See No Evil

In Houston, wife-beaters can elude prosecution just by leaving the scene.

In 2007, Houston police responded to approximately 36,000 domestic violence calls, mostly from women seeking protection from violent spouses. The women likely assumed the system, once engaged, would protect them and facilitate their escape to a new life. They probably never imagined that police who saw their injuries and knew who caused them would give them a piece of paper and drive away. Nor might they have called had they known that justice would be delayed months, if not denied. In Texas’s largest city, this is often what happens. Mundane details of procedural policy and staff shortages translate to an officially sanctioned negligence that forces women in danger to beg police for help, but delivers nothing if their assailant isn’t around when police show up. Sometimes these women escape to safety on their own. Sometimes they die.

Silvia Ramirez weighs 100 pounds at most. She sits in the waiting room of the Houston district attorney’s office, seeking a protective order against her husband. Her shoulders are slumped, her thin arms crossed between her knees, her face drawn, her brown eyes deerlike, big and bright. In the white of her left eye is a tiny red blossom-a burst blood vessel left over, she says, from a beating by her spouse.

“[My husband and I] got in an argument about something-this was in the summer-and he trapped me in the bedroom and started hitting me over the head. He’d never hit me before. I got away and ran to his mother’s house with the baby. I called the cops, but he scratched his own face and told them I did it. So they didn’t do anything. Then he said he was so sorry, that it would never happen again. He also said if I left him I would lose the baby. So I stayed.

“But this Thanksgiving, I decided to leave. When I told him, he went away mad and he came home drunk. He said, ‘You’re not leaving.’ He grabbed me by the neck and started choking me. I was screaming and hitting the window, hoping the neighbors would hear. I thought I was going to die. I was thinking, what’s going to happen to my baby? I said, ‘Look at the baby, he’s crying!’ Then he stopped choking me and started hitting my face, saying, ‘You’re not leaving, are you? Are you?’ I said, ‘No, no, I’m not leaving.’ So he stopped.

“I said was sorry and that I was going to take a shower. I went into the bathroom and turned on the light and saw my face. The left side was purple, and my eye was really red inside. He saw it and said he was sorry. I said it was OK and closed the door and turned on the water.”

She hoped the water would mask a cell phone call to 911. It didn’t.

“He opened the door and reached for the cell phone. I threw it and ran out. I grabbed the baby and ran into the yard. A neighbor was out there, and she held me. He came out and got in the car and drove away. I called my parents, and they came over and waited with me for the cops.

“That was about 7 p.m. I called another two times, asking where they were. They didn’t get there until 1 a.m. They took a report and asked me if I wanted to press charges. I said yes, so we went to the station, and they took pictures of my face. I gave a statement. They said the investigator would call me. They called me three weeks later and said there was nothing they could do because it was my word against his.

See No Evil

“He must be very happy, my husband,” she says. “I thought they would arrest him. Nothing happened.”

Houston Police Department policy doesn’t require officers to pursue suspects if they’ve left the premises when police arrive. Even if a woman has obviously been assaulted and witnesses can verify the assailant, officers don’t have to file charges, seek an arrest warrant, or question suspects. All the police are obligated to do, according to policy, is report incidents and give victims a “blue card,” a small sheet of paper with assistance phone numbers on it.

In Ramirez’s case, her responding officers were not particularly unhelpful or indifferent. By going with her to the station, they went beyond what policy required. But they didn’t pursue her husband because they didn’t have to.

Houston’s policy is the minimum required by state law. Houston police could do more, and sometimes do. At their discretion, officers can call the intake division of the district attorney’s office, present the evidence, and obtain a warrant for a suspect’s arrest.

Some departments, like the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, require their officers to contact intake when they encounter evidence and witnesses, as in Silvia’s case. But at HPD, no matter how much evidence is available, calling intake is optional.

Lt. Joseph Levingston, who supervises all four of HPD’s family violence units, says officers in the field call intake voluntarily. “We don’t need a policy. If there’s evidence and witnesses, it’s a police officer’s job to do more than make a report,” he told the Observer. “Most of our officers do make that call. We teach it in the academy, and we have refresher courses … and of course it’s the right thing to do.”

But records obtained from HPD and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office suggest that Houston officers don’t often make that optional call to intake. Between November 1 and November 8, 2007, Houston police filed 86 charges involving family violence. Four were filed from the scene when a suspect was missing. In the same period, sheriff’s officers filed 52 family violence charges, 19 of which were filed from the scene when the suspect was missing.

Sgt. Melissa Holbrook, who oversees HPD’s West Side family violence unit, confirms the pattern. “When the suspect’s missing, no, they don’t call intake,” she says. “That’s really not their mandate. … It’s not against policy, but [officers] have to get permission from their supervisor [to get a warrant] because it will take them out of service for two hours or more. … We just don’t have the manpower to do that. It would be great, but it’s really not practical in a city of our size.”

This raises the question of how Houston police officers have time to arrest suspects if they’re present (which is mandatory), but not the time to get a warrant if they are absent. Police Chief Harold Hurtt did not respond to requests for comment on the question. Levingston refuted the premise, saying most officers make the call.

