prisons as a solution to violence and calls for greater investment in community resources.
At home, some of the signatories faced a backlash. In Nebraska, the Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence was contacted by the State Sheriffs' Association, asking for the coalition's name to be removed from the letter. It refused.
Above left: Kendra Carillon, Embrace Youth Development Lawyer, works at the shelter. Above right: folders and toys are on the shelves of the animal shelter, which serves customers in four rural districts. Bottom left: A drawing of a child who stayed at the shelter is pinned. Bottom right: Bement walks past a quote from Maya Angelou on the wall. (Photo: Nicole Neri for HuffPost)
"Our organization has chosen to deliberately center our work with an anti-oppressive lens and raise the voices of women with color," said Lynne Lange, the coalition's executive director. "We won't shrink from it now."
In Idaho, the State Chiefs of Police Association, Sheriffs Association and Prosecuting Attorneys Association withdrew their support from the state coalition against sexual and domestic violence for signing the letter, according to Executive Director Kelly Miller.
"We wonder how these responses support the healing and safety of people experiencing violence." She wrote in an email to HuffPost.
The survivors' experience is not a monolith, Miller added. Some who call the police experience security and the form of justice they seek. "Others experience resuscitation due to implicit bias or discrimination, or fail to report to the police because they fear that they will not be believed, that nothing will be done, or that the criminal justice system is not doing what is most helpful to their healing," She said.
This intricate picture was captured in an anonymous survey of survivors conducted in August by Alliance for Hope International, a California-based domestic violence organization. When survivors were asked whether they had positive experiences with police officers or detectives in incidents of domestic violence, almost 57% said yes. When asked if they had had a negative experience, 50% also said yes.
To date, Embrace is the most extreme example of a domestic violence agency losing support from law enforcement agencies because of its anti-racism work.
"To me it sounded like they were declaring war on Embrace, which is not good for victims and survivors," said Gricel Santiago-Rivera, interim executive director of the Wisconsin state coalition, End Domestic Abuse.
Embrace has three outreach offices and an animal shelter for victims from all four counties, a geographic area almost the size of Connecticut. Almost a thousand people were looked after in 2019. It is the only domestic violence agency in the four-county region.
While the counties are 95% white, a reservation for the St. Croix Chippewa tribe falls partially within the Embrace coverage area, and a large community of Somali Muslim refugees resides in Barron County. According to Embrace's annual report, around 15% of the survivors seen by the organization are black, indigenous, or colored.
How exactly Embrace will be affected by the police revolt differs from district to district, from police to police. In Barron County, Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told a local news agency that while his office would no longer work with Embrace on projects, they would continue to refer victims until an alternative was found. Several other Barron police departments have said they won't be making transfers, Bement said. Either way, the Domestic Violence Agency will have less cash to spend as the county withdrew $ 25,000 in funding.
"If you put the most marginalized and downtrodden person in our community at the center of our work, and work towards their safety and liberation, it will require the safety and liberation of everyone else," Bement said. (Photo: Nicole Neri for HuffPost)
In Rusk County, where the shelter is located, law enforcement hasn't changed their relationship with Embrace. In Price County, two departments told Bement that they were looking at different service options.
In Washburn County, all law enforcement agencies have severed ties with Embrace.
On October 8, the day after Barron County Embrace's funding stripped, Bement received an email from Washburn County's deputy chief Nick Helstern informing her that the Washburn County's office was the Shell Police Department Lake, the Spooner Police Department, the Minong Police Department and the Birchwood Police Department had withdrawn their partnership from Embrace.
Bement said Washburn County police will no longer turn to Embrace for help from victims. "They asked us to collect all of our brochures and referral materials because they no longer need them," she said.
HuffPost reached out to Washburn County law enforcement for comment and received no response.
One of their biggest concerns is how the police will deal with high-risk domestic violence cases. In the four counties where Embrace operates, the police are required to use a questionnaire to screen victims for risk of fatality and to immediately refer victims at high risk to a domestic violence attorney for safety planning or protection . It was found that "lethality ratings," as they are called, reduce domestic violence murders.
Bement said she had no idea what the Washburn County police would do now if she interacted with victims at high risk of homicide, as Embrace is the county's only domestic violence agency.
"Often times these calls result in either someone being transported to our shelter or using a hotel voucher system that we have in place in each of our districts," she said. "We are extremely concerned that this collaborative program in particular does not exist as we believe it will save lives."
Embrace has set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds. October is the national domestic violence awareness month.
Bement said she never expected how much backlash Embrace has received from law enforcement. She believed Black Lives Matter's statement would spark tough, vital conversations with Embrace's partners, she added, without her budget being held hostage, and victims ultimately refused to serve.
"The best practice philosophy in our area is that if you put the most marginalized and downtrodden person in our community at the center of our work and work towards their safety and liberation, it will require the safety and liberation of everyone else," said she said. "We had the feeling that we could not remain silent and remain neutral."
Do you need help? In the United States, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the national domestic violence hotline.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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