Love Hurts

When it comes to crimes of passion, Hialeah is Dade's undisputed champ. Unfortunately, the competition never lets up.

More than half the Latinos interviewed believed it was no one else's business if a man verbally threatened his wife, and more than half felt that a man who "slaps his wife hard" shouldn't be arrested, and that his woman shouldn't leave him. Nearly one in five male Latin respondents disagreed that a physical assault on a woman was "an attack on her dignity and freedom." Likewise, more than one in four disputed the claim that men who beat their wives "are using physical force to get their way." In each instance, these percentages were higher than the other respondents' (though only slightly higher than some other ethnic groups).

Staffers at Dade's Domestic Violence Court have not compiled any official demographic figures, but Ivon Mesa, the court's acting intake director for those who seek injunctions, did begin her own unofficial tally last year. The reason? "When I would speak to victims, I found that a lot of them were Cubans, and I wanted to know, for instance, what sort of cultural factors might contribute to the violence, not just for Cubans, but all the groups here."

Mesa's figures are difficult to interpret, because they are based on citizenship rather than ethnic background. But they do bear out her initial observation. Among the 230 women who sought injunctions from abusive boyfriends or husbands last year at the Dade County Justice Building, for example, 107 identified themselves as Cuban. (Of the 138 who identified themselves as American, Mesa says, she does not know how many were Cuban Americans.)

Mesa, who lived in Cuba for nearly half of her 25 years, says the numbers are partly a byproduct of culture shock. "Domestic violence is still a taboo subject in Cuba. You just don't hear anyone talking about it. Not in the media or on the street. They don't even know that it's a crime. So you have people coming here with this mentality, applying the same rules as in Cuba, and all of a sudden what they've been doing for the past 30 years is a crime."

Robert Schroeder, director of Miami's Safespace Shelter, estimates his clientele at 40 percent Latin, 40 percent African American, and 20 percent Anglo. But like most other advocates, Schroeder warns that it is dangerous to discuss domestic abuse as an ethnic or cultural phenomenon. "From what we know, violence can happen to anyone, of any color, in any circumstance. To say it's more prevalent among one group obscures that reality," he asserts. Not surprisingly, the recent grand jury report made no mention of ethnicity.

Carmen Caldwell says there are other, more basic factors that contribute to Hialeah's grim notoriety. For one, the city is dense and overcrowded, especially since Hurricane Andrew blew away much of South Dade in 1992. Though 1990 census figures place the city's population at under 200,000, Caldwell figures the actual number today is closer to 250,000. Yet the Hialeah police department has only twenty patrol cars on the street at any given time, a figure Caldwell characterizes as "the absolute bare minimum."

Sergeant Mike Fernandez heads the squad's homicide unit, which consists of exactly six detectives plus himself, and which is responsible for all violent crimes, such as aggravated assaults, sexual batteries, and kidnappings. "The thing you have to understand is that domestic homicides are only the extreme cases," says Fernandez, a tense man who bites his nails down to the quick. "The lesser complaints run in the hundreds, thousands. And that's everything from a shouting argument to an aggravated battery."

Domestic calls, or 34s, as they are known in police parlance, constitute the largest volume of calls to the Hialeah police.

Still, the department has no domestic violence unit. Last fall, in the midst of the city's well-publicized spate of domestic slayings, Chief Rolando Bolanos pledged to establish a unit. Through a spokesman, Bolanos says that is still one of his top priorities, though it hasn't happened yet.

He won't have to look far to find a model. In 1992, in neighboring Opa-locka, a city barely one-tenth the size of Hialeah, Det. Therese Homer established Dade's only domestic violence police unit. Homer, who also chairs the Dade County Alliance Against Domestic Violence, moved from the Atlanta police department to Palm Beach in 1985, where she was that city's first black officer. She accepted a position in Opa-locka five years later as a patrol officer.

"It was obvious there was a problem," recalls Homer, who had worked on a domestic violence unit in Atlanta. "We'd get to the site of a domestic battery and the other officers would say things like, 'Oh no. Not this place again. We've been here before.' But there was no mechanism for flagging high-risk families."

Homer called around to see what other Dade police departments had in the way of domestic violence units. She found nothing. Within a few months, she had drawn up a proposal. Today she heads the Opa-locka unit, assisted by two social workers, two interns, and any part-time help she can finagle from injured officers. She screens all domestic complaints and makes personal contact with many, hoping to intervene before a serious crime occurs. "Some people call what I do social work more than police work, but you have to get involved when the crimes are happening in people's homes," Homer stresses. "I don't even call it domestic violence any more. I call it domestic terrorism, because that's what it is."

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