On February 24 — when there were only 53 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and it still seemed possible that 2020 would unfold like any other year — The Trace ran a story about Valerie Martinez, a domestic violence survivor who became a cop and found inventive ways to get guns away from abusers in Louisiana.
Martinez and her boss, the sheriff in Lafourche Parish, had created a system to track domestic abusers barred from having guns. Sheriff’s deputies first asked the abusers to relinquish their firearms. If they didn’t comply, deputies arrested them. Martinez also lobbied for a state law prohibiting people with protective orders and misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from having guns — and later a second law requiring police to seize firearms from those people.
Across the country, it is rare for police to have a comprehensive system for collecting guns from domestic abusers prohibited from having them. While there is a federal law barring people with domestic violence convictions from possessing guns, most communities don’t have a good way to find out if they do, don’t have a system for collecting them, and don’t routinely punish people who break the law.
After the piece published, Martinez says she and her department were inundated with calls, emails, and letters. “The story started an avalanche,” she said. Domestic violence survivors wrote to thank Martinez for sharing her own experience of persevering after an abusive relationship. Law enforcement officers from across the country called to congratulate the sheriff and ask how to replicate his program in their communities. Martinez says she was asked by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement to develop a domestic violence curriculum for police departments across the state. Mariah Wineski, the executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, helped Martinez decide what the curriculum should cover, and says she hopes it will teach officers how to sensitively work with trauma survivors, and best practices for collecting evidence and seizing guns.
Other media outlets covered Martinez after The Trace, including NBC’s “Today Show” and Point of Vue, a magazine serving Southeast Louisiana. Martinez was particularly glad that the Department of Justice’s community policing publication, The Community Policing Dispatch, featured Lafourche Parish’s system for firearms retrieval in its October newsletter. Dispatch is a publication for police agencies, and aims to give officers information they can use in their own communities.
The problem of domestic violence in Louisiana is hardly fixed. According to the Violence Policy Center, an advocacy group, the state’s rate of men killing women is 77 percent higher than the national average. But there are signs of progress, however slight. The group’s recently released 2018 data showed that Louisiana dropped from having the second-highest rate of domestic homicide in the nation for four years running, to the fifth. Martinez thinks that the numbers will continue to improve in years to come: “I hope it’s the beginning of a positive change.”