2000 — the year in review:
The right mix on domestic abuse
With women still overwhelmingly the victims in incidents of domestic homicide, rape, robbery and assault, despite record lows found in the overall rate of intimate partner violence during the 1990s, law enforcement and legislators last year continued trying to find the right mix of laws, policies and practices that would punish aggressors while keeping victims safe from ongoing attacks and retribution.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study released in May, women still bore the brunt of domestic victimization in 1998. Females were the victims in 85 percent of some 1,033,660 reported incidents of violence perpetrated by former or current domestic partners. In cases of domestic homicide, they accounted for 72 percent of victims in 1998.
The report found that black females experienced domestic violence at a rate 35 percent higher than that of white females and more than twice that of women of other races. Yet white females represented the only group of victims for whom domestic homicides have not decreased since 1976, according to the study. While the domestic-homicide victimization figure for African Americans fell by 45 percent, the number of white female victims killed by a partner jumped 8 percent in 1998 over the previous year’s level.
Figures cited in the BJS study — and touted by the Justice Department last year — found a 21-percent drop in the rate of partner violence between 1993 and 1998, however, with the number of women criminally abused by male partners falling from 1.1 million to 876,340.
Sue Osthoff, of the Philadelphia-based National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, said the finding of a decrease in crime against wives and girlfriends “has not been our experience.” In some cases, she told The Chattanooga Times, “if the police come (for domestic violence complaints) the kids can be taken away. That is why women go for outside intervention and don’t report abuse.”
Reconsidering strategies for reducing domestic violence was on the agenda in a number of police agencies last year, particularly with regard to the practice of dual arrest. Growing out of mandatory-arrest policies established in the 1980s and early 90s, dual arrests often result in the inadvertent arrest of a battered woman who was fighting back against her attacker, victim advocates claim — and law enforcement has begun to agree with that finding.
In April, the Colorado Springs Police Department reported it had cut its amount of dual arrests to under 6 percent. The reduction was attributed to the city’s Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT) program, which trains officers in how to determine the primary aggressor and distinguish between ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ wounds, according to Det. Howard Black, who established the initiative four years ago.
A 31-percent decrease in dual arrests from 1999 to last year was also reported by the Boulder, Colo., Police Department. Reasons cited for the decline included better officer training and greater flexibility in sorting through cases.
Around the country last year, local, state and county law enforcement implemented a variety of new policies and practices aimed at reducing domestic violence:
In January, Leavenworth County, Kan., used a state grant to create the position of assistant county attorney who will handle nothing but domestic violence cases. Police responded to 1,046 domestic calls in Leavenworth alone in 2000. David Melton, a former police officer, will be the new domestic violence prosecutor.
Tarrant County, Texas, developed a Domestic Violence Intervention Project aimed at getting treatment for first-time offenders through a specially-created court. Prosecutors screen defendants for the program, all of whom must have the consent of the victim, no history of stalking or of violating protective orders, and face no other pending criminal charges.
The Fresno Police Department in February introduced a pilot project in partnership with the city’s domestic violence advocacy organizations, in which specially trained officers and victim’s advocates would be paired to ride together on Friday and Saturday nights, when most family disturbance calls are logged. In 1999, Fresno police handled more than 6,000 domestic violence cases.
District court judges in Douglas County, Neb., planned to study domestic violence lethality assessments, including one used by the Duluth, Minn., Police Department which lists a number of warning signs for officers on a laminated card. The checklist helps officers evaluate the dangerousness a batterer poses. “It’s a relatively simple tool,” said Ronald B. Adrine, an associate judge with the Cleveland Municipal Court, which also relies on the tool. “It is a reasonable indicator with regard to the amount of alarm you should have.”
An audit conducted by the Battered Women’s Justice Project concluded that in order for the Minneapolis Police Department to improve its handling of misdemeanor domestic violence cases, officers need better guidance on when to pursue a suspect who has left the scene; need to tell bail evaluators how dangerous the suspect is, and should take away weapons at the scene. In September, the department began eight hours of mandatory training in writing domestic violence reports and equipped each car with disposable cameras to document scenes. It also added two investigators to its domestic violence unit, which it will combine with its child abuse unit this year.
Issues surrounding domestic violence also turned up on the dockets in state and federal courts. Among the cases and appeals was a decision in November by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a federal law banning anyone from possessing a firearms while subject to a restraining order. The court rejected arguments that the law violates due process, as well as the commerce clause under the Tenth Amendment.
In April, a New York state appellate panel rejected a motion to expunge records of allegations of domestic abuse because the alleged offender did not fit the definition of “family” or members of a household under the Family Protection and Domestic Violence Intervention Act of 1994. The ruling marked the first time an appeals court reviewed and accepted the argument that the statute should be read broadly to include boyfriends and girlfriends.
The Missouri Legislature was apparently like-minded, because that same month, the House gave final approval to a bill that would extend the state’s domestic-violence law to cover unmarried couples of a “romantic or intimate nature.” Under the legislation, a crime of domestic assault would be created, with repeat abusers facing penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
Other legislative remedies proposed by state and federal lawmakers included a bill proposed in July that would restore a measure of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 which allowed battered women to sue their attackers in federal court. In a 5-4 decision last May, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the provision of the act, ruling that domestic violence was a local problem that does not affect interstate commerce.
In South Carolina, a state which leads the nation in domestic homicides, two bills were filed in December that would administer the death penalty for murder connected to criminal domestic violence, and for persons who kill after stalking.