The stories would be more shocking if they didn’t all sound so similar: a woman killed -- shot or stabbed or strangled -- at the hands of a current or former lover. From 1995 through 2002, more than 300 New York women were killed by someone with whom they were in a romantic relationship, according to a new study released by city health officials last month. And while overall the murder rate in New York declined dramatically over the same time period, the study concluded that there was very little decline in the number of women killed by an intimate partner.
“This problem is not going to be fixed by ways you normally think of to reduce crime,” said Dr. Susan Wilt, author of the study and assistant commissioner for the Health Department's Bureau of Injury Epidemiology. She noted that police can’t be expected to patrol inside people’s homes.
Part of the problem is convincing more women to get help. While a national study has reported that the majority of intimate partner homicides involve physical abusebefore turning deadly, in New York, over 70 percent of family-related homicides -- a police category that includes homicides committed by an intimate partner -- had no prior police contact, according to the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
Murder Rate Of Intimate Partners Stays Steady
The report, entitled “Femicide in New York City: 1995-2002"(in pdf format), is based on data gathered from the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, which classified the deaths of 1,030 women aged twelve and older as homicides from 1995 through 2002. After studying this data, which included police records, researchers concluded that 369 of the deaths were non-intimate homicides, 339 were intimate homicides and 322 had an unknown motive (In most of these deaths, along with several in the other two categories, the perpetrator remains unknown. While not meant to be an official police clearance rate, the study notes that the perpetrator’s name was able to be determined by researchers in only 54.5 percent of cases.)
While the motives and identities of perpetrators can be hazy, the single most common, or at least clearly identifiable, motive for killing women was related to their having an intimate partner. Separate from that category, about 10 percent of women killed were killed as part of a sex crime or a drug-related crime, while about six percent were killed due to family violence.
Far fewer women have been killed by non-intimate partners in years after 1995, but the rate of women killed by intimate partners, while fluctuating yearly, was only 20 percent less in 2002 than in 1995. In 1995, 1.54 out of every 100,000 New York women were killed by intimate partners, while in 2002 the rate was 1.23 per 100,000 women. Contrast those numbers with the decline in the numbers of women killed by people with whom they were not romantically involved: 2.35 per 100,000 in 1995, down to 1.04 per 100,000 in 2002, a decline of 56 percent.
Who The Victims Are -- Mostly Immigrants
The study also identifies characteristics of female victims of homicide. Black women made up about 50 percent of all women killed, while Hispanic women accounted for 27 percent of homicides and white women 18 percent.
Researchers found that 51 percent of women killed by an intimate partner were foreign born. (Wilt noted that 47 percent of women aged 12 and older in New York are foreign born).
Yolanda B. Jimenez, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, noted that focus groups of immigrant women have pointed to the language barrier as the number one reason why they are reluctant to call police. Jimenez noted that not only is it difficult for non-English speakers to make themselves understood, but it might mean that a neighbor will have to become involved when the police come. And if the woman’s partner speaks English and she doesn’t, it can leave the woman who needs help left out of a conversation with police when they arrive.
Jimenez pointed to a pilot program begun in the 115th Police Precinct that equips police with cell phone access to interpreters in various languages. Jimenez called the project a success, and said the program was going to expand to the 109th Police Precinct.
Wilt noted that the community has to be aware of their influence in preventing homicides. “They have a role, a really important roleâ€¦Community organizations have to realize that."
Ways To Help
Police may not be the only group that can help prevent femicide. Wilt noted that an 11-city study published last year cited specific risk factors for women. The study recommended that health-care professionals take an active role in identifying potentially life-threatening situations. The study suggested doctors ask domestic violence victims if the abuser has a gun (about 40 percent of intimate partner femicides in New York involved the use of a gun, compared to about 32 percent of non-intimate partner femicides).
Jimenez said the city was “in the process” of responding to some of the risk factors cited in the report. “One-third of all women who present at emergency rooms are there because their injuries are caused by an intimate partner,” Jimenez said. In New York, Jimenez said that every hospital has a domestic violence coordinator, along with digital cameras and link-ups to a database so information about domestic violence assaults can be recorded quickly and easily.
The city has distributed manuals to all health-care professionals related to being culturally sensitive when trying to spot domestic abuse. As far as guns, however, those questions are asked by social workers, not doctors.