Two days after she had fled because of a beating at the hands of her husband, Sanna Dilawar was back at her home in Torrington, Connecticut. She needed to retrieve her breast pump, and she had her 11-week-old daughter with her.
This time, she said, the violence was even worse. After an argument, her husband pinned her against a bedroom wardrobe and hit her in the face. She struck him back, her wedding ring scratching his face. Enraged, her husband then threw her onto their bed, climbed atop and began punching her, she said. At one point, he put one hand across her mouth and the other on her neck.
Dilawar eventually managed to knock her husband to the ground, scoop up her infant daughter and get out the door. Dilawar reported the assault to the Torrington police, the first time she’d ever sought their help. She told the police everything that had happened, including that she fought back. She liked the officer who took her statement, she said, because it felt like he believed her. The officer took photos: a bleeding ear; a swollen jaw; broken glasses.
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Then the officer told Dilawar she was under arrest, along with her husband.
Dilawar is one of hundreds of Connecticut women arrested each year along with the men who assault them under a procedure known as “dual arrests.” In theory, dual arrests are meant to hold couples accountable when both parties are combatants in episodes of domestic violence or when it is impossible to tell who was the clear aggressor.
Nationally, the practice of dual arrest is rare, employed in just 2 percent of all “intimate partner” violence incidents. In Connecticut, however, data for the years 2011 through 2015 shows that dual arrests have taken place, on average, in 18 percent of all episodes of such violence that result in an arrest. A ProPublica review of data provided by the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection shows that in Windsor, a town of 29,044, dual arrests accounted for 35 percent of intimate partner arrests in 2015, the last year for which complete data is available. In Ansonia, a city of 19,020, the rate was 37 percent. New Haven for years has seen about a fifth of its domestic violence cases result in dual arrests.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence and a number of state legislators have been concerned about the practice for years, but Connecticut hasn’t remedied what many see as an unjust and dangerous situation. The heart of the problem, according to legislators and advocates for women, stems from the fact that the state has a mandatory arrest law for cases of reported domestic violence, but lacks a provision that allows police to limit arrests to the person determined to have been the primary aggressor.
As a result, victims can wind up being arrested along with their abusers. In such instances, the complaining victims must find a lawyer and work to limit the lasting damage of a formal criminal record. They are often assigned a public defender and a victim’s advocate, whose offices also represent their significant others. The fear of being arrested can dissuade victims from calling the police at all.
“I can’t stress enough how traumatic it is for women who call the police and end up in the criminal court process,” said Jennifer Lopez, director of the advocate program at Interval House, which provides services to victims of domestic violence. “I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of women in criminal and civil court. They’re literally in shock sitting in front of me because they can’t believe they’re arrested. For most victims, it takes a long time to reach out. When they do, and that happens, it’s very unlikely they’ll do it again.”
ProPublica spoke with a number of state legislators and prosecutors, as well as with current or former police chiefs in Connecticut about the rates of dual arrests. Butch Hyatt, the director of law enforcement services at Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the former second-in-command at the state police, said most dual arrests involved misdemeanors — a verbal incident, a shove, a slap.
“It’s not a serious assault, not a felony, where someone’s in danger of being seriously injured or killed,” he said.
Gary MacNamara, chief of the Fairfield police department, said his officers try to strike the right balance in handling often complicated disputes.
“There are occasions when dual arrests are appropriate,” MacNamara said. “What we try to do is make sure dual arrests aren’t done just to resolve the issues.”
There remains a split among legislators and law enforcement officials about whether the law needs to be adjusted to limit harm to innocent women.
Harry Rilling, for one, is emphatic that change needs to happen. Rilling, the mayor of Norwalk and the city’s former police chief, said a formal “primary aggressor” statute is required to cut down on the state’s dual arrests and the lasting problems they generate.
Avtandil Maisuradze, the husband involved in the dual arrest in Torrington, said his then-wife had been the aggressor, that she had punched him first and later spit in his face. If she had any bruises, he said, she must have inflicted them on herself.
“I did not touch her,” he said. “I would never touch any woman or anything. She was the only one abusive.”
Sanna Dilawar said she was terrified when she was told she was under arrest in March of 2016. As an officer took her mug shot and recorded her height and weight, she said she worried about winding up behind bars as well as being unable to get a job in the future.
Dilawar eventually had to appear in court to defend herself. The court instructed her to go to counseling at the Susan B. Anthony Project, a domestic violence support center in Torrington, and get drug counseling for her occasional marijuana use. The charges against her and her husband were dropped after both completed counseling.
“It made me feel guilty for using self-defense on an instant that could have potentially taken my life,” Dilawar said of her case. “Looking back now — I shouldn’t have felt guilty. What else was I supposed to do?”
For years in Connecticut, police often responded to reports of domestic violence with the aim of keeping the peace rather than investigating potential crimes. Men and women would be told to keep it down, maybe separate for the night.
