I was home alone in the kitchen of my ground level brownstone apartment on the night of the Fourth of July when I heard a woman's screams amid the popping sounds of fireworks set off by neighborhood kids.
“Help! Help! A man is trying to kill me!”
I continued typing on my laptop for about 30 seconds not fully registering what I was hearing. The cries for help continued. In a flash I thought of Kitty Genovese and how living in a big city can diffuse our sense of responsibility to other people and stepped out my backdoor to try and locate where the screams were coming from.
It was a neighbor who lives on the third floor of our building in West Harlem. She had barricaded herself in her bedroom following a violent altercation with her boyfriend. She urged me to call the police. With her boyfriend looming outside her door and her cell phone in another part of her apartment, she couldn't make the call herself.
Calling the Police
I took a deep breath. My first impulse is to distrust the police. Too often the cops use their power callously and without regard for the people they are supposed to “serve and protect.” But I did as she asked and called 911.
The NYPD, however, was nowhere to be seen. Venturing out of my apartment, I found the boyfriend standing impassively out on the front stoop of the building. He took out his cell phone and showed me that he had also placed a 911 call. He said that his girlfriend was “troubled” and that he was concerned about her well being after she had attacked him and tore up the apartment in the process.
I continued upstairs to check on my neighbor. The door to her apartment was slightly ajar. After announcing myself and repeatedly knocking on the door, a woman's face peaked out at me. She blinked and a single tear appeared. A dark blueish black mark marred the left side of her face just below the eye. (Her mascara had run, she later told me.)
I ascertained that she was not seriously hurt. When I mentioned that her boyfriend was downstairs, she became agitated. She urged me to tell him to leave. When I conveyed her message, the boyfriend insisted he would stay until the police came because he wanted to make sure she was OK. I urged him to go home and we would call it a night. He wouldn't hear of it.
I went back upstairs. This time the woman allowed me into her apartment. I stepped across piles of magazines that were lying on the floor near the front door. Her bedroom looked as if a tornado had blown through – a shelving unit was toppled over and books and personal effects were scattered on the ground. The kitchen floor was also a mess with items that had fallen from another shelf.
“I would never do this to my own home,” she said.
I asked why her boyfriend would call 911 for the police and stick around after causing such a scene. She explained that he was in a custody battle with another woman who was the mother of his small child. After trashing the apartment, the boyfriend had calmed down and realize he needed to stick around and officially discredit her version of events. After what had just happened, she could do a great deal of harm by testifying against him in his child custody case. Noting that her boyfriend is a military veteran, the woman worried aloud that the police would take his side.
The woman was just finishing telling her story to me when we heard the heavy foot steps of police officers coming up the wooden staircase. The four police officers (3 male, 1 female) who eventually arrived on the scene were calm and professional. They asked me to stand off to the side. After listening to her and his versions of what had happened and asking follow-up questions of both parties, the police took the boyfriend to jail.
Afterwards, I spoke with the woman in the front foyer of our building. When I asked if she would take her man back, she shook her head and said “No”. They were done. She appeared both stunned by what had transpired and relieved to have survived the ordeal.
“I'm so embarrassed,” she said. “I'm college educated and have had good professional jobs. I never thought something like this could happen to me.”
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