On the morning after Thanksgiving, November 29, 1996, Sonoma County, California was rocked again by domestic violence homicide. Mina Arevalo, 40 years old and the mother of two young teenagers, was shot nine times by her husband Nick, who then committed suicide. Mina’s 13 year-old daughter discovered her parent’s bodies.
The homicide shocked a community still reeling from the murder of Teresa Macias, a Sonoma woman tracked down and shot to death by her estranged husband, Avelino, just seven months before. Avelino then shot and wounded Teresa’s mother, Sara, before turning the gun on himself. Law enforcement apathy and misconduct was so striking in the Macias case, it sparked a $15 million lawsuit against Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde.
Like the murder of Teresa Macias, Mina Arevalo’s death is an indictment of law enforcement’s response to domestic violence. And as with Macias, official records and interviews with friends and family show police had been called many times before.
Just six weeks before the murder, on October 12th, Rhonert Park police records show a domestic violence call to the Arevalo house. Their report says Mina was uninjured and didn’t want her husband arrested.
But when Mina later confided to a friend about the dark bruises on her arms, chest and neck, she said police, took a cursory peek in bad light and walked out. When she told them she at least wanted Nick to leave for the night, she said the officer told her, ëIt’s his house’.
It was probably this same incident Mina later described, saying police had laughed in her face. She said she asked for a Spanish-speaking officer and they told her, ëWe’re not her just to please you’, a friend states. Mina told her friend that Nick left the house that night, but returned as soon as police left. Enraged, he told her she was a fool for calling the police, and began to beat her again. Mina called the police again. They told her that if she didn’t quit calling they’d arrest her. They never came. Terrified, Mina slept in her van that night.
Tellingly, the original police report sent up to the district attorney on this incident shows a corroborating witness He said he saw the entire incident, the report states. That alone should have been enough to alert the police supervisor and district attorney there was enough evidence to press charges. The report should have been sent back to police for further investigation, instead the DA simply dumped the case for lack of corroboration. It wasn’t until December 4th, five days after the murder, that Officer Polik (in a move with no purpose but to cover his ass) wrote a supplemental report detailing the eyewitness’s statement. Yet again, law enforcement apathy literally kills.
But this was not the first police knew of Nick Arevalo’s violence. Neighbors repeatedly called to complain of his late-night shooting sprees. And police dispatch records show six calls to the Arevalo house in little more than a year, including one coded domestic dispute in August, 1995. The other 911 calls look harmless on their face — vehicle abatement and animal complaint, for example — but read on.
Friends and family confirm at least four times Mina called police to report the beatings. One call corresponds by date to one of the barking dog calls recorded by police dispatchers. On November 4th — less than a month before the murder and just two weeks after the last domestic violence call — Mina fled to a friend’s house after being beaten. She said she’d called police, but they never came.
So here we are, one year after Teresa Macias’ murder — one internal sheriff’s department investigation later, one State Attorney General investigation later, one Blue Ribbon Committee report later, who knows how many hundreds of thousands of dollars in domestic violence grants later, and what do we get? Another dead woman.
Another dead woman, and another report of police laughing in her face as they crack jokes with her batterer; threatening to arrest her and not him; failing to write an Emergency Protective Order; using her children as translators; leaving her in worse danger than when they arrived.
There’s no doubt that over the past six years, we’ve been able to wrestle some real change out of local law enforcement: more emphasis on prosecuting crimes against women, better police policies and special units, and enough training to bring most police agencies into this century. But at every turn we see that those changes extend about an inch deep, and then we run dead-on into the hard rock of unchanged police attitudes.
The backlash against every gain women make is still shocking. For example, we finally get a policy that makes the cops have to start arresting batterers, and immediately the number of women arrested on domestic violence charges skyrockets. (In Sonoma County, 1 out of 5 people arrested last year for domestic violence was a woman. This is despite national statistics showing that fully 95% of batterers are men.)
Clearly all the new policies, all the training programs, all the victim counselors in the world won’t change anything as long as the same people are in charge, and the makeup of our police forces continues to be overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male.
A key step in the right direction would be to hire women officers. After the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the Christopher Commission studied the LAPD and police violence. One of their findings was this; of the 120 officers with the most excessive-use-of-force reports, not one was a woman — despite the fact that 13% of LAPD sworn officers were women. At the same time, the study showed women officers weren’t reluctant to use force when necessary.
In fact the research shows that female police officers respond more effectively to crimes against women, have better communication skills, are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations, and use force less often than male cops.
Aren’t these exactly the qualities that were needed on March 24th in Rohnert Park?
Unfortunately, the odds are slim that a woman cop will respond to any given police call in Sonoma County. While women make up about 10% of police forces nationally, Sonoma County law enforcement is barely 5% women. Clearly those negotiation/defusing-violent-situation skills are just not what’s being valued.
In fact, the local sheriff’s department is actually going backwards. There are fewer female sworn deputies today than there were two years ago, while four women deputies currently have sex discrimination charges against the department — almost one out of two. Obviously they’ve got some real problems when it comes to women’s right to equal justice, in or out of the workplace.
With the current wave of killings by police, widespread public attention is finally being focused on police conduct. Demonstrations are frequent, a new group called COPA (Coalition Organizing for Police Accountability) has formed, and initial meetings have been called to form a citizen’s police review commission. This is a moment when many voices demanding real changes in law enforcement.
Women have to play key roles in this process to make sure we end up with a police review commission that investigates not just incidents of police brutality and violence, but also incidents of police neglect.
For more info about ‘Women defending women’ against police abuse in Sonoma county, contact the Purple Berets: (707) 528-9043, firstname.lastname@example.org.