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Save Women ~ Save $$$

A Survey of 63 victims about the police response to their domestic violence calls shows how!

"Oh! The time and resources it takes to do a domestic violence crime report!" This has always been the audible grumble in the background when police respond to our complaints. But lately that background refrain has crescendoed into a frontline alarm.

Law enforcement officials throughout the county have been warning us directly, 'With the homeland security situation, terrorist threats, the demands of the protests, the losses of funding, we don't know how we're going to have the resources to do all these cases.' It isn't too hard to read between the lines. Violence against women, which only recently has been allowed on the bus, is now going to be clinging off the back for dear life.

So let's talk business. We'll show you how law enforcement can save a mountain of time and money on domestic violence cases - not somewhere out there in the distant future, nor even out there in the realm of social benefits. But a veritable mountain of money to be found right there in their daily operating responses to domestic violence calls. After looking at the results of a survey of 63 victims who were questioned about the police response to their calls to police, we think you'll agree. The solution is as obvious, as simple, and as urgent as plugging the hole in the hull of a ship.

Background of SRPD Domestic Violence Victim Survey

Early in 2001, in response to scores of case complaints we made to Santa Rosa Police Department command staff and to the Santa Rosa City Council, Chief Dunbaugh and then Mayor Janet Condron agreed to form two working groups. The first working group focused on police language response to limited English-speaking victims. The second group would develop a domestic violence victim survey for the purpose of providing internal quality control on police handling of domestic violence cases.

The victim survey, initially developed by Women's Justice Center and then adapted and carried out by SRPD, asks domestic violence victims a series of questions on the police response the victim received to their domestic violence calls. The victims in the survey were selected by calling victims from a consecutive batch of domestic violence crime reports. (Because of this selection method, the survey does not capture the victims for whom police failed to write a report.) To ensure that their memory of events would be fresh, the victims were surveyed within weeks of the victim's call to police for help.

The survey questions correspond roughly to the domestic violence check list officers are expected to follow in responding to domestic violence calls. And the checklist corresponds to the fundamental elements of response as mandated by the Sonoma County's law enforcement policy on domestic violence, a policy that was signed onto by all Sonoma County law enforcement chiefs in 1996.

(click here to see raw data of survey questions and responses,
or scroll to end of text)

The key finding of this survey of 63 domestic violence victims (and of the survey that preceded it) is that in a significant number of domestic violence cases police are failing to carry out the most fundamental requirements of victim protection and the most basic level of evidence gathering that's essential for prosecuting the case.

In 33% of cases victims were not asked about the presence of firearms. In nearly 50% of cases where visible injuries were present, photographs weren't taken. In more than 50% of cases where children were present, officers didn't take a statement from children. In 27% of cases, the officer didn't ask the history of abuse. In no case in which the victim felt she needed a translator did the officer provide one. In at least 30% of cases where visible injuries were present, officers didn't make the required arrest. Etc.

The results validate exactly the kind of defective police responses we have been complaining about for so many years. But in regard to the money, the first point we wish to make is that after investing all the time, money, equipment, and institutional backup needed to dispatch an officer and car to a call, in a large percentage of these cases the officer has left such big holes in the case, that the massive investment all counts for naught.

But that is only the first level of waste. Given the nature of domestic violence, when police respond sloppily to a domestic violence call, the job of protecting the victim and prosecuting the perpetrator doesn't get done. If anything, the situation is made worse as the perpetrator gets the message that authorities see his behavior as no big deal. Not surprisingly, in so many of these cases it's just a matter of time before police are called out again to the same residence to deal with the same problem all over again. And in many of these cases it will be again, and again, and again. And as at least one study shows, the more times police respond to the same domestic violence scene, the more shoddy the police work tends gets.

The police domestic violence infrastructure and machinery has been put in place. To go through all the motions and then fail to ask a few key questions is as lame as launching a new ship with a hole in the hull, and then grousing that there's not enough time to plug the hole. The huge expense of repeat calls could be time and money in the police department coffers if only command staff would insist that their officers do it right the first time out.

The Role of the DA: In addition to the illogical grumble about not enough time to do the cases properly, another common police refrain is 'what's the sense of putting in the effort if we know ahead of time the district attorney isn't going to file?' In this, we agree, police definitely have a point.

Sonoma County District attorney statistics for the year 2001 show that of the 2,384 domestic violence crime reports sent to the district attorney only 1,025 resulted in a conviction. This Sonoma County domestic violence conviction rate of 43% is far below the 60% average conviction rate of the other Bay Area counties. And even these Bay Area county statistics are far below the 80% plus conviction rates of counties such as San Diego which have prioritized domestic violence crimes.

Our shameful local statistics, too, are in line with the realities we see at Women's Justice Center in our day-to-day handling of domestic violence cases. Too many prosecutors, instead of approaching a case with an eye to building a prosecution, are looking for any excuse to dump it. Here's a current case:

Your Criminal Justice Tax Dollars at Work - Case Study.
Last month a victim came to us for the first time after her case had already been adjudicated. She was confused about the outcome. That by itself was an indication something was wrong. The woman is a professional who would have understood everything if things had been properly explained.

