Florida State Attorney Aramis D. Ayala made headlines when she announced that she refuses to pursue the death penalty in capital cases. Both former Gov. Rick Scott and current Gov. Ron DeSantis have criticized her publicly for that decision and have elected to dismiss her from certain high-profile cases. As Florida’s first Black State Attorney, Ayala frequently receives her share of criticism but through it all, she remains steadfast in her pursual of justice.
October is Domestic Violence Prevention Month and as a former prosecutor, Ayala maps the sequence of events between intimate partner abuse and police brutality and violence. The similarities are uncanny and her depiction of each reveals a cycle of violence that needs to come to and end once and for all.
When I announced my run for Orange-Osceola (Orlando) State Attorney in 2016, I made a commitment to prioritize efforts to combat domestic violence and address the frayed relationship between the community and police. At the time, I saw these as separate but equally important issues, both critical to upholding public trust and public safety for all of my constituents, including the most vulnerable and voiceless.
But four years later, as I prepare to leave office when my term ends January 3, 2021, and after having worked on thousands of domestic violence cases, I’ve come to realize that policing in Black communities actually exhibits many patterns of behavior consistent with domestic violence. At the core of both problems are dysfunctional relationships driven by a struggle for power and control. And in both cases, perpetrators use mental and physical abuse to dominate and oppress their victims. These disturbing similarities reveal how badly broken these relationships are and suggest the need for fundamental changes in order to address this issue.
Dr. Lenore Walker, a psychologist and Director of the Domestic Violence Institute, Inc. not only introduced Battered Woman Syndrome to the courts, but in 1979, she also developed the cycle of violence theory, identifying three distinct phases that define violent relationships: tension building, explosion, and honeymoon. Although this cycle is generally used in the context of intimate partner violence, there are clear parallels to policing within the Black community. The killing of George Floyd represents an explosion following years of escalating tensions. The resulting pressure of “going along to get along,” despite the history of dehumanization and marginalization may ultimately, if not careful, result in a form of perceived progress that could return us to the honeymoon phase.
But even then, the cycle would likely only restart. The reality is that abuse is built into the policing of Black and brown neighborhoods across America, which means these communities exist in a constant state of tension building. Residents face emotional abuse in the form of routine harassment, with tactics including surveillance, unwarranted confrontations, and verbal attacks — all of which are similarly recognizable as aspects of domestic abuse. Police also frequently resort to excessive force; a form of physical abuse meant to intimidate and exert control.
There are also clear similarities in the way victims of domestic violence and police abuse are treated, both by their abusers and the broader public. Sufficient evidence exists to prove that many who have power and control issues find themselves working as police officers where the dominant culture of policing exacerbates and often justifies that dangerous, threatening and often violent mentality.
A 2016 Hofstra University study on “Protecting Police Officer Families From Domestic Violence” cites that at least 40% of the families of police officers experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10% of families in the general population. Abusive partners are typically jealous and do not like their victims getting attention or being validated. When Black people are highlighted and dignified with a simple yet meaningful slogan such as Black Lives Matter, some police and their supporters insist on responding with an incongruent response — Blue Lives Matter.
Perhaps the most obvious parallel between these forms of abuse is the habitual blaming of survivors for their own victimization. Through character assassination, apologists for abuse in either setting will often attempt to deny the abuse or argue that a victim deserved it or that their life somehow did not matter. The entire country watched for nearly nine minutes as George Floyd took his last breath calling out for his mother and uttering the words, I can’t breathe with a police officer’s knee in his neck as several other officers stood by. Then came the character assassination and questions about Mr. Floyd’s past and even suggestions that a possible drug overdose caused his death, not asphyxiation. Why are Black people blamed for their own victimization or even their own deaths in similar situations?
And just as we see unfair questions about why victims of domestic violence don’t simply leave abusive relationships, in the aftermath of police violence, people regularly ask why a suspected person of color didn’t just comply. Yes, it’s possible that compliance may lead to a different outcome, but these decisions are complicated by trauma, fear, and past experiences.
To insist that Black people simply surrender to a command, without considering the legality of the command, the context in which it was given, or the possibility that their life could be in jeopardy, is to remind Black folks of their inferiority and inhumanity. Retorts like “don’t break the law” or “just follow orders” therefore end up serving as little more than dog whistles meant to push Black Americans into accepting even the most blatant of injustices.
When abuse is uncovered, we also see similar excuses, with perpetrators and their defenders claiming it was only an isolated incident, rather than part of a much broader pattern of mistreatment. But there is one key difference between the responses to domestic violence and those to police abuse. Once domestic abusers have been publicly exposed, they usually won’t have allies rushing to their defense. In the case of police abuse, however, officers can count on the protection of unions whose job it is to comfort them and shield their misconduct from legitimate criticism or appropriate accountability.
Although there is a troubling overlap between these two issues, this doesn’t mean all police officers are abusers. As State Attorney, I work directly with many police officers whose counsel I seek because they are kind, decent, and respectable human beings. But even the best officers operate within a dominant policing culture that for centuries has enabled — and often encouraged — the sort of abuse that perpetuates this toxic relationship with communities of color.
To experience policing as a Black or brown person in America is to be intimately familiar with the terror of being in an abusive relationship. If we are to bridge the divide between police and these communities, we must begin shifting policing culture away from this dynamic of power, control, and domination, and toward one of compassion, respect, and support.
Aramis D. Ayala is the State Attorney in Orlando, Florida and was the first Black person to become State Attorney with more than a decade of service as a prosecutor and Assistant Public Defender. Since becoming State Attorney in 2017, her commitment to real justice has shined as an outspoken death penalty opponent, refusing to stand silent in the face of inhumanity, injustice, police misconduct, gun violence and systemic racism.