And then came the case of another Torrington woman, Tracey Thurman, in 1983. Thurman had taken out multiple restraining orders against her husband after years of abuse. That June, her husband showed up at her property anyway. Thurman called the Torrington police. In the 25 minutes it took for officers to arrive, Thurman’s abuser stabbed her 13 times and left her for dead.
Thurman lived to successfully sue the city of Torrington. She alleged the police department had failed to provide her equal protection because of her status as a woman married to her abuser, discounting her complaints because they were domestic.
Three years after her attack, the Connecticut legislature passed a sweeping family violence law. The law set out a formal definition of family violence, created domestic violence units within the courts and required that judges hold hearings within 24 hours of a domestic violence arrest. Under the law, officers were not allowed to threaten to arrest both parties merely as a way to deter calls. And it required officers on domestic violence calls to make arrests if they found probable cause — regardless of whether victims wanted to press charges. The legislation became known as a mandatory arrest law.
After the 1986 law was enacted, police departments retrained officers on how to handle domestic violence calls and arrests skyrocketed. Within a decade, however, advocates and academics throughout the country were noticing a trend as states cracked down: Instead of just arresting one party in a domestic dispute, police in many cases were arresting both parties. Some saw it as an unintended consequence of mandatory arrest laws. Officers, feeling pressure to make arrests in even difficult-to-untangle disputes, wound up arresting both people.
Even early on, Connecticut stood out. In 2000, dual arrests happened in slightly more than 30 percent of intimate partner cases, according to data from the state. The national average for dual arrests in such cases at the time was 1.9 percent.
In 2004, some state legislators saw a need to act. A bill that year titled “An Act Concerning Dual Arrests in Family Violence Cases” sought to address the problem by requiring officers to identify a primary aggressor in a domestic violence incident, and arresting that person only. The 2004 bill instructed officers to consider the degree of injuries, a history of family violence and whether one of the parties was acting in self-defense.
Other states had already adopted similar legislation, with Wisconsin becoming the first back in 1985. New York followed suit with a primary aggressor measure in 1997. Laws in New Hampshire and Massachusetts specifically instruct officers to look for a primary aggressor, and New Jersey law instructs officers to compare injuries and other relevant factors, including self-defense, in making any arrests.
Academic research supports the idea that primary aggressor laws lower dual arrests. A 2007 National Institute of Justice study on dual arrests found that states with primary aggressor laws had a quarter as many dual arrests as states that did not. David Hirschel, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and one of the four authors of the 2007 study, is completing a study using 10 years of dual arrest data and says the trend has continued.
In Connecticut, however, the primary aggressor bill didn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee in its original state. Police chiefs, the chief state’s attorney and the legal counsel to the state public defenders all testified against it.
The chief state’s attorney thought the law was drawn up in a way that would make it easy for lawyers for accused primary aggressors to pick apart. The public defenders feared that the law, if well intentioned in its aims to protect victims, might pressure officers to file unwarranted charges against alleged batters.
In the end, a stripped-down version of the bill that instructed responding officers to take self-defense into account was signed into law.
Anthony Salvatore, who at the time was the chairman of Connecticut’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council, testified against the bill, saying officers needed the latitude to make dual arrests if the circumstances demanded it, and that the primary aggressor language would only confuse them.
“They almost wanted a commitment that there would be only one arrest,” said Salvatore, who today is the town manager of Cromwell, Connecticut.
Stephen J. Sedensky III, the state’s attorney for the judicial district of Danbury, agreed.
“It’s so often important to leave it to the discretion of the officer,” Sedensky said. “We want to give them the tools to work within a given situation, and our statutes do provide the authority for them to make the arrest when they deem it appropriate.”
Hirschel, too, offered caution concerning primary aggressor laws: His ongoing 10-year study has found that such laws can create an effect where a police officer responds to a scene and doesn’t make any arrests.
In 2012, Connecticut’s elected officials tried once more to limit the damage done by unnecessary dual arrests. The legislature passed, and Democratic Gov. Daniel Malloy signed, a law requiring police departments to adhere to a “model family violence policy.” The 2016 version of the policy warns officers that dual arrests are not an option if there isn’t probable cause to arrest both parties — and reminds them that self-defense is a legitimate reason for use of force.
Rilling, now the mayor of Norwalk, said that as police chief he spent years fighting to improve his department’s record on dual arrests. He said one of the things he learned is that the self-defense exception isn’t enough in many cases.
“If the man goes to punch the woman and she grabs his arm and bites his hand, well, that’s kind of a response, it’s almost an automatic response to being punched in the face,” Rilling said.
Robyn Porter, a Democratic state legislator, is a survivor of domestic violence. She said she, too, was in favor of a primary aggressor law.
“I just don’t understand the logic in arresting someone being abused,” she said.
Among the 2,412 intimate partner violence cases in which Connecticut police made dual arrests in 2015, there are some that illustrate how difficult it can be to identify and charge only a primary aggressor.
