With East Baton Rouge Parish law enforcement handling an ever-increasing load of domestic violence homicides, three domestic abuse survivors on Thursday stressed the importance of officers and the public listening to victims.
The three women shared their stories at the fifth and final "listening session" on sexual assault and domestic abuse with the hope their experiences could help improve officers' responses to cases like theirs. The meeting was organized by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's women's advancement commission.
Last year, 14 people were killed in domestic violence related homicides, which marked a record high for East Baton Rouge Parish. Those killings accounted for 19 percent of all homicides in the parish that year.
"This is not to point a finger at law enforcement or any other institution or group or agency about how we responded in the past," said John J. Price, executive director of the Iris Domestic Violence Center. "This is about looking forward, about hearing their story and journey and what they experienced and trying to take things from that story and put them together so we can respond better."
Though they had not met each other before Thursday evening, Laura and Cheryl rushed to the side of the first speaker, Tameka, after she began to cry while talking about how she was emotionally abused. All three asked that their last names not be publicized.
Cheryl said she was physically and sexually abused from a young age by family members and intimate partners, but she always felt like no one ever believed her.
"Had I had one person to just be there to hear me, then I would not have had to go to Iris (domestic violence shelter), but I'm thankful in the same token that Iris was available to me because had it not been available to me I would be dead today," she said.
Laura detailed her experience trying to get law enforcement officers to act on her rape case after she had finally built up the courage to come forward. She explained how an officer took down her report and said he believed her, but failed to call her back with an update or return her calls. Eventually, she said, she was told that officials were not going to act on her case.
"To be told that they believed me but that no one was going to help me, I wasn't ready for that," Laura said.
She asked the 30 law enforcement officials in the room on Thursday night to not only listen and believe victims, but also to react by being supportive and offering resources.
After hearing the women's stories and asking questions, the other participants shared their own experiences. They highlighted what they thought were positives about the local response to these cases, including the use of body cameras and agency co-operation. Then they pointed to some possible places for improvement such as transitional housing and evidence collection in case a victim is afraid to testify.
"This is a serious community problem," Price said at the end of the meeting. "It'll be solved with a community response."