Commentary: Recognition is key to domestic violence

For the last four years, Arkansas has been ranked among the top 10 states in the "When Men Kill Women" report published annually by the Violence Policy Center.

It's a Natural State disgrace.

The rankings the past four years have been: sixth in 2017, fourth in 2018, third in 2019 and sixth in 2020.

Comparisons over time with other states can create illusory statistics. On its face, the four-year trend suggests an improvement in Arkansas, as if we've "returned" or gotten back to a better (though still deplorable) sixth-place ranking.

The dismaying reality: The Arkansas male-killing-female rate was the same this year as last, and much higher than in 2017. Things weren't better at all in 2020 for Arkansas; it was just that three other states did worse. In fact, looking at our year-over-year increases in the rate of single-victim/single-offender homicides for the last few years is troubling.

In 2019, the Arkansas male-killing-female rate was 13 percent higher than 2018, which was 11 percent higher than 2017, which was 28 percent higher than 2016.

Comparing data from the last decade, the average rate for Arkansas from 2011-15 was 1.22 victims per 100,000 population. From 2016-2020 the average rate is 1.92 - a 57 percent leap.

The Arkansas 2020 rate of 2.22 is an embarrassing 74 percent higher than the national average. And it's a little more than disheartening to see this problem continuing to escalate in the years after Laura's Law was passed. That legislation required a danger assessment by police in any domestic-violence call in an effort to identify the level of immediate lethal risk.

It's only mildly consoling that the annual increase is worse among the leading states. In 2011, only two states in the nation had rates higher than 2 per 100,000. In 2020, nine of the top 10 states have rates higher than that.

Eleven states have rates of less than 1, and it's a diverse group. The two best in the nation are rural states with higher-than-average gun-ownership rates (Iowa and South Dakota), but the next lowest two are densely populated Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where guns are relatively scarce.

The good news is we can do better because we have done better. We simply must commit to doing better again.

Stamping out violent misogyny doesn't get the chants, protests and headlines it deserves as an especially deadly blight on our state. The skeptic could argue that's partly because of the low level of political gain it offers.

It's difficult for even a casual observer to not notice that most legislative bodies are still very male-dominated. In the Arkansas Legislature, women occupy seven of 35 state Senate seats and 25 of 100 state House seats.

And while those head counts are big improvements from earlier generations, the gains have not been as great for women in leadership positions outside of government. There's substantial room for improvement, or Arkansas wouldn't have earned the top position in the "most sexist states" list in 2018 compiled by University of Chicago researchers.

In two out of every three weeks in Arkansas, a woman dies at the hand of a man. Communities in northeast Arkansas are still reeling from the shocking murders of two young women - Sydney Sutherland was brutally raped and murdered while out jogging on Aug. 19, and aspiring physician Chloe Vaught was shot and killed in a murder-suicide by her ex-boyfriend on Sept. 29.

Behind every murder, of course, are countless more incidents of abuse of women by men. Domestic-violence hot lines nationwide receive more than 20,000 phone calls per day. Arkansas shelters and programs serve hundreds of victims every week.

Victimization goes beyond targeted women. Family members, friends, neighbors and other interveners as well as bystanders often wind up hurt or worse. Millions of children are exposed to intimate-partner violence every year; nine out of 10 are eyewitnesses to violent acts.

Just this past weekend, an 8-year-old was fatally shot in Helena-West Helena by a man allegedly aiming for the boy's mother following an argument.

Nationally, about 15 percent of male-killing-female incidents arise from arguments. Curiously, for Arkansas, the number is nearly one in three. Most male violence against women is not related to any other felony, and nine times out of 10, the woman knows her murderer.

Despite acknowledged difficulties, however, other states manage far better than we do. The first step to change is always recognition, and our state Violence Policy Center rankings ought to be enough to achieve that.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro, Arkansas.