On December 1st, the Azana Salon and Spa in Brookfield reopens for business. Unless you have been out of the country for the last five weeks, you no doubt know that the salon was the scene of a mass shooting on October 21, 2012. A gunman entered the building and killed three women, including his wife, who was a salon employee. He wounded four other women and then killed himself. The shooter’s wife had recently obtained a temporary restraining order against him after numerous domestic violence incidents including, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, an incident where the shooter slashed his wife’s tires in the spa parking lot.
Domestic violence has always been a devilishly difficult crime to prevent or prosecute. Abusers tend to be controlling and manipulative, and the visible physical injuries they inflict often pale by comparison to the emotional injuries. Victims are often psychologically abused and controlled to the point that they may feel responsible for the attacks, and they often stay in their relationships hoping for change in their partners. Abused women—and it is most often women—are afraid to leave their abusers and rightfully so. The time immediately after a woman leaves is the most dangerous time, since the abusers often succumb to rage and the need to control their victims. This may cause them to escalate the violence, and while Zina Houghton’s death is tragic, it is sadly not unusual for a battered woman to die at the hands of her abuser.
This tragedy reminded me of an experience I had last spring. The doorbell rang at 8 o’clock one night, and I flipped on the porch light so as to peer out before opening the door. A uniformed police officer was standing on my porch. This is almost never a good thing. Adrenaline immediately flooded my system, and I was mentally reviewing the probable whereabouts of each and every family member as I opened the door.
The officer greeted me, and then said that the police department had received a 911 call from a cell phone, and that the department had traced the call to my address. Since the house was empty except for a television-watching adult child and me, I assured the policeman that the call did not come from us. What the cop did next surprised me: he did not budge from the porch. In fact, he studied my face closely and craned his neck to peer past me into the house. My lawyerly mind was wondering if he was considering ticketing me for a fake 911 call or something of the sort, and the combination of this new concern and the aforementioned adrenaline must have made me look jittery and fearful. So he stayed on the porch for another minute. Finally, he suggested that the call could have come from a cell phone in a car driving by my house. Eventually, he left.
It wasn’t until at least an hour later that it occurred to me what was going on there. The police officer probably suspected that the 911 call was an SOS from a domestic violence victim, and in a case like that it would not be unusual for the perpetrator to send the victim to the door to get rid of the police—or else. My adrenaline-induced jumpiness probably worried him, since that might well be the demeanor of a battered wife who had been sent to the door. He was clearly uneasy about leaving, and when I thought about it later, I thought that this was a very good sign that the police are now educated to deal carefully with potential domestic violence cases.
Only a generation ago, police officers in many communities were slow to respond to domestic violence calls, and when they did respond they often did more harm than good. Victims from those days recount having the police walk the batterer outside to “cool off” while the officers tried to talk the woman out of pressing charges. After the cops left, many a victim was subjected to an even bigger beating. Now, police training and reformed laws requiring arrests in certain circumstances make officers more likely to intervene in ways that can actually be protective towards the victims. There have been some allegations that the police in the Houghtons’ home suburb did not follow the new approach, but all the facts are not yet in. Whatever they did or didn’t do, it wasn’t enough to prevent this tragedy.
As the salon shootings show, we still have a long way to go. An order of protection is not a bullet-proof vest—it is simply a tool to give the police grounds for quickly arresting the batterer if he goes near his victim. For this to work, the police need to get there in time. They don’t always get there in time. There needs to be some soul-searching now, and not only on the part of police, lawyers, judges and legislators. We all need to ask ourselves how we can build a society where men do not ever feel justified in battering their women.