If domestic violence is America’s hidden scourge, then police inattention is the secret obscured behind it. The harsh truth for many women under threat from abusive men is that police provide only a false sense of security. In reality, victims are often on their own.

If you doubt this, consider the incident last month in which Montgomery County police allegedly dropped an intoxicated man at the doorstep of his estranged wife and insisted that she let him in, despite the woman’s protests that the man had just assaulted her. After the police left, the woman told authorities, her husband assaulted her again.

Or recall the slaying of Luticia Shipman. When Shipman was found strangled to death in August, allegedly by her estranged husband, the Prince George’s County Police Department lamented her death publicly. Shipman had won a protective court order against her husband, and police had been called to the Shipman home in Landover numerous times—the last time just a few hours before she was killed.

“It’s a tragedy any way you look at it, after she had taken the measures to protect herself,” county police spokesperson Royce D. Holloway told the Washington Post.

There was a time when I might have believed that—that Shipman had taken the right measures to protect herself, that the police had done all they could. But not after I met Norm Saunders, a licensed D.C. private detective, who devotes a sizable part of his practice to defending women who believe they need more security than they are getting from the police.

Saunders says his greatest frustration is that most women don’t know that with one phone call, they can hire an armed, aggressive ally to help rearrange the power relationship between themselves and a man who is stalking, battering, or just harassing them. If a man keeps calling you at work, for example, it is completely legal to hire a private detective to go to his job and politely interview a supervisor, asking whether the harasser has been known to be violent. Sometimes just applying a little pressure like that can get a bully to back down.

“Even poor people in the ghetto know that if you’ve been arrested for murder or assault, you or your family should beg, borrow, or do whatever you can to get the money to hire a good lawyer to keep you out of prison,” Saunders told me several years ago, when I first met him. “But they don’t know that if someone is trying to murder or assault you, you should borrow the money or do whatever you can to hire some protection to keep you out of the hospital or the grave.”

If you think the police won’t protect you, Saunders’ advice is to make your problem a politician’s problem: Send a registered letter to the mayor, or county executive, or member of Congress. “You write saying that you’re asking them for help because you know that a dangerous criminal is trying to kill you and the police won’t take it seriously enough to get him off the street,” Saunders explains. “And you include the fact that you’ve also sent a copy to a few reporters. That will get any politician’s attention, because they know that if you die, their opponents will create a scandal. The police follow up on calls from politicians a lot better than if they get a call from you.”

Police executives respond to outside pressure, and they have great discretion in how they deploy their manpower. As former Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Daryl Gates noted in his book, Chief, police focus their priorities on crimes marked by the “three C’s”: commercialism, conspicuousness, and complaints. Because domestic violence isn’t commercial or conspicuous, getting an effective response usually depends on who complains—and how.

“If a congressman complained that his daughter was being beaten by an ex-con, do you think that the police would say that there was nothing they could do but wait until the creep was breaking into her house for the 10th time?” Saunders asks. “They would make sure she was protected, then go out and find that guy.”

Shipman didn’t have that kind of help. The 27-year-old mother of three was killed in her Landover home on the morning of Aug. 6. Just a few hours before, she’d called 911, saying that her estranged husband, Michael Shipman, a convicted felon, had threatened her again. But the police arrived a few minutes after he had already left—a scenario that had repeated itself since October 1999, when Shipman obtained a protective order against her husband.

Luticia Shipman’s 8-year-old daughter later told police that Michael Shipman returned to the home after police departed, forcing his way inside.

The Shipman slaying was not merely a tragedy; if Michael Shipman is proved to have committed the killing, then it will stand as a chronicle of a death foretold. After Luticia Shipman’s second emergency call, the police should have understood that she was in mortal danger, even if she didn’t. In 1988, Michael Shipman was convicted of assault with intent to murder and a handgun charge and went to prison for seven years. In February 1998, he went back to jail after being convicted of assaulting another woman in Prince George’s County.

There are both practical and psychological reasons why police have difficulty handling domestic-violence cases. Most battering doesn’t turn fatal or life-threatening, so it can be tough to discern which cases are critical. In addition, police departments often experience significant levels of spousal abuse and alcohol problems within their own ranks. That can make it harder for some to treat domestic assaults as seriously as crimes against strangers.

There are two reasons I find Saunders’ strategies for dealing with police compelling. First, they sound like the aggressive, practical steps I’d want my own sisters, or even male friends, to take if they were being menaced.

And, because I believe that domestic abuse is a main engine of other violence in black communities, I love the idea of creating a trap for a politician or police official who refuses to make domestic violence as great a priority as armed robberies.

But battered women must first make the hard decision to seek help. “I know a lot of techniques that are very effective at getting men to leave women alone,” Saunders says. “But the hard part is that too often the victims can’t make up their mind if that is what they really want.”

Saunders reports that several times women have hired him to protect them, only to later tell him to call everything off because things “are better now.”

Saunders says that even when a woman has finally disengaged emotionally from an abusive man, it’s tough to stay at a safe distance if they have children together. “They let him come into the house to see his kids,” Saunders sighs. “Then they let him sleep on the couch. Then they get into an argument. Then he’s hitting her again.”

This pattern tends to undermine effective cooperation with the police. If a woman doesn’t take battering seriously, they won’t, either. If the cops don’t take it seriously, she may underestimate the danger.

“Some women are like addicts who just can’t get free of a man by themselves,” Saunders muses. “If they’re still hooked, I can only help them if they have a family or a circle of friends around who can make them see that their life may be on the line. They don’t realize how volatile these guys can be, or that there’s a very short distance between pushing you around and fracturing your skull.” CP