Stopping the cycle of domestic abuse
A groundbreaking strategy to combat what’s been termed the top public safety threat in the city is working, according to High Point police.
The department’s Offender Focused Domestic Violence Initiative seeks to deter potential abusers from victimizing their “intimate partner” before an actual assault is committed.
The strategy involves a much broader approach than making an arrest after someone gets a bloody lip or a black eye.
Police intervene at the first sign of trouble to try to calm volatile situations. Those who don’t heed the warnings are subject to swift prosecution.
Police say they’re receiving fewer domestic disturbance calls, fewer assaults are occurring and recidivism rates among offenders are low.
“Can we identify these guys early? Can we do anything to deter them before they’ve even committed a physical act of violence? Can we break the rapidly escalating cycle of violence that occurs after the first offense? I think the answers are yes,” said police Chief Marty Sumner.
PROACTIVE APPROACH TO STOPPING VIOLENCE
Before the initiative was fully implemented in April 2012, High Point police typically received more than 5,000 domestic disturbance calls per year, making it the top call for service from the public.
As any law enforcement officer will tell you, the calls can be fraught with danger for police, not to mention victims.
From July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013 — the most recent full year of data available — police received 4,114 domestic calls, compared to 4,901 during the previous fiscal year.
Along with the drop in calls came other significant trends, including 75 fewer domestic-related arrests last fiscal year.
Between 2004 and 2008, there were 17 domestic homicides involving “intimate partners” — couples either married or in a dating relationship — in High Point. Since then, there has been one.
What have been the keys to bringing about these reductions?
Sumner said a big part of it has been a shift in mindset among police. For starters, it was the understanding that domestic violence can involve more than physical acts inflicted upon one partner by another.
“It’s abusive behavior in any relationship where something is used by one partner to gain and maintain power and control over another partner,” said the chief.
Threats, intimidation, manipulation, humiliation — all can be elements of domestic abuse and can precede actual assaults.
“Now, everyone recognizes there’s lots of violence that’s not specifically physical that takes place before that,” Sumner said.
KEEPING TABS ON ABUSERS
With this in mind, police designed the initiative to nip problems in the bud.
They created four categories of suspects and offenders. The lowest level — the “D list” — includes those who are the subject of a domestic-related call that doesn’t result in an arrest but shows signs of future problems.
An officer hand delivers a letter from police to everyone in this category, putting them on notice that they’ve been added to a domestic violence watch list.
Those on the “C list” are first-time offenders who receive an immediate jail visit from a detective. Those who are subsequently arrested are placed on the “B list” and receive a face-to-face “call in” in front of police, prosecutors and other law enforcement and criminal justice officials, as well as members of the community.
Those on the “A list” — typically someone with three or more domestic violence charges — are targeted for immediate prosecution and used as deterrent examples.
Through November, according to police, 940 people across all four categories were notified, and 70 of them have reoffended — a recidivism rate of 7.4 percent, which Sumner calls “very low.”
“To put that many people on notice and not have any more than that commit another offense, I think is astounding,” he said.
PROSECUTORS, JUDGES ON BOARD
Sumner said buy-in to the initiative from the criminal justice system is another key to its success.
Prosecutors flag offenders who have been notified through the initiative and utilize tools like the state’s habitual offender statutes, which can result in a felony case against someone with a record of three misdemeanor assault convictions.
“You’re starting to see your garden variety domestic assaults result in maybe five- or six-year sentences if they’re prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Walt Jones, a Guilford County assistant district attorney who is the top prosecutor in High Point.
Another key has been taking burdens off of victims, who often don’t want to cooperate with authorities in prosecuting an abuser. Jones said police are getting smarter not just about establishing probable cause for an arrest, but what it takes to win a conviction in court.
“So many times, we see victims that, by the time they go to court have recanted,” he said. “Officers need to be thinking what Plan B is if the victim does not come to court. So they’re talking to other people, securing evidence, taking pictures, asking questions they previously didn’t ask.”
Sumner said judges have embraced the initiative as well, in part because it provides them vital information about suspects and their histories they wouldn’t have otherwise.
He said one judge rejected a plea bargain for a domestic offender because he felt the sentence wasn’t harsh enough. Another took steps to ensure that police officers have access to all of the court records laying out the conditions they impose on a domestic suspect when they’re released on bond.
“That’s a real mental shift from two years ago,” Sumner said.
The ultimate goal of the initiative — breaking the cycle of domestic violence — is not immediately attainable, but will hopefully be reached in time, Jones said.
“What happens with many offenders is, they grew up in domestic violence, where they learn through observation that it’s OK to hit. Victims learn that abuse is what you’ve got to go through,” Jones said. “The grand prize is the next generation — if we can deter this enough now, we will hopefully be preventing the creation of the next generation of domestic violence offenders and victims.”
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