Rhonda Pattelena was beaten to death on York Beach last month in broad daylight, in sight of multiple witnesses.

Jeffrey J. Buchannan, her former domestic partner, was arrested at the scene and has been charged with murder. And as often happens in cases like this, people wonder whether the responsibility extends further.

What about the witnesses? Should they have done something beside calling the police? Could they have stopped him before it was too late?

Police say no, but it’s a question the witnesses are probably asking themselves, and it’s one they may not be able to answer fully.

It’s a heavy burden to witness something so horrible. Look at the testimony in the Minneapolis murder trial of former police Officer Derek Chauvin, where witness after witness has relived the trauma of watching George Floyd suffocate, and wished they had not stopped at pleading with Chauvin to take his knee off Floyd’s neck.

“I stay up apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more,” said Darnella Fraizer, the teenager whose cellphone video of the incident sparked protests around the world.


But before we judge them, we should ask ourselves some questions. Domestic violence is all around us, which makes many of us witnesses. What do we do when we suspect that someone in our lives is abusive or abused?

There’s one right answer, says Patrisha McLean, an anti-domestic violence activist with the Camden-based organization Finding Our Voices.

“Say something, say something, say something, say something,” she said. “People need a reality check.”

Domestic violence is a problem that we’ve all become too familiar with.

Year after year, about half of Maine’s murders result from abusive relationships. We know this statistic by heart, because these cases always make the news.

But it’s is much more widespread than that.


Police report that about half of reported assaults are also classified as domestic violence, or about 4,000 incidents a year, statewide.

But even that does not give a full picture of the scope of the problem, since criminologists say most assaults within households never get reported.

A more accurate, but still incomplete, picture comes from 21,000 people who called for help last year on the domestic-violence hotlines run by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence and the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Most, if not all, of the women who called have family members, friends, co-workers or neighbors who might notice that something is not right. The men in these relationships also have contacts outside their home.

How many of the people who suspect that something’s not right are waiting too long to intervene? How many want to do something, but don’t know what to do?

McLean said it’s helpful to think about the dynamics of an abusive relationship, which she likens to belonging to a religious cult.


Both typically feature a charismatic leader, isolation from friends and family, financial control and a distorted view of reality, she said. It can take time for the people inside to recognize what’s happening to them.

The intervenor needs to be prepared that the person they are trying to help might not be ready.

“Be loving, be there for them,” she said. “Understand that this is a process, keep the door open.”

It’s also important for people to recognize when the person who is causing the harm is someone we know or care about. Even if it’s a family member we love, we can’t look the other way or make excuses for them.

We all have a responsibility to be witnesses, and it’s not easy. It’s awkward to stand up and say what you’ve seen. It’s much easier to stay silent and go on with your busy life.

The witnesses at York Beach did something. They called the police, who got to the scene quickly, but, sadly, too late to make a difference.

The rest of us, potential witnesses in thousands of other cases, need to do what we can to understand this kind of crime and prepare ourselves for the time when it’s our turn to act.

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