Vicious Cycle

05.04.139:41 PM ET

How Public Nuisance Laws Harm Battered Women

All too often, victims of domestic violence and trafficking—and not their johns or abusers—are targeted by police as public nuisances. Amanda Marcotte reports.

Lakisha Briggs of Norristown, Pennsylvania, had enough to worry about. She had endured multiple attacks from her physically abusive boyfriend, including an incident when he hit her with a brick and another when he stabbed her in the neck. Despite the fact that she clearly lives in already dangerous circumstances, the cops decided to add forced homelessness to her long list of problems, telling her that they would be forcing her landlord to evict her. Why? Because domestic violence is noisy as well as dangerous–and even though Briggs did not choose to be beaten by her boyfriend, she was considered in violation of Norristown's "disorderly behavior ordinance," which gave the police authority to put her out of her home. The ACLU is suing to stop Briggs’s eviction, arguing that it's unfair to punish the victims of domestic violence in this way.

Briggs's story is just one example of a little-discussed obstacle for those working to fight for women's rights and health across the country: what do you do when women's needs come into conflict with law enforcement's desire to maintain the peace and order of a community? This isn't just an issue when it comes to domestic violence, but also prostitution, as sex work advocates frequently have to stand up to law enforcement tactics that often result in real harm to sex workers, even those who are forced into the work. When it comes to the very different but overlapping issues of sex work and domestic violence, sometimes choosing the policy that best helps women means sacrificing some community demands for peace and quiet.

Sadly, Briggs is not alone when it comes to being victimized first by her partner and then by the police, whose desire to evict her equates to punishment for being abused. The ACLU reports that many cities and towns have similar ordinances, forcing victims of domestic violence to choose between reporting their abuse and being forced into homelessness. Recent research in Milwaukee found that nearly a third of people evicted for being a public nuisance were victims of domestic violence, making it highly likely that victims know they may face homelessness if they call the police. This policy allows the police to abdicate their responsibility for dealing appropriately with domestic assault. As long as victims are too afraid to call the police, it's easy to pretend it's a nonissue.

Victims of domestic violence don't face just the fear of being evicted, either. Calling the police to report domestic violence can, in many cases, lead to the victim being arrested herself. Just as with mandatory eviction orders, the police all too often blame victims of domestic violence for disrupting the police and see arrest as a way to get rid of these women they've come to view as nuisances. All too often, when women call the police to report a domestic violence incident, the police—either because they can't be bothered to sort out who abused whom or because they hold the victim partially responsible for the disruption—will arrest both parties, a problem so serious that the National Institute of Justice has come up with recommendations to try to lower the number of dual arrests. In some cases, the practice has even resulted in victims of domestic violence being threatened with deportation.

Sex workers—who are often treated like a public nuisance by authorities—have similar concerns that reporting crimes will get them arrested, deported, or evicted. In a 2005 report by the Sex Workers Project on the problems faced by sex workers, researchers found that the inability to summon the police if victimized made life more dangerous for sex workers. Forty-six percent of the workers reported having clients force them to do things they didn't want to do; 42 percent reported threats or beatings; and 31 percent reported clients stealing from them. Unsavory characters often feel free to abuse sex workers, knowing that the workers fear the police as much as they do violent criminals.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that, in the long run, the public peace isn't well served by treating sex workers and domestic violence victims as nuisances to get rid of instead of people who need safety and support. The occasions when domestic violence victims and sex workers come into conflict with their neighbors and communities tend to also be the times when they're experiencing disruption or violence in their own lives. If they're isolated from their communities, it can make their lives even more unstable and disruptive—and nothing isolates you further from your community than arrest or eviction. Helping women with these life circumstances achieve stability and good relationships in their community will not only be positive for these women, but for the people with whom they share streets and sidewalks.

Domestic violence advocates have long understood how much victims need financial stability and community support to get out of abusive situations and into more stable circumstances. After all, abusers control their victims by making them financially dependent and cutting off their access to people outside the home who could help them get out when they're ready to leave. Battered women's shelters, housing programs, and job training for victims were all designed to help women regain control that's been taken from them.

However, some advocates in India have come up with an idea to strengthen relationships between domestic violence victims and their neighbors even further, with an eye toward preventing violence—to the benefit of both victims and their communities. A campaign called Bell Bajao—“Ring the Bell"—asks men in the community to take some ownership over the problem of violence against women, often through small acts. While men who sign up promise a whole host of actions to stop violence, the iconic image the campaign is built around is that of a man who hears his neighbor beating his wife, and decides to intervene by ringing their doorbell to distract or confuse the abuser.

Programs like this certainly can't substitute for securing a victim's right to stay in her home or not be arrested for disturbing the peace. Still, this kind of program helps people move away from thinking of domestic violence as a public nuisance and instead start to see how their interest in peace and quiet aligns with the victim's need for a safe, stable home environment. That, in turn, can hopefully prompt police to focus on getting the victim the help she needs to get out of the abusive situation rather than merely threatening to evict her.

The solution is clear: communities must invest in housing and real job training for sex workers, as well as break the cycle of arrest, which does nothing to improve the stability of their lives or the communities they live in. If sex work has side effects that annoy the neighbors, such as violence or public solicitation, introducing more instability into sex workers' lives won't make the problem better. All that does is make it harder for women who do want to quit to get help. The women themselves simply aren't the problem; the fact that their lives are so unstable is the problem. We don't have to decide between helping women and keeping the peace if we realize that by helping women we can build stronger, more stable communities that tend to be more peaceful all on their own.