October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, so it's fitting that I share a tale that makes me believe that we still — despite decades of tough talk — don't treat domestic violence as the serious crime it is.
Megan Shamburg worries every day that she'll become a headline, a statistic, a murder that could have been prevented. The 27-year-old woman has an 8-month-old daughter, a 7-month-old restraining order and a violent ex-boyfriend who'll be out of a jail in a month.
Shamburg called 911 last March. She said her boyfriend had smacked her while she was holding their baby. When deputies from the Los Angeles County sheriff's Lomita station arrived, they told her to wait with the baby outside while they talked with the boyfriend.
He told deputies that he never struck Shamburg, but pushed her away after she hit him. Neither of them had marks or bruises. Deputies considered it a he said, she said, and left without making an arrest.
Shamburg said they gave her two options: Deputies could haul them both to jail — and put their newborn daughter in foster care — while detectives sorted things out. Or she could leave the apartment.
She left, for good, that night. And she got a restraining order the next week that barred her ex from contacting her.
He violated it immediately, Shamburg said. She recorded his calls, saved his texts and documented his threats.
She reached out to his ex-wife and learned he had a rap sheet, with a felony conviction for making death threats and a string of domestic violence arrests. Because he was on probation for those, he was jailed in May for violating Shamburg's restraining order.
But four months later, he was out and harassing Shamburg again, she said. She notified his parole officer. He went back to jail in September, but with the lightest possible sentence.
"The judge said there were no allegations of abuse in this relationship, so she gave him the low term," Shamburg said.
There were no allegations because the deputies who came to their home last spring had refused to arrest him.
"I've got a 3-inch binder full of restraining orders, court cases, and violations … but no battery report to prove that he's ever been violent," Shamburg said.
That's what launched her on a campaign to force deputies to account for what she considers their indifference to the threat posed by her ex. "They say they can't arrest him until he does something," she said. "But that's too late for me."
I can't claim to know what happened in Shamburg's apartment that night in March.
But I think it strains the boundaries of common sense to take the word of a man with a years-long history of abuse, dismiss the account of a frightened woman, then threaten her with arrest.
Sheriff's Lt. John Wolak is investigating Shamburg's complaint that deputies were "disrespectful, discourteous, rude, or downright lied" on their report.
Wolak told me he understands that Shamburg is afraid. But he said the case was complicated because, "on that night, the deputies did not determine that a crime had occurred."
Domestic violence counselors I talked to said Shamburg's case signals a disturbing trend — a dramatic increase in the number of men who claim, when police arrive, that they are really the victims.
Officers often respond to the dilemma by arresting both parties. From their point of view, that might be a tidy way to resolve the dispute.
But the threat of dual arrests may also discourage women from calling for help.
"We have seen a dramatic increase in women having to defend themselves against charges that they started the fight," said Adrienne Lamar, associate director of the Jenesse Center, a domestic violence intervention program in South Los Angeles. Police are supposed to be trained to identify the dominant aggressor by history, evidence and patterns of behavior, she said.
Domestic violence, after all, is about controlling your partner not just through violence but through fear.
The "dominant aggressor" may not be the one who started the fight, but the one most able or likely to inflict serious harm.
That may seem gender-neutral on paper, but in real life, it's not.
Because Shamburg's 6-feet-4, 270-pound ex-boyfriend will never have to worry — as she did that night — that at any second, someone vastly stronger, someone you've trusted and loved, might put his hands around your neck and squeeze until you're dead.
Shamburg's quest for a paper trail at last paid dividends on Friday, when a deputy district attorney told her that her ex will be charged with misdemeanor battery in connection with the March incident.
It may not lengthen his jail term much, but it helps correct the tilt in a system that sometimes seems weighted against female victims.
Shamburg's ex-boyfriend's former wife sent me a note that said it best: "Since we stayed in the relationship as long as we both did, we are judged as crazy before he is judged as dangerous."
The past seven months have been a learning process for Shamburg.
"Part of this is humiliating," she blogged to friends last spring. "Who wants to admit that they had a baby with a complete loser who smacked her around when he got angry. not me.. but I did."
She realizes now that her relationship was abusive in ways she hadn't acknowledged. "I was controlled, talked down to .... Everything is your fault, always your fault .... if you had only kept your mouth shut, done what you were told, read their mind, parted the seas, walked on water...."
It's a feeling that women trapped in controlling relationships are bound to recognize.
Shamburg was asked last week by the deputy fielding her latest complaint, what it is exactly that she wants.
She rattled off some basics: Credibility, respectful deputies, an accurate arrest report.
But what she really wants is something that no deputy, judge or restraining order will ever be able to promise:
"I want to be able to leave my house after dark," she said. "I want to not be scared to put my baby in the car. I want to not wish, every second of every day, that I have eyes in the back of my head."