When we think of Louisiana, we think Jazz. New Orleans. The Bayou. Cajun and creole food. All great reasons to go visit this very unique state. But there is another side of Louisiana that is certainly not a source of pride: its domestic violence problem.
Why it’s an issue
While intimate partner violence (also called domestic violence) affects people of all sexes and genders, it disproportionately impacts women. It can be physical, sexual, psychological or even economical abuse — but if there is one thing common to all these forms of violence, it’s the power and control abusive people want to exert on their partners.
To make matters worse, intimate partner violence can escalate to deadly violence — and in 2018, Louisiana had the second highest rates of women killed by men in the US. And it’s not the first time: Louisiana has had one of the highest rates for years.
Abusers are even more dangerous when they have guns
Women who are killed by an intimate partner are more likely to be killed by a firearm than any other means combined. In Louisiana, 69% of intimate partner homicides involved firearms in 2018. And organizations working with survivors estimate that between 40% (in New Orleans) and 90% (in mostly rural parishes) of survivors have abusers who possess firearms.
Because of these shocking figures, activists have been pressuring Louisiana to restrict abusers’ access to firearms. The great news is: it worked! Laws have been introduced to ensure same-sex couples are protected under the law just as heterosexual couples are, that people convicted of domestic abuse are not allowed to own guns, and that firearms are removed from abusers who are prohibited from having them.
It’s progress, but it’s not enough. These laws will not succeed in protecting survivors from abusers with guns if survivors are re-victimized through the criminal justice system — which is what’s happening in Louisiana, where there is no consistent response from agencies across parishes (regions of the state); in some parishes, the response is so inadequate that survivors are left re-traumatized, re-victimized, and unprotected.
The police will not always help
Amnesty found that in some instances, the police dismissed intimate partner violence (IPV) calls as being simple “domestic disputes.” At times, police officers have threatened or arrested survivors who had called them for protection.
This is what had happened to April Charles, who was jailed herself when she called the police on her abuser. Kevonna, April’s sister, told Amnesty: “April’s child’s father would beat her up, but every time she called the police, she went to jail. Once they told her if she called again, both of them were gonna be arrested.” April was eventually shot dead by her abuser.
Amnesty found that stereotypes about gender, race, and “family” also impacted the response of police officers.
In cases involving same-sex partners, the most “masculine-presenting” person is more likely to be arrested regardless of who is the abuser. And LGBTI survivors have experienced humiliating remarks and dismissal by the police when they called for help. As a result, very few LGBTI people dare to call the police at all.
Black women are affected not only by gender but also racial stereotypes. They are more likely to be perceived as “aggressive” than white women and less likely to be seen as victims in need of protection.
Meanwhile, Amnesty found that the over-policing and criminalization of Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities can discourage survivors from calling the police when they experience abuse.
Maria, who used to be undocumented, told Amnesty: “My ex-husband threatened me with a gun. He said that if I left him, he would call immigration. I called the police. When they came, he had a conversation with them, but they never talked to me. […] After they left he convinced me that I could not raise children without him because I was undocumented and had no money.”
Getting protection from courts is not always an option
Part of the process for protection against intimate partner violence is securing what’s called a “protective order,” which legally requires the person to stop threatening or hurting you, to stay away from you, and now in Louisiana since January: to give up their guns for the duration of the order. But you have to go to a civil court, and the majority of people will have to represent themselves because there is not enough funding for legal aid. They might have to personally cross-examine their abuser and be cross-examined by them as well. This can be extremely traumatic for survivors and can discourage them from going to court in the first place.
Oftentimes the way a prosecutor pursues an IPV case or conviction isn’t in the best interest of the survivor. Domestic violence cases are routinely pled down to ensure a quicker and more certain conviction, but this has implications on the sentencing and on whether or not the abuser will be prohibited from owning a gun.
With a focus on getting higher conviction rates, prosecutors also sometimes refuse to drop the charges against survivors who have been mistakenly arrested, for instance when acting in self-defense, and they will either be compelled into a plea deal or face going to trial.
Tamika, an intimate partner violence survivor once fired a warning shot in the air when her abuser beat her up, and she got arrested. “I took a plea because [the prosecutor] threatened to get me 20 or 25 years.”, she recounted. “Tamika did a year of week-ends in jail and is now on a 4 years’ probation period.
What needs to happen now?
Whether or not survivors in Louisiana get the protection they need depends on where they live, whether the agency intervening has a protocol on how to respond to IPV incidents, who they are, and who their abuser is (e.g. if it’s a white, economically well-off, educated man).
What Louisiana needs right now is a consistent system with good minimum standards to ensure that survivors who call the police in Lafayette won’t get a different answer than those who call it in Lafourche. Stakeholders at all levels in the justice system need to be trained to meet these standards, and they need to be held accountable when they do not.
These are not extraordinary demands, these are common sense solutions. And after all they’ve endured, that’s the least survivors deserve.
Read more survivors’ stories:
Read our full report: Fragmented and Unequal: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr51/1160/2019/en/
If you are experiencing abuse, you can the national hotline for help: 1.888.411.1333 or the state-wide hotline if you are based in Louisiana: 1.800.799.7233. You can also visit the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s website for more information about domestic violence or to find a local shelter: http://lcadv.org/programs-resources/
 Data collected by the Louisiana Coalition on Domestic violence, based on media reports.