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Despite political nature, Mirkarimi case in San Francisco brings spotlight to domestic violence

SF Public Press
 — Jul 3 2012 - 3:16pm

In a hearing room in City Hall last week, reporters scrambled to get play-by-play reaction from followers of suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, sporting blue-and-white “Stand With Ross” stickers, and organized opponents, with purple signs saying, “There’s no excuse for domestic violence.”

As the city’s Ethics Commission continues to debate whether Mirkarimi is fit to hold his elected position, the complex game of personality, politics and procedure has for the most part eclipsed larger policy questions about the city’s approach to handling thousands of cases of domestic violence each year.

But advocates for victims say the hearings are helping to generate awareness about the wider problem of domestic violence, and the needed response from social service agencies and law enforcement. Data from the city’s Department on the Status of Women show that compared with the same period last year, the number of nights spent by clients at shelters was up 64 percent, to 3,822. Those numbers indicate an 8 percent increase from the previous quarter.

“The results of this hearing have the potential to cost lives,” said Beverly Upton, executive director of the Domestic Violence Consortium. “The world is watching. Victims and perpetrators are watching what you do here. I’m worried about the people who are seeing this on television inside their homes.”

The ethics commissioners, Upton added, “are not thinking about the message they are sending to women, children and male victims in their community.”

Kathy Black, the executive director at La Casa de las Madres, California’s first domestic violence shelter founded in 1976, said her agency had seen a 12 percent increase in calls since January, which she attributed to the publicity around the Mirkarimi case. She said the movement to curb domestic violence is still “young,” so a high-profile case gets people to pay attention and helps victims step forward.

Calls to the crisis hotline run by Woman Inc., a San Francisco-based organization that helps domestic violence victims, jumped 22 percent between December and January, to 1,909 for the month. In February, calls remained 19 percent above the same time last year.

 “Domestic violence was treated as a private matter. Police would come and walk the father or husband around the block to separate the two, then tell them to go work it out or to keep it to themselves,” Black said. “Not acknowledging domestic violence — minimizing it — is a disservice to hard-fought strides.”

Upton said that the city has reduced domestic violence homicides by 80 percent since 2000, when, in a highly-publicized case, Claire Joyce Tempongko was killed by ex-boyfriend Tari Ramirez at her home in front of her two children. “We’ve had a lot of success by being able to sit at the table with all law enforcement and trust that they have the same agenda of protecting our city’s most vulnerable residents,” she said.

David Waggoner, one of Mirkarimi’s lawyers, said, “Sheriff Mirkarimi welcomes any increased attention to domestic violence and the empowerment of victims and families.” At the Ethics Commission hearing Friday morning, Mirkarimi expressed regret for earlier saying that the case was a private family matter. 

After an incident in January that resulted in the bruising the arm of his wife, former Venezuelan soap star opera Eliana Lopez,  Mirkarimi was suspended from his job three months ago by Lee. Mirkarimi pled guilty to a misdemeanor count of false imprisonment for not allowing his wife to leave their home for 18 hours after the incident, and he was  sentenced to three years of probation and 52 weeks of domestic violence classes.

“Countless women have lost their lives because society turned a blind eye to the violence they suffered in their homes. People in our community should know that domestic violence will not be tolerated, no matter who the perpetrator, no matter who the victim,” District Attorney George Gascón said at the time of Mirkarimi’s plea. However, as Mirkarimi’s case changed from an incident of domestic violence to a political tussle over whether the sheriff could hold his post with a “standard of decency, good faith and right action,” the issue of domestic violence has also grown increasingly lost in the political debate.

Some advocates against domestic violence hope that the sheriff’s suspension will be sustained as a symbol to perpetrators of abuse. The website of La Casa de las Madres features a list of actions Mirkarimi’s opponents can do to show they are “engaged in this process and that domestic violence is NEVER a private matter.” Black said, “It’s bigger than one person and one incident: it’s about the community’s response to domestic violence.” Jamie Cox, outreach and volunteer coordinator, said she hopes that the Ethics Commission will arrive at a result that “champions accountability and appropriate standards of conduct from our elected officials.”

On the other side, Shepard Kopp, Mirkarimi’s attorney, said the issue of domestic violence does not relate to whether Mirkarimi can uphold his duties as sheriff. “If the sheriff were to take office and not come right out . . . and say, ‘Domestic violence is a serious issue that has to be taken seriously,’ I’m pretty sure that sheriff would not be subject to removal from office.”

