Chicago Police dig deeper on domestic violence calls

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It’s not just the NFL trying to get its house in order when it comes to domestic violence.

After years of declining attention to domestic violence , Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s domestic violence task force and the Chicago Police Department are retraining officers in evidence collection and sensitivity for domestic situations and implementing a pilot program designed to identify and protect the victims most at risk, a change that has impressed city victim’s advocates.

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice brought the issue squarely into the spotlight when a video of him punching his then-fiancee, now wife, in the face was made public in September. The February assault, which happened in an elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey, focused attention on domestic violence in a way that previous cases had not. The Ravens released Rice in September, and the NFL has suspended him indefinitely.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s domestic violence task force focuses city resources on the issue, it’s clear the additional attention could mean dramatic improvements for victims.

And in a city plagued with errant bullets and sudden shootouts, it’s an opportunity to end killings that often seem predictable.

Officers involved in the first four months of the pilot program in the 14th District (from May to August of this year) on the city’s Near North Side are responding faster to domestic calls, collecting more evidence, making more arrests and connecting victims with services more effectively, according to data collected by the task force and interviews with the stakeholders.

“I was amazed at how just a few changes like that can make a difference in the way victims are being served,” said Kathleen Doherty, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, an advocacy group that is part of the task force.

By the end of the year, the task force expects to expand the pilot program to include the South Side’s 3rd District, which has a higher call volume.

The task force, formed in late 2013, came after years of victim alienation. Domestic violence advocates told the Sun-Times in March that they heard from women who were interviewed by police in front of their abuser; had the abuser or a child answer police questions because the victim couldn’t speak English; or were left with an angry abuser whom police declined to arrest.

The problem extended to the court system: Prosecutors struggled with sparse police reports from the scene of domestic calls, which made pursuing cases when a victim declined to testify almost impossible.

The task force, which is a collaboration between the mayor’s office, the police department, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, the city Department of Family and Support Services and the battered women’s network, is paying special attention to the role police play in connecting victims with judicial and support services.

“The first contact is the first step,” Emanuel said. “If our police department isn’t trained right, [ domestic violence victims] are going to be less likely to take that step of independence.”

Emanuel points to the significant number of murders tied to domestic violence as evidence an improvement needs to be made. There were 31 domestic violence -related murders in Chicago in 2013, according to police data. Through June of this year, there were 14, which is an increase over the same period last year.

Many of those victims called police at least once before they were killed, Emanuel said. “If we handled it right the first time, we could prevent it.”

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office has run a Targeted Abuser Call program focused on high-risk domestic violence victims since 1997, said improved training for police officers makes prosecutors’ jobs easier.

“It all boils down to [the victim] feeling strong enough and safe enough to go through,” Alvarez said. “We all know in domestic violence how things escalate.”

The 14th District, which covers the Logan Square area, has seen a dramatic uptick in arrests for domestic violence -related offenses under the pilot program, according to data provided by the mayor’s office. From May to August of this year, arrests jumped 53 percent compared with the same period in 2013, even as domestic violence incidents dropped by nearly 9 percent.

Patrol officers responding to a domestic violence call in the district must fill out a risk-assessment form with the victim, answering questions that advocates say indicate a higher risk of future harm: Is there a gun in the home? Did your abuser choke you? Has he ever prevented you from leaving?

Within the pilot district, about 64 percent of the domestic violence incidents police responded to this summer were identified as high-risk.

Based on victims’ answers, patrol officers reach out to the Area North Special Victims Unit and a detective will respond immediately to the field, according to Chief John Escalante, head of the bureau of detectives.

Escalante said detectives are instructed to issue an investigative