The red flag in Waukesha that authorities missed: suspect's domestic violence accusations

Perhaps we could’ve prevented this tragedy if our justice system placed more value on listening to and protecting women.

Elizabeth Barajas-Román
Opinion contributor

It will not surprise survivors of domestic abuse that Darrell Brooks' history of accusations of violence didn’t stop with his partner.

Brooks, accused of plowing his car into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, allegedly screamed at a woman on Nov. 2, grabbed her phone so she couldn’t call for help and then chased her to a gas station. When she refused to get in his car, he punched her in the face, then ran over her, sending her to the hospital, according to the criminal complaint. 

This violence accusations weren't taken anywhere near seriously enough, and we now have mass casualties, including children and grandmothers, as a result.

Perhaps we could’ve prevented this tragedy, and countless others by men who begin their mass violence with violence against an intimate partner, if our justice system placed more value on listening to and protecting women in the first place.

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Ahead of the parade, Brooks was freed on $1,000 bail in the domestic abuse case in which he allegedly ran over the woman. While the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office is launching an internal review of the “inappropriately low” bail, it’s unclear why he was given the privilege, considering he already had been charged with bail jumping in another domestic abuse case.

Even on the day of the parade incident, police got a call about Brooks allegedly being involved in a domestic disturbance where he had a knife.

While John Chisholm, the district attorney in Milwaukee County, has led important reform efforts to reduce the disparity of incarceration rates for Black men, the Waukesha tragedy is a painful reminder of who were missing in the strategy: women.

You simply can’t advance racial justice without gender justice. While it’s critically important to recognize and correct how our criminal justice system places undue burden on people of color, real progress also must include recognizing and correcting how our criminal justice system doesn’t do nearly enough to protect women and girls.

A driver in an SUV plowed through a Christmas parade on Nov. 21, 2021, in Waukesha, Wis., killing at least six people and injuring dozens, including children.

The two are inextricably linked. Black women experience higher rates of domestic violence than white women, and Native American women are more than twice as likely to be abused as women of other races.

Racial equity requires a gender frame. Pairing the two is smart and holistic, and it keeps our communities safer. Brooks being released on $1,000 bail means that a man accused of abusing his partner was treated as though he wasn’t a substantial threat to the public — though data shows that he would likely continue to be a substantial threat to the woman. One study found that 85% of women who were killed by their partners experienced domestic violence the prior year.

Not only are abusers a threat to the women they stalk, beat or kill, but they’re also a wider public safety threat. Domestic abuse is increasingly linked to mass homicides. In fact, one analysis found that in at least 22 mass shootings from 2011 to 2018, the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence, stalking or harassing women.

Brooks might be the most recent, but he could hardly be the first. Men who started with abusing women reportedly went on to commit the 2016 massacre at Pulse, the Orlando nightclub, and the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history, among others.

If the justice system in our country started to use a gender lens and center the needs of the female abuse survivors, could it have prevented this particular tragedy? We’ll never know for sure.

And with the holidays coming, so too is the likelihood of intimate partner violence – studies show New Year’s Day has higher number of calls to domestic abuse hotlines.

But it’s possible to imagine a better, safer outcome for all if our courts start taking abuse against women more seriously, better protecting the survivors, and all of us, from what can come next.

Elizabeth Barajas-Román is president and CEO of the Women's Funding Network, the world’s largest philanthropy for gender equity.