One of Holbrook’s investigators, Rosalinda Ybanez, says that officers not only lack the time to call intake, but also don’t feel it’s necessary. “Policy is, when a police officer knows that family violence has occurred, he must make an arrest. But the thing is, that’s if the suspect is present. … If the suspect is gone, then the danger level for the complainant is nothing at that point.”

Asked if a woman is really safe in a home she shares with her batterer, Ybanez says, “[The officers] do encourage the complainant to go elsewhere. They can work with them and try to get them into a shelter.”

Houston area shelters are notoriously hard to get into. The only battered women’s shelter inside Houston city limits is the Houston Area Women’s Center, which has 125 beds and by its own estimate is full more than 90 percent of the time.

“Many times,” Ybanez says, “what [officers] will tell [complainants] is, you need to go to your best friend’s house, you need to go to your mom’s house, or maybe a place he doesn’t know. Maybe you have a friend at work that you could call whose house he hasn’t been to. But [women] are totally encouraged to get out of there, because obviously he’s going to return.”

If they don’t have somewhere to go? “Then basically they just have to call the police again if he returns,” she says.

Had the officers who responded to Silvia Ramirez called intake, they could have obtained a warrant for her husband’s arrest. They also could have provided her another layer of safety that night: an emergency protective order. A protective order is like a restraining order, but applies specifically to domestic violence.

Even if Ramirez’s husband had gone to jail that night and then been released, a protective order could have prevented him from going home or approaching her anywhere else. People who violate these orders end up back in jail.

Emergency protective orders are issued when suspects appear before a judge, usually after officers tell victims about the order and have them fill out a simple form. The orders last up to 90 days, a window of safety in which a woman can apply for a full protective order, which lasts for two years. The short-term order Silvia could have received that night is called a magistrate’s order of emergency protection, or MOEP. A full protective order can take up to six weeks to get. Often women don’t know about emergency protective orders until they’re told about them by police, and they can’t get one unless an officer calls the intake office and has the suspect arrested. It is a good system in theory; if a woman is battered and she calls the police, even if her batterer flees, the police can obtain a warrant and, upon arresting him, provide an emergency protective order for her. So much security can come from a single call-but it’s not required.

Women seeking protective orders have to get in line. The district attorney’s office that handles them sees applicants from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The office doesn’t take appointments, and interview slots for the day usually fill up by 10 a.m. A line forms in the hallway outside the office before the door is unlocked most mornings. Later arrivals can wait around hoping for a cancellation, or they can come back another day at the recommended time: 7:30 a.m. This often requires taking another day off work, or sneaking away from their abusers’ watch, or paying for another day of child care, or all of the above. While the office eventually sees most of the women, many are not seen until their second, third, or even fourth visits. And getting a protective order is easy compared with pressing charges.

When Houston police officers do the minimum and file an incident report on behalf of women whose batterers have fled, the report is forwarded to the nearest of the four family violence units.

Depending on the severity of the incident as reported, the unit may contact a woman to encourage her to come in and press charges. If she doesn’t, nothing happens, no matter the seriousness of her injuries. If she does come to the police to press charges, she’ll encounter an agency so overworked and understaffed as to be practically incapable of fulfilling its mandate. To cover an estimated 36,000 incidents a year, the Houston Police Department’s four family violence units employ a total of 15 officers.

“The first thing I do when I get an incident report is prioritize it, one through five,” says Holbrook of the West Side Family Violence Unit. “Ones are hospital cases-shootings, stabbings, beatings bad enough to put you in the hospital for a few days. … We’ll call and see if the victim is conscious and can communicate, and if they can, we’ll send an investigator down there to talk to them and see if they want to press charges. Of course, I can’t send an investigator to every hospital case.”

Second in priority, she says, are high-risk cases involving violations of protective orders, repeat offenses, assaults during pregnancy, and use of a weapon. Into this category also go injuries to the elderly, because the major assault unit is so understaffed, according to Holbrook. “With twos, we have counselors call the victim and ask if they want to press charges. Lesser hospital cases are twos.”

Most incidents, she says, are in a third category: assaults, harassment, and threats. “We send them a letter in the mail that says, ‘You’ve been a victim. If you want a case, call us,'” she says.

Category four includes cases in which suspects are arrested at the scene. “We don’t offer [victims] any services,” Holbrook says, “because the charges are already filed.”

The final category is for cases that aren’t considered credible because of weak or conflicting evidence.

Holbrook says the speed of an investigation depends on the perceived danger victims continue to face. Investigators tackle the highest priorities first as time allows. An investigation typically takes two weeks to a month, Holbrook says.

Two years ago, every case received relatively quick attention, but chronic understaffing has taken its toll at the family violence units. “We used to get them done in a week back when we had six investigators at each location,” Holbrook says. “That was two years ago. Now we have four investigators at North, West, and Central, and three at South.”

“The whole department is hurting for manpower,” she says. “But we think we’re different from burglary and other units, because our people can still be re-assaulted or killed. They’re still in abusive homes. So time is of the essence. Each investigator is working more cases at a time now, so we’re slower.”