Katherine Sanford wound up in court after getting into a fight with her ex-boyfriend and the father of her two oldest children, in March 2015. She had let him stay over on her couch in Naugatuck and got into a dispute with him the second night. It started over her house rules and how she disciplined the children and escalated to the point where, she said, he flicked tobacco in her face. He hit her, she said, and she tried to lock herself away in the bathroom and call the police — but he took her phone partway through the call. By the time police arrived, she was fighting back. “Unfortunately,” she said, “they walked in when I had my hands around his neck.”
Sanford was charged with disorderly conduct, which was dismissed in court. Her ex pleaded guilty to interfering with an emergency call.
“I have to defend defending myself and justify why it was OK as me as a woman for me to put my hands on him,” she said. “And the judge told me that it’s not self-defense if you can physically find a way out. Whether it’s locking yourself in the bathroom or running out of the door.”
In an interview, Mark Casagrande Jr., Sanford’s ex, maintained that Sanford had always been the “violent one.”
Virginia Mintanciyan, 51, of Stamford had been married to her husband since 1992. She said she’d been emotionally tormented for years. His behavior escalated from controlling what restaurants they ate at to blaming her for their third child’s autism, she said. Occasionally he shoved her, she said, and occasionally he hurt her. On Columbus Day weekend in 2015, she arrived home late from the grocery store. Her husband demanded to know where she’d been. He got in her face, she said, pressing her up against the counter and screaming.
Mintanciyan reached up and punched him in the face.
“I just did what I had to do to get him away from me,” she said. “I wanted to get him off me, because I didn’t know what he was going to do to me.”
She ran outside to call the police, who gave her a disorderly conduct charge. The court put her through anger management classes before ultimately dropping her charges. She’s separated from her husband and hasn’t spoken to him in seven months.
Frank Benemio, the husband, declined requests for comment, saying the events had been “highly personal.”
Advocates stress the importance of a primary aggressor law in part because they say the self-defense carve-out passed in 2004 is still too subjective. Self-defense from a victim’s perspective, said Allison Roach of the Domestic Violence Crisis Center, can look very different from an officer’s perspective.
“If a victim reacts prior to a defendant actually assaulting them, maybe it’s so ingrained in them that, ‘If this happens and this happens, then step three is he’s going to hurt me,'” she said. “Then they could be arrested, and they acted first.”
Bryan Cammarata, an administrative lieutenant and public information officer for the Naugatuck police, said he tries to answer this question to figure out what counts as self-defense: “Was this self-defense at the end, or did they continue to engage with what’s going on?”
Virtually everyone admits domestic violence cases can occasionally be frustratingly gray. But those concerned about Connecticut’s rates of dual arrests say there are many cases where the particulars are far less hazy. Sanna Dilawar’s in Torrington is one. Sheminith Noonan says hers is another.
The night before Thanksgiving last November, Noonan said she agreed to drive her ex-boyfriend home from a bar in Naugatuck. They couple had broken up over claims of infidelity, Noonan said, but she’d agreed to remain friends. That night, as they drove, her ex complained to her about how his latest girlfriend was cheating on him.
The hypocrisy stung, Noonan said. By the time she pulled up in front of her ex’s apartment, they were arguing. She ordered him out of her car. He slammed the door, she said, and kicked the car.
Noonan got out. They argued back and forth, she said, before she finally told him to not speak with her again and to “lose her number.”
In response, she said, her ex grabbed her shoulders and kicked her in the stomach. At one point, she said, he had his hands on her neck. Noonan managed to get into her car and call the police. She put the phone up to the window so the dispatcher could hear her ex screaming at her to get out, she said.
When the police arrived, a female officer took Noonan’s statement and a male officer took her ex’s. The male officer came back and said that the police would be charging both of them. Noonan’s former boyfriend did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Noonan, for her part, said that night she felt “like I was in the twilight zone all of a sudden.”
Noonan said the officer claimed he was just enforcing Connecticut’s laws.
“We can’t tell who the aggressor is so we take you both in,” she recalled him saying.
Noonan said she showed up to court that Friday with bruised cheeks, a turtleneck hiding the bruises on her neck. In the courthouse, she said, she had to tell her story over and over — to the judge, to the prosecutor, to a victim’s advocate. She started to wonder whether the beating was her fault, what she could have done differently.
Noonan’s breach of peace charge is still pending. But her name has been published in the local police log and the local newspaper.
“It really sucks for your self-esteem, your own self-awareness. I just questioned everything,” she said. “At one point I spoke to the victim advocate and I said I wish I didn’t even call.”
Cammarata, the police official in Naugatuck, said the state has work to do in finding the right balance.
“Altogether in the state of Connecticut, there’s a tendency from the state to want to make sure the victim is not re-victimized, and I think that’s everybody’s goal,” said Cammarata. “If both are getting arrested, one way or another you’re arresting a victim. There’s no way to get around that.”