The arrest of Fresno Fire Chief Rob Brown last week puts a spotlight on domestic violence — a crime that police respond to multiple times a day in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Police and advocates of domestic violence victims say the crime takes place at all economic levels and across demographic lines. Officers may respond to an incident at a homeless encampment or in exclusive gated communities. In 2012, Fresno police reported 6,036 domestic violence cases, according to Sgt. Larry Bowlan, who heads the department's domestic violence unit. That number is down from 6,666 in 2011 and 7,170 in 2010.
Brown, who has yet to be charged, was taken into custody after Fresno County sheriff's deputies received a 911 call sending them to his northwest Fresno home near San Joaquin Country Club. They found Brown in his front yard and said he was intoxicated and initially uncooperative. Sheriff's spokesman Chris Curtice said that Brown was pepper-sprayed by a family member and that he struck his wife more than once and knocked her to the floor twice. He is also accused of threatening to kill another family member and choking him. He was booked into Fresno County Jail before being released on a $50,000 bond.
Brown's wife, Beth, who is the city of Fresno's emergency manager, appeared before the media Friday with attorney Charles Magill and her four sons. Magill characterized the arrest as an overreaction and "a parenting issue that got out of hand." That conflicted with a 911 tape released that night by the sheriff's office, in which Beth Brown said she was pushed by her husband, who she described as "very unstable." Rob Brown also appeared Friday to downplay the incident and deny that he was intoxicated, although he admitted drinking earlier at dinner.
California Domestic Violence law is written to include assaults on anyone who shares a home with the assailant, including family members and even roommates. A corporal injury charge carries a penalty of up to four years in prison. However, a defendant may be given probation provided he or she completes a yearlong batterer's program and agrees to other conditions.
Police and the courts confront domestic violence crimes from multiple angles. As an example, the police department's Bowlan said his unit staffs six detectives, a community recourse officer, and two victim advocates from the Marjaree Mason Center whose salaries are paid by the department. The unit also works closely with child protective services and the Fresno County District Attorney's Office. The victim advocates get involved early in the process and escort victims to court hearings. Bowlan said the CPS worker is important because children often witness violence inflicted on a family member. Detectives follow up domestic violence cases encountered by patrol officers, which can begin with a verbal argument and end in a physical assault.
Bowlan said his detectives "handle anything from attempted homicide to vandalism."
A person arrested on domestic violence charges faces a hearing in Department 95 or 96 of Fresno County Superior Court — courtrooms on the north side of the Fresno County Jail. The courtrooms, decorated with photographs of Yosemite Valley, have a glassed-in enclosure in one corner for the defendants who are brought straight from the jail to answer charges and bench-style seating for everyone else. Before court begins, attorneys bustle in and out through side doors carrying case folders while other attorneys confer with defendants and advocates murmur suggestions to victims.
It is not the first appearance in the court for many defendants. Many are back in court because they have not been attending batterer's meetings. They are often warned that their probations will be canceled and that they will be sent to prison if attendance doesn't improve.
Katie Crask, a former victim advocate for the police department, oversees a Marjaree Mason Center program for those convicted of domestic violence. It takes place in a nondescript office building on Shaw Avenue. Those attending, who may have just been sentenced by the court or may be finishing the 52-week program, sit in a circle in an encounterlike setting. Crask said feelings of denial and defensiveness are common among those in the classes. They often arrive there after committing an act of violence because they feel they are losing control over a relationship.
"The nuts and bolts are power and control," she said.
At the heart of the effort to change behavior, she adds, is teaching batterers to understand the "Cycle of Violence," which shows how a batterer moves from a phase involving the buildup of tension, to an explosion of violence against the victim, to a honeymoon phase, in which the batterer apologizes and promises to change. Then the tension builds again.
"By the time the roses are dying, the abuse starts again," Crask said.
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