How much slower is up for debate. Officer Ybanez says her cases are taking up to two months. “It’s like triage,” she says. Another investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says staff cuts are not so much a necessity as a choice. “Family violence is not a priority at HPD,” the investigator says. “That’s why we’re understaffed. Two years ago, we had 25 investigators. Our unit has been devastated. Our normal cases are taking two and three months to complete because our staff is cut in half. That’s two or three months before we can get around to filing charges on [a batterer] and getting a warrant for his arrest. That’s two or three months she’s still with that guy. I know one investigator whose investigations are taking three or four months. When investigators retire, the chief tells us straight up that they’re not giving us new people. They staff the murder squad first. But we’re trying to prevent murder.”

Levingston, the family violence supervisor, says, “I feel kind of awkward talking about staffing problems. I’d rather not get into that. But suffice it to say we could use more officers.”

Despite two separate written requests for comment and 15 phone calls over three months, Police Chief Hurtt declined to address the issues raised in this story.

The wait for justice for domestic violence cases in Houston can be deadly. On the night of June 12, 2007, Laela Threadgill, 25, was at a party with her two children and her 15-year-old sister. Her husband, Rui Perez, was also there. Threadgill and her husband were separated, and she had filed for divorce after he was sent to jail for abusing her physically.

But when Perez saw Threadgill, he told her he needed a ride home. Perhaps because her sister and the children were there, Threadgill agreed. She also agreed to lend him $20. When they stopped at a fast-food restaurant parking lot, Perez dragged her from the car by her neck and hair, threw her on the ground, and kicked her four or five times. He ordered everyone else out of the car, climbed in, and drove away.

Threadgill called 911. Houston police responded. The arriving officer, J.A. Horsch, interviewed Threadgill and her teenage sister. In his incident report, he wrote: “The comp stated she was scratched on her neck. The officer used his flashlight in the dimly lighted parking lot. The officer observed no injury. The officer gave the comp the case number and advised her to contact family violence.”

That was all that came of her call to the police. As per Houston police policy, Perez’s flight from the scene meant the officers didn’t have to call intake to obtain a warrant for his arrest. They didn’t elect to, either.

Threadgill’s mother retrieved the stranded family that night. The next day, Threadgill and her sister went to the West Side family unit to file charges against Perez. The case was assigned to Ybanez, who took photographs of scratches on Threadgill’s neck, along with bruises on her legs an
lower torso. Acco
ding to police records, Threadgill received information on “legal options, protective orders, shelters, and the Cycle of Violence” from a crisis counselor. She and her sister each gave sworn statements about the assault. Then she was sent home. She promised to return with photographs Perez had sent of himself holding a gun, threatening to kill himself, and threatening to kill their 2-year-old daughter, Mia.

Over a month later, on June 21, a note was added to the investigation file: “Due to time constraints, this investigation will continue at a later date.”

On June 25, Threadgill left “a disturbing message” on Ybanez’s voice mail. Threadgill said she’d lied about the assault and needed to talk to her. Ybanez tried several times, unsuccessfully, to reach both Threadgill and her sister. Ybanez noted in Threadgill’s file that she was trying to find out “if this was all out of fear of the suspect’s actions in the future, which happens in cases such as this.” Ybanez reported the message to the district attorney, who told her to close the case due to “conflicting statements.”

In spite of witnesses and injuries, Houston police officers chose not to call intake to pursue charges against Perez the night he assaulted Threadgill. They could have obtained a warrant, put out an alert for her car, and picked him up. She could have received an emergency protective order that night. He would have been in jail. But the Houston police don’t require officers to call intake, so they didn’t. Then, despite having sworn statements, photographed injuries, and imminent threats, Threadgill’s case languished for a month, lost in the backlog of an understaffed department, before being dropped on the basis of one potentially coerced voice mail. Police had evidence. Perez had a record of assault. Yet they let him go.

Threadgill went back to Perez for reasons that may be clarified by what happened when she tried to leave. On September 9, 2007, she was riding in a car Perez was driving. She told him she was leaving him. Perez beat and choked her with one hand while driving with the other. He picked up a friend named Danny, who drove while Perez continued to beat Threadgill in the back seat. She eventually escaped, jumping from the car. She called a friend to pick her up. The two went to their sons’ school to pick them up. Perez drove up beside them. “You fucking bitch, I’m gonna kill you,” he said.

Threadgill called police, who recorded her visible injuries and witness’s statements. Police went to Perez’s house, but he didn’t answer the door, and they didn’t have a warrant. According to police documents, “Officer was advised to make report and refer comp to family violence unit. Officer also spoke to suspect on phone in which he stated he was not at the location. Officer determined suspect to be uncooperative.”

Despite ample evidence, a prior conviction, and the ability to locate the suspect, once again Houston police failed to arrest Perez.

On the night of November 14, 2007, Perez drove alongside Threadgill at an intersection and shot her to death. Her sister was beside her in the car, screaming. Perez drove off and is still at large.

Emily DePrang is a writer from Pearland, Texas.

Emily DePrang is a freelance writer in Austin.

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