In researching her case, here's what we found out. In January, 2002, the prosecutor had filed three felony counts of stalking and terrorist threats against the perpetrator and one felony count of evading a police officer. (The perpetrator had fled in his car when police went to arrest him.) More than a year later, in February 2003, despite the victim's willingness to testify, despite more than the usual physical evidence to support the case, despite the fact that the perpetrator had recently done prison time for another felony assault, the deputy district attorney pled the case out to one felony count of evading police and dismissed all other charges. (No wonder the prosecutor wanted to leave the victim confused about exactly what had been done.)

But there's more. In addition to the insult this plea delivers to the victim and to the interests of justice, in the more than one year of time between filing the case and obtaining the plea, the case was brought into court thirty nine times. That means that thirty nine times a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a judge, bailiffs, clerks, and all the other highly paid court personnel were tied up in court dealing with this case. Your tax dollars at work.

And more... During the time this case was going round and round in the courts, the perpetrator stalked the victim again. This resulted in the filing of an additional felony stalking charge. That charge was also dismissed as part of the plea.

The tally for your tax dollars on this case comes to more than a dozen police reports, 39 court appearances, an exhausted, exasperated victim who was re-victimized by the perpetrator and by the system, an incalculable waste of money, and a community once again robbed of justice and safety. And, of course, one of the many intangible costs are police officers themselves who understandably conclude that there's not much point in focusing their efforts on cases like this.

And round and round it goes in what a recent Washington State study of domestic violence homicide so aptly names, "The Meaningless Processing of Cases".

In December 2002, the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review published an intensive study of 230 domestic violence homicides. Among the key common factors they found in the histories of these homicides is what their team describes as criminal justice system "meaningless processing of cases," in which domestic violence cases are handed off from one official to the next without anyone of them ever really implementing the immense powers they have to help the victim. This is exactly the senseless and hugely wasteful phenomena we identify here in our own county. (For the full text of this groundbreaking report from Washington State click here)

Why? And What's Wrong? Here's the short answer. The public has made it repeatedly clear they want domestic violence treated seriously. Law enforcement has responded by creating the infrastructure, the training, the policies, task forces, equipment, and protocols to deal effectively with domestic violence. Indeed, many officers have taken these changes to heart and follow through to help the victims. But behind this costly investment, there remains a significant number of officers and prosecutors who just plain don't want to do the job.

These officers feel violence against women cases are beneath them, and not the real crime fighting work they envisioned when they took the job. When these officials come face to face with the victims, instead of pursuing the goal of helping the victim, they pursue the goal of getting the victim and her case out their hands as quickly as possible. In so doing they squander the investment and cost their departments a fortune.

The Solution is Simple: On most every occasion when we discuss this problem with command staff, we get the response that officers need more training. Indeed, training is always important. But lack of training is certainly not the root cause of the problem at hand. As any one can see, the deficits identified in the survey -such as not asking about firearms, about history of abuse, not taking a statement from children, not obtaining a translator, etc.- these tasks are no-brainers.

Clearly command staffs are misdiagnosing the problem. Officers know how to do the job. They are failing to do it for one simple, easy-to-fix, reason. They don't like these cases. All law enforcement officials have to do is make it clear that domestic violence cases will be taken seriously and then follow through with discipline when they are not. The money they save will be their own.

SRPD Domestic Violence Victim Survey
Questions and Results:
63 Victims Surveyed
Results April 2002

(See text for survey background, methods, and discussion)

Did the officer(s) who responded to your call address any safety concerns you may have?
Yes 54
No 6

Did the officer(s) who responded to your call ask you about any specific threats your partner has made?
Yes 50
No 11

Did the officer(s) ask you if there were any firearms in the house?
Yes 38
No 19

Did the officer(s) who responded to your call ask about the history of your partner's abuse?
Yes 43
No 16

Was an Emergency Protective Order offered?
Yes 45
No 14

EPO Issued?
Yes 23
No 22

Did the officers make an arrest?
Yes 34
No 24
Unknown 1

If visible injuries were present when police arrived, were photos taken?
Yes 26
No 23
N/A 11

After the police left, did you notice any visible injuries that you did not tell the police about?
Yes 12
No 38
N/A 6

Did you go to the police department for follow-up photographs of your injuries?
Yes 6
No 36

Did the officer(s) give you information about the services available to you?
Yes 53
No 7

Did the officer(s) who responded to your call request to talk with any children present?
Yes 18
No 21
No Children Present 23

Did you feel as though the officer(s) gave you enough time to tell your story?
Yes 58
No 3

Under the circumstances, did the officer(s) talk with you in a place that gave you enough privacy to tell your story?
Yes 58
No 3

Did you feel you needed a translator to communicate with the officer?
Yes 3
No 57
If so, was one offered?
Yes 0
No 3

Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact.
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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