1999 — the year in review:
Domestic abuse: the continuing problem
What you thought you knew about domestic violence enforcement may turn out to be wrong.
Not all that long ago, if a law enforcement agency even had a policy in place for handling domestic violence calls it was probably one that mandated arrest. But research on batterers and their victims has taught the criminal justice community a thing or two in recent years, and police departments, encouraged by the Federal funding made available under the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, are now pursuing a broader approach to combating domestic abuse.
Still, the problem has not been one that lends itself to one-size-fits-all tactics. Creating an integrated strategy has proved to be elusive, with police in many jurisdictions still trying to figure out which measures will succeed and which will turn out to be quick fixes, or worse, give false hope to batterered women.
New research released in 1999 has helped to fill in some of the blanks. Two studies, one on batterers and household pets, and another on the effectiveness of short-term counseling, provided more insight and perhaps more answers for police as to what elements do and do not make for an effective domestic-abuse strategy.
Domestic abusers often take out their rage on the family pet, according to findings by a Utah State University psychologist. In interviews with 140 women at shelters throughout the state, Prof. Frank Ascione found 70 percent had had their animals threatened and more than 50 percent had them hurt or killed by their abusers. Nearly a quarter of the victims put off seeking help for fear of their pets’ safety. “It’s not like throwing a chair against the wall,” he said. “We’re talking about a victim that can experience pain and is often an object of attachment.”
The Marion County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department in 1999 entered the second year of a program that puts pets owned by domestic-abuse victims into shelters until their owners can return home. One of the biggest problems the agency had with getting victims to move out was that they would not leave their animals behind with their abusers, said Deputy Jaye Perrett, who is the state’s sole animal cruelty investigator.
Recognition of the role that pets play in the cycle of domestic abuse led to policy changes in a number of police departments, as well. In Baltimore, officers are now required to note the presence and condition of pets when filling out domestic-violence reports. The Philadelphia Police Department announced plans to add a seminar on pets in family violence to its training program for investigators. Officers were invited to participate in a one-day conference on the topic by a consortium of social- and animal-welfare groups, said Officer Anna Rodriguez, who is assigned to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
One approach that has been found to be less effective than many had hoped is state-mandated short-term counseling in lieu of jail time for batterers convicted on misdemeanor charges. Such counseling can backfire, researchers and domestic-abuse experts found, creating cagier abusers who are even more sophisticated in ways of intimidating their victims.
According to a study by sociologists at San Jose State University in California, of 513 high-risk offenders enrolled in a counseling programs in Santa Clara County, nearly half broke the rules of their probation, committed new offenses, and violated their restraining orders during a 21-month period. Three of the 32 people who died in domestic-violence incidents during a 10-month stretch were involved with convicted batterers who were enrolled in one of the area’s 14 programs.
In one case, a man who was meeting with his probation officer brought along a woman posing as his partner so she could attest to how much the counseling had changed him. When the probation officer made an unannounced visit to the man’s home, he found the actual victim cowering in fear, her car’s windshield smashed with a baseball bat and the apartment’s walls covered with lewd graffiti.
Nearly one-third of those ordered to attend counseling in Warren and Hamilton counties in Ohio under a 1995 state law were found to have dropped out within weeks, with follow-up left to local probation departments. Said Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network in Columbus: “What good is sentencing them to a year’s worth of intervention, and they don’t show up after the third week and nobody holds them accountable?”
Police have also stepped up their crackdown on domestic abuse when it involves fellow officers. According to the National Center for Women and Policing, 40 percent of police families experience domestic violence, as compared with 10 percent of families in the general population.
In New York City, statistics showed a 64-percent increase during 1999 in the number of officers placed on desk duty because they had their guns taken away after being accused of domestic violence. “We are taking a tougher line on them,” said Chief Charles V. Campisi of the Internal Affairs Bureau. The NYPD has enhanced its training, and assigned domestic violence specialists to every precinct. Moreover, a supervisor must respond to every domestic dispute involving a police officer.
Fourteen officers were arrested in such cases last year, compared with eight the year before. NYPD officials, however, contend that the surge in domestic violence complaints against sworn personnel — with serious complaints up 35 percent, and less severe cases of alleged abuse up 14 percent — is due to the department’s efforts to persuade victims to come forward.
A significant factor in the crackdown by police on domestic abusers within the ranks has been the Lautenberg Amendment, which bars the possession of a firearm by anyone who has ever been convicted of a domestic abuse misdemeanor, including police. The law has been widely criticized by law enforcement groups because it is retroactive.
In January, the National Association of Police Organizations filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Colorado on behalf of a Denver police officer, Alex Woods Jr., calling the amendment unconstitutional and its application to Woods unfair. Woods was disqualified from service in 1998 after having been on and off limited duty as a result of a third-degree misdemeanor conviction in 1995 for hitting and choking a former girlfriend.
Lawmakers in Connecticut passed legislation in September requiring the state’s criminal justice authorities to establish a plan for making sure gun owners who have violated restraining orders comply with existing laws that make it illegal for them to continue to own weapons.
State Representative Michael Lawlor, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, pointed to the case of a former Hartford police officer, Jeffrey Beecham, to illustrate the weakness in the law. Beecham had been charged with stalking and criminal trespassing on Sept. 7 after seeing his former girlfriend in a car and allegedly chasing her at high speeds. Despite a protective order, he did not turn over his handgun until he was tracked down by Bloomfield police and made to relinquish the weapon.
No other charges were brought against Beecham, who was permitted to resign in good standing after soliciting a prostitute in 1998.