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The Counselor

Patricia Prickett set out to beat the violence and ended up in the belly of the beast, working with the L.A.P.D.

THE WEST LOS ANGELES POLICE STATION guards a geographically and economically diverse region spanning 65 square miles, encompassing no-frills apartment complexes and some of the most affluent addresses in the city, like Pacific Palisades and Brentwood, the neighborhood where Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered in 1994. The precinct boasts the lowest crime rate in the city and, partly as a result, officers and advocates say, the station is resistant to change. "People here think they're doing just fine," says Rashad Sharif, a senior lead officer at the station and a friend of Prickett's. "They say, ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

Prickett set up shop at the police station in 1998 under a four-year, $540,000 program funded by the Violence Against Women Act. That landmark legislation, passed by Congress in 1994, provides essential funding for hundreds of criminal justice programs that now undergird battered women's advocacy nationwide. Prickett's program was intended to educate officers, help victims get access to services, and increase arrests and prosecutions of batterers. Though the funding was awarded to the police department, Prickett came in as an advocate, a stance that fueled an adversarial dynamic between her and a station considered within the local advocacy community as one of many mired in a "good old boy" culture.

Prickett confronted the station's disregard the day she reported to work and was shown to her office—a former holding cell, complete with iron bars and a concrete floor. A detective told her dismissively that "rich men don't beat their wives." Undeterred, Prickett sponge-painted the walls peach, carpeted the floor with remnants, and tacked up posters of Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. On the weekends when she went to political protests, she made a point of hugging any police officers she recognized. "They never quite knew what to make of that," she says, laughing. "But I wanted them to see things from a different perspective, to see the crowd as people."

At the station, she and her staff of five held marathon training sessions on rape, on determining the dominant aggressor in domestic violence situations where both individuals are injured, and on writing effective reports, crucial because "the chances of getting a victim to testify are slim to none," she says. "That initial report has to be of detective caliber so that it can stand alone in the prosecution."

Prickett wrote manuals for the officers, passed out pocket-size how-to-identify-a-batterer guides, and went out on more than a thousand domestic violence calls. She or one of her staff members was on duty, in a police car accompanied by officers, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. five nights a week. "When I first started, the last thing I wanted was to be part of a responder team," she says. "I mean, 2 a.m. in a black-and-white? Give me a break. But as time went on I realized that was the way to go. You can really intervene and help the woman get hooked up to services before she gets spooked."

Whatever Prickett's success in the field, her suggestions back at the station fell on deaf ears. "Everything I would write up, they would sort of laugh at me and pat me on the head and tell me why we couldn't do it," she says. "I was like, ‘What do you mean we can't do it? Fresno P.D. is doing it.' They'd say, ‘Well, we just don't do that.'"

Michael Hillmann, a captain in West L.A. during part of Prickett's tenure, says the station was supportive of the program, but that domestic violence calls often lose out to more pressing crimes. "In the grander scheme of things, reduction of homicides and the ability to save the lives of people subject to drive-bys is a competing priority," says Hillmann, now a deputy chief supervising drug and gang operations. "We're trying to balance all that. To take police officers out of the field and put them with a domestic violence program means that we have one less officer in a position where they are able to prevent a shooting or some other type of crime."

Multiple studies have found that when a coordinated model is properly applied, domestic violence-related homicides and felony assaults fall by as much as half. "I don't think the criminal justice system can get rid of wife-beating," says Pence. "But if everyone is very aggressive and very consistent, it makes an enormous difference." Yet sustained results have proved elusive. In 1977, Los Angeles became one of the first cities in the country to establish a separate domestic violence unit and adopt a vertical prosecution model, boosting their success rate by assigning each case to a single attorney from beginning to end. Even with those innovations, says Maureen Siegel, special counsel in the criminal division for the Los Angeles city attorney's office, her office accepts for prosecution only about a third of the domestic violence cases that come in. "No matter how strongly we may believe an incident has occurred," Siegel says, "knowing something and being able to prove it in court are, unfortunately, two very different things."

Peter Macdonald, a retired judge from Kentucky who leads judicial domestic violence training programs, says judges tend to come under the sway of batterers who appear charming and polished, while victims are intimidated into recanting or are made to look hysterical. "This happens all the time," Macdonald says. "I'm embarrassed to say that when I started out in 1978, I was one of those judges." Some judges have never heard of the Violence Against Women Act, Macdonald says, and are ignorant of changes in the law affecting battered women. At one training session he conducted, he says, only 1 of 47 participating judges knew that a protection order issued in one state is valid in every other.

Yet ignorance is no longer the main enemy. "Twenty years ago we could say nobody understood domestic violence and we have a lot to educate them about," says Joan Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University. "Well, we've done that. People understand it a lot better now. Now we face a much more difficult challenge, because the resistance is much more deep and fundamental and bedrock." Advocates say the time has come for the movement to address the burgeoning resistance associated with the men's rights movement, the legal challenges being mounted on behalf of batterers by the defense bar, and entrenched resentment and apathy within the criminal justice system itself.

"There's a huge backlash right now," says Susan Millmann, a legal aid attorney who heads the L.A. Domestic Violence Task Force. "There are many, many people who are trying to turn back the clock." Millmann finds Prickett's experience in West Los Angeles unsurprising. There, as in many police stations around the country, line officers have little incentive to embrace an effective approach without a push from the top. "The officers say what they're supposed to say," Prickett says. "That is, ‘You don't decide whether to prosecute, ma'am, the state prosecutes.' And then they put some detective on the phone. We had one guy who spent more time talking victims out of prosecuting, which is totally against policy. But as a civilian, you can show L.A.P.D. their own penal code and their own policy manual and it doesn't matter unless you've got backing from the captain. Somebody has to care."

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