Gov. Greg Abbott, legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, TCU football Coach Gary Patterson and other high-profile community members have joined Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson in the battle against domestic violence.
Wilson launched the new “Not In My County” campaign in October in connection with National Domestic Violence Month. The campaign is a strategic move to draw awareness to a festering problem that has elevated Tarrant County above the national average in cases, Wilson said.
Since taking office as Tarrant County’s first female district attorney in January 2016, Wilson has taken aim at white collar crime and public integrity with new crime-fighting units.
A former state district judge, Wilson was aware of the problem of domestic violence from a limited perspective. As district attorney, she has a much broader view of the problem.
“One in three women in Tarrant County will experience intimate partner violence at some point in her lifetime,” Wilson said. “My office is the voice for Tarrant’s crime victims and we will not be silenced.”
The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office along with police departments in Fort Worth, Arlington and Hurst, Euless and Bedford are among those who are committed to the Wilson’s campaign with a message of their own: “Not On My Watch.”
In 2016, there were 16 domestic violence-related murders in Tarrant County, which ranked the county second to Harris County, Wilson said. So far this year, there have been 13 domestic violence-related murders.
As of last month, there were still 2,302 domestic violence cases pending in Wilson’s office. Between January and October, 2,027 cases were disposed.
The FWBP spoke with Wilson about the problem, her personal feelings about domestic violence and how the community and business communities could help. Here are her responses:
You announced the “Not In My County” campaign in conjunction with National Domestic Violence Month. How will it continue moving forward and what do you hope to accomplish?
I was one of the 10 criminal district court judges in this county for 23 years, but from that viewpoint I only saw a portion of the crimes that were coming through our courts. Once I became district attorney and could see the full spectrum of criminal cases, I was shocked just how many intimate partner violence cases ended in the death of the woman. This crime happens in every corner of this county. For us to change this reality, we have to first acknowledge the problem as a community.
Numbers and statistics alone don’t do it – they’re not personal. This campaign gathered together familiar faces from across the county to start that rallying call: we know this is a problem, and we are not going to accept this behavior in our community.
We were overwhelmed by how many people and organizations stepped forward wanting to be a part of getting out this message.
Going forward, we would like to build on this momentum to further this conversation within community groups, faith-based groups and within the education system. It’s not a problem that will go away overnight, and ultimately the best tool we have is educating the upcoming generations.
Is it mostly an awareness campaign or will there be a concerted effort to prosecute offenders quicker and seek stiffer penalties?
“Not in My County” is an awareness campaign that works with our prosecution efforts.
My office has been working the past two years behind the scenes to analyze these types of crimes, develop relationships with law enforcement and community partners engaged with both the abusers and the survivors, and develop new methods to better prosecute the offenders, support the survivors and educate the public.
Last fall, Tarrant County Commissioners approved my request for a new dedicated trial unit focused on the prosecution of felony-level intimate partner violence crimes. That unit is currently comprised of five attorneys, two investigators and a support staff person, who are able to immerse themselves in these cases from intake to trial.
They work closely with the police departments and local nonprofits such as SafeHaven, One Safe Place and the Women’s Center, and provide training and public education to organizations across the County. Through this dedicated unit we have been able to target the most dangerous offenders, and are obtaining higher prison sentences for these offenders.
Why is this campaign so important to you?
No one should be harmed or live in fear of being harmed by someone they love. In 2016, our county experienced a record number of intimate partner homicides. We have to change that trend. My goal is to make Tarrant County a safer place where victims no longer have to live in the shadows.
Can you describe the toll of domestic violence (on children as well as women) in Tarrant County and how does it compare with to other urban counties in Texas?
For homicides, which are calculated by county, I can tell you that in 2016 we were second in the state only to Harris County in the number of intimate partner violence-related homicides. Tarrant County had 16, while Dallas County reported 13. As of Oct. 31, we’ve already had 13 intimate partner violence-related homicides in 2017.
In Tarrant County, one in three women will experience intimate partner violence at some point in her lifetime, which is 8 percent higher than the national average of one in four. As of the end of October, my office had more than 2,300 intimate partner violence cases pending.
That translates to many thousands of children who live in homes where violence is their “normal.”
These children feel isolated and out of control in their own homes. Over time, violence will define their relationships with people they date and eventually marry, and the cycle often continues. If we can intervene, educate and support, we can redefine what is acceptable and normal for Tarrant County families.
What can we do to prevent domestic violence?
Education. Educate the victims, the offenders and the community as a whole.
Many victims of intimate partner violence continue to be victims because of the level of power and control the abuser has over them – they control the finances, they have children together, immigration issues, etc.
Victims don’t like being beaten, but sometimes feel trapped for a multitude reasons and have no way out. We can’t blame the victim – we may not understand why she loves him or stays in a relationship with her abuser. Victims have to know there are options for them.
Abusers must be held accountable for their decisions and actions before the abuse escalates. This type of abuse tends to start small and build over time, but once it reaches the point where an abuser is choking the victim, it has a shockingly high chance of becoming a fatality. We must intervene and stop the abuser before that escalation happens, when there is still a chance to facilitate change.
And we have to start early, by telling our children this is not okay. Never allow someone to put their hands on you in anger, and never put your hands on someone else in anger. That is not love.