Among the handouts that Mirkarimi’s supporters distributed was a poster criticizing Lee, ending with the quote: “Who has not bruised the heart of the ones we love.”

Under the City Charter, after the mayor suspends an elected official, the Ethics Commission is required to hold a hearing and provide a list of recommendations to the Board of Supervisors about whether the charges should be sustained. 

Ruth Tam contributed reporting to this article.


I concur with the comments that this is the wrong poster boy. Correction to the article's statement: he pled guilty for false imprisonment for turning the car around and driving home a few blocks instead of to pizza. Eliana was not imprisoned in her house by Ross for any period of time. Let the man do his job and actually go after the bad guys. He's not one of them.

Some of us see Beverly Upton and some others as playing politics rather than keeping the focus on domestic violence. in last November’s election for District Attorney, they never raised the issue of the extremely low prosecution rate in domestic violence cases by George Gascon, whose office funds some of their expenses. When Julius Turman was proposed for the Police Commission last summer, despite a record of domestic violence and battering settled out of court, they fell completely silent. Perhaps because one of the DV leading advocates serves on a board of directors with him. The decision to place billboards only in those districts where progressive supervisors are facing re-election also is troubling. When the fire chief was initially charged with domestic violence, Mayor Newson called it a “private matter,” DV leaders declined to comment.
But in one respect they are correct: a lot more of us are watching than before. That includes watching whether their advocacy is resulting in families overcoming an incident of domestic violence, or whether their solution is to dissolve the family. Which I personally think should not be the universal solution.

Excellent expression of words regarding the Domestic Violence Unit. I will think more than twice when hearing the words of "domestic abuse" thrown around again.

The DV had the wrong "poster boy" for this debacle of injustice against Ross. There should not have been a government involved group in this personal tragedy that has involved the Mirkarimi family. A family has been split; a father cannot see his beloved son; a husband can't talk to his wife about their marriage and a man has lost his elected job and salary because of over-zealous political groups.

Please don't tell me this isn't political. I hope and pray that the people who are playing with people's lives will lose in the end. It is all ready happening to the Mayor and Ms. Ivory (Snow) Madison.

"Presumptive and aggressive". "DV advocates would do better taking care of people." "Dominatrix."

Those domestic violence advocates better get back in the kitchen where they belong! Sad.

I have read and reread Upton's remarks over and still am puzzled. The goal of these hearings is not to send a message to anyone. It is to determine whether to make a recommendation to remove a politician. They are broadcast because people have a right to know them.

Ms. Upton seems to think the whole wold revolves around her ideas and is determined to force them upon the society whether they want it or not. As an example Ms. Lopez must either agree with Upton or be labeled as suffering from "Stockholm Syndrome" a very patronizing attitude. Ms Upton is very reminiscent of "Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers" in the Kurt Vonnegut story "Harrison Bergeron". I strongly recommend you all read it.

There are many problems with her statements.
1) What does she propose? Is she to be the arbiter for what we are allowed to watch at home; who appointed her; what about people who oppose the whole idea. What about the First Amendment?
2) There is no proof that this broadcast does any harm to anyone. Should we just take her word for it? What arrogance. This is the same person who with no proof went ballistic on Mirkarimi.
3) Assuming the broadcast was "damaging" (which I absolutely do not believe). Some freedoms are more important than security. We could have more security in a totalitarian state. Yet we choose to live in a (hopefully) free nation and take the risks. It seems like some such as Ms. Upton prefer a police state and are willing to sacrifice our freedoms. As long as they get to set the rules!

What DV advocates are missing is the damage they do to their cause. By taking sides in an obviously political fight they alienate a large number of people.

Their job is to protect abused people not to make an example of one individual. By doing so they come across as vindictive and in many ways more violent and abusive than abusers.

In order words DV advocates would do better taking care of people. When they decide to pick up a pitchfork and lead a mob they go from the solution to the problem.

Beverly UPton wants you not to watch the television in your homes with regard to a public hearing...such a dominatrix who knows better than you what you want to see....awfully presumptive and aggressive

Beverly Upton, I agree that genuine beating, hitting, bloodying, breaking, smacking, etc. are bad things and should be prosecuted. What I don't agree with is going all you did for political power...over an arm grab. I also do not appreciate your infantilizing all women, including Eliana..shame on you.