Should The Victim Fight Back?

When local orthopedic surgeon Michael Acurio was arrested last month for domestic abuse with strangulation, something about his mug shot stood out — he had a black eye.

Readers, in The Times’ comments section and elsewhere, were quick to weigh in about the Dec. 7 incident, which sent Acurio’s wife, Shelley, to the hospital. Each spouse accused the other of physical attacks.

“Looks like she was beating on him. Why is she not in jail?” reader Beth Ford Lewis wrote.

“The truth will come out, trust me. His wife is no ‘victim,'” offered Autumn Cole Jolly, on Facebook.

If social media provides any window into public opinion, the Acurio case was a local flash point, exposing tensions between community members who argued over who’s to blame in a fight that also ensnared Shelley Acurio’s sister, whose injuries resulted in additional charges for Michael Acurio.

The case also might reveal a truth experts say is often misunderstood: domestic violence is often messy, intensely private and can’t always be captured in isolated examples of a perpetrator and victim.

Michael Acurio and a representative for Shelley Acurio both declined to comment.

Because intimate-partner abuse is publicized most often in the context of a legal case, “we get really, really obsessed with this matter of guilt or innocence,” said Nicholas Chagnon, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who studies crime in the media.

But assigning fault in a particular domestic incident might occlude a larger picture, one of a long-term pattern of abuse, he said. People sometimes assume that if one person attacks another, fighting back constitutes protecting oneself. The self-defense argument, however, can fall apart when it comes to domestic violence because a victim — who might start a fight — could be acting out in spurts due to having been battered for years, Chagnon said.

“When we have this quest for pure victims or pure villains, we’re often confused because we get disappointed because nobody’s a pure victim and nobody’s a pure villain,” he said.

Statistics show men are more often held responsible for domestic violence than women. Males accounted for 77 percent of domestic abuse battery arrestees in Shreveport in 2014. In Bossier City that year, 70 percent of arrestees for that crime were men.

Women as the predominant targets of domestic violence can be seen in the population seeking counseling and services for the problem, experts said. The New Orleans Family Justice Center, which aids both male and female victims of domestic violence, serves around 1,200 victims per year, around 85 percent of whom are female, according to its executive director, Mary Claire Landry.

Still, there are gray areas in many domestic violence cases, and law enforcement organizations still are learning to identify the signs of long-term abuse and to parse out which member of a couple is the predominant aggressor. Some of that training is being provided by the National Family Justice Center Alliance, which supports more than 80 centers providing those affected by family violence an all-in-one location to interact with law enforcement, advocates, lawyers, doctors, counselors, and other support professionals.

Shreveport police investigators — when faced with conflicting accounts of abuse on a domestic violence call — look for prior complaints of dating violence, evidence of injuries and possible self-defense, witness statements, threats of imminent attacks and the condition of children present when determining who to arrest, said SPD spokesman Cpl. Breck Scott.

“We see very clear cases of female perpetrators. We see very clear cases of male perpetrators,” said Casey Gwinn, president and co-founder of the National Family Justice Center Alliance. In his 20 years as a prosecutor, he said around 85 percent of domestic violence perpetrators in heterosexual relationships were men.

“The cases where it’s hard to sort out who the primary aggressor is, those cases don’t get filed,” he said.

“The most significant question we always want to ask is, ‘Who is afraid of whom?'” Gwinn said. “If a man is truly afraid of a woman, that tells me something. I don’t see that very often.”

Marian Meyers, a Georgia State University professor who studies violence against women in the news, said if you drill down, it’s almost always possible to determine a clear perpetrator and a clear victim in an abusive relationship.

But as spectators, she said, “we want to hold both parties culpable.”

“There’s no other crime in which we ask the victim, ‘What did you do to perpetuate it, what did you do to cause it, what was your part in this?’ If somebody’s murdered, we don’t say, ‘Well, what did that person do?'” Meyers said.

One key nuance about domestic abuse the public often doesn’t always see is that men tend to be more instrumental or purposeful in their violence. An example might be, “If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna hit you,” according to Gwinn. Men, moreso than women, are more likely to choke their partners, an act signifying that a relationship could turn lethal.

Strangulation is an application of deadly force, and non-fatal choking sends the message, “I could kill you at any second,” Landry pointed out.

“Men who strangle women are the most dangerous men on the planet,” said Gwinn. Citing a study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, Gwinn said if a man chokes a woman once, he’s 800 percent more likely to kill her during that relationship than if he assaulted her any other way.

Women’s violence toward men, on the other hand, tends to be more volcanic, said Gwinn. It’s usually an eruption of anger built up over time, rather than a purposeful directive. Being battered can cause women to self-medicate with drugs such as alcohol.

“The alcohol allows them to then explode because it lowers their inhibitions, and they’ve got a ton of rage toward their partner from prior violence,” Gwinn said. “They kind of lash out.”

But these distinctions are sometimes lost in media reports, where details are thin and a case ceases to be news if it isn’t connected to a court date. Legal filings, which are often the only chronicles of someone’s divorce or abusive relationship, might bolster a perception that intimate partner abuse is always provable in a court of law.

“The criminal justice system is a very blunt instrument in dealing with very complicated dynamics in unhealthy relationships. We always want to pretend like the criminal justice system is this precise scalpel, or this precise instrument, that can go in and sort these things out, and that’s not always true,” Gwinn said. “A lot of violence and abuse in relationships is very messy.”

Twitter: @mayalau

BY THE NUMBERS:

Arrests for domestic abuse battery*

Shreveport**

• 2010 — Males: 642, Females: 169

• 2011 — Males: 756, Females: 242

• 2012 — Males: 633, Females: 192

• 2013 — Males: 664, Females: 194

• 2014 — Males: 702, Females: 206

Bossier City

• 2010 — Men: 228, Women: 84

• 2011 — Men: 218, Women: 67

• 2012 — Men: 204, Women: 75

• 2013 — Men: 187, Women: 76

• 2014 — Men: 144, Women: 62

*Domestic violence may result in other charges such as assault, but charges for domestic abuse battery provide a snapshot of the gender breakdown in arrests.

**Arrestees age 10 and up.

Sources: SPD, BCPD

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