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How Dallas Has Become a Global Leader on Stopping Domestic Violence

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Last March, Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings made headlines after hosting a major rally against domestic violence in the city. The event took place at the AT&T Stadium, where the Cowboys play, and featured major names among the speakers—Emmitt Smith, Roger Staubach, Dez Bryant, and Brandon Carr all spoke, representing the football team, and the non-sports names included religious and political leaders from throughout the area. 

The event, part of Rawlings’s Dallas Men Against Abuse initiative, came shortly after the mayor spoke to the UN about domestic violence. And his statements as part of human rights organization Breakthrough’s “Ring The Bell” campaign, which puts the onus on men to end domestic violence against women, are concise and convincing

“Make no mistake: men’s violence against women is a men’s issue- It’s our problem. And I’m here to say we’ve had enough of women being disrespected, and we won’t tolerate it any longer. It’s not only about not being violent; it’s about changing a culture that says ‘violence is okay.’ I promise to stop laughing at jokes we’ve all participated in. I promise to speak out against domestic violence. And I’m asking men in Dallas — and everywhere — to do the same. Let’s make our homes, and our cities, safe for all.”

Since the rally, Rawlings has remained involved in these efforts. This month, he returned to using football as a pathway to approach men about domestic violence, calling on men at all Dallas high school football games to take a pledge at halftime to never hit a woman. Much of Rawlings’s focus on the issue has centered around the idea of masculinity and challenging the notion that violence is strength. That can be a muddy point in stadiums where violence and strength are so directly intertwined on the field, but reaching men in an environment where machismo runs high has its advantages too. At the very least, it’s interesting to see a civic leader address the larger cultural issues surrounding certain ideas about masculinity when advocating for social change. 

The latest part of Dallas’s efforts, meanwhile, are more traditional: Attempting to shift the dialogue is admirable and may, ultimately, be the only real way to address these issues—but domestic violence is also a law enforcement issue. To that end, the Dallas Morning News reported this week about DPD’s plan for ongoing home visits in cases where authorities have found previously-reported cases to be at high-risk for another incident: 

Police are considering a home-visit program where officers would personally check on the most vulnerable victims. They hope that strategy would help victims feel supported and prevent abusers from escalating the violence.

“Just the knocking on the door … is going to send a message to both the victim and the perpetrator,” said Lt. Miguel Sarmiento, who oversees the family violence unit.

Home visits are already part of the approach taken in New York, where 450 officers are assigned to check in with “children, elderly, and people police suspect will be abused again,” according to the paper. In Dallas, meanwhile, the city is struggling with the idea of adding the program without hiring additional officers. That’s something that criminal justice blog Grits For Breakfast suspects isn’t viable, citing the resources DPD expends on false home burglar alarm check-ins: 

You can’t get something for nothing in this world and that includes extra police resources, even if it’s to implement a good idea. Policing, like every other government function, involves trade-offs. Not everything can get done in a world of limited resources. I’d rather see officers following up on high-risk domestic violence cases than chasing after thousands of false burglar alarms, but between the public’s ignorance and the alarm industry’s political clout, in the near term the trade-off will almost certainly continue to prioritize the latter over the former.

Manpower issues may just be part of the territory when you talk about increased awareness on this issue, though. The statistics since Rawlings’ began the initiative are certainly impressive: Victims are taking their abusers to court fourteen percent more frequently than they did a year ago, while aggravated assault charges in such cases are down by six percent, which Dallas Police Chief Deputy Sherryl Scott attributes to the mayor’s campaign

“Not just our victims, but our abusers are paying attention,” she said.

With more domestic violence victims willing to prosecute, there’s more pressure on the district attorney’s office. Prosecutors already handle about 2,000 felony cases, and up to 4,500 misdemeanor cases each year, said Tammy Kemp, who oversees the family violence division.

Kemp said the best way to speed those cases through the system would be more manpower — and that costs money. A Rawlings spokesman said the mayor offered to speak with leaders in Dallas County — which funds the district attorney’s office — to advocate for additional funding.

Also, increased awareness may have resulted in more victims seeking help from local shelters. Through September of this year, shelters reported hotline calls are up more than 20 percent.

Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place shelter, attributes that increase to the mayor’s work. “Victims saw that and thought maybe someone’s going to listen to me,” she said.

 All of this is encouraging—if it does speak to the next challenge that Rawlings and the city seem likely to face. Having decidedly masculine figures like star Cowboys players directly challenge the idea that violence is strength, and calling on men and boys directly to pledge not to hit women, are significant. Ultimately, long-term change will only come through a cultural shift, and the early returns here suggest that this is all having an effect. For Dallas to continue to earn its leadership role here, though, they’ll have to figure out how to increase the resources that come at the next level. 

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