Here is a horrifying statistic: At least one in three women and girls will be subject to violence or abuse during their lifetimes.
According to the United Nations, less than 40 percent of these victims will seek help. Those who do usually reach out to friends or family. Only rarely — less than 10 percent of the time — do victims reach out to the people who can best help them end the abuse and find the resources they need to move on: the police.
In her 28 years as a Las Vegas policewoman, Cindy Rodriguez was well aware of this. Actually, she knew it firsthand.
Growing up, Rodriguez witnessed her mother’s abuse at the hands of her father. “I saw how violence could occur in a household since I was very small,” she said. To prevent her mother from leaving, her father threatened the life of a loved one. Her mother eventually left the marriage, but endured years of financial hardship, aided only by the fact that her daughter was old enough to take care of her younger brothers.
As a law enforcement officer, “it was really important for me to have that experience myself,” Rodriguez said. Understanding why victims stay with their abusers helped her respond to domestic violence calls — and helped her instruct international law enforcement officials as part of the State Department’s International Law Enforcement Academy program.
In Budapest in November 2015, Rodriguez taught colleagues from Kosovo, Ukraine and Hungary about ways law enforcement can effectively respond to domestic violence, despite limited resources and the difficulty in convincing victims to come forward.
Why don’t victims come forward?
Rodriguez described a typical domestic scenario in which the abuser, usually male, gets caught or for some other reason pledges to end the violent attacks. After a brief “honeymoon phase” the violence resumes almost without warning, triggered by anything from a casual remark to a burned dinner. But the victims often stay.
“He woos her. She obviously loves him. There may be financial difficulties. Maybe she doesn’t work. Or there are children involved,” she said. There are already clear consequences to ending the partnership, “and now you bring the abuse aspect into it and it just complicates things even more,” Rodriguez said.
One effective police strategy is to have the same officers routinely patrol the same areas — whether in a rural region where most people know each other, or a defined city precinct — and regularly interact with that community. When a call comes from a neighbor, or from someone within the household, the officer knows immediately if the complaint comes from a location that the police had already visited. The officer is able to spot abusive patterns and offer appropriate assistance.
Rodriguez also showed her foreign counterparts how she and her staff at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department use social media to circulate public service announcements, including those telling victims how to get help.
Reputation is key to breaking the ‘glass ceiling’
Many of Rodriguez’s students said it was rare to see a female officer playing an important leadership role and being so obviously respected by her male peers. The few women working in their own law enforcement branches were recent hires and just starting to gain experience.
“You carry yourself very competently. It’s very obvious that [your colleagues] respect you,” a student said. “How did you get to that place?”
“One day at a time,” Rodriguez replied. To combat stereotypes and discrimination, Rodriguez learned, “you have to carry yourself in an extremely professional manner [because] your reputation will precede you, for good or bad.”
From her experience in Budapest, “I realized that my message and the lessons I had learned were universal and went all across men, women, cultures, races and foreign countries,” Rodriguez said.
A previous version of this article was published January 6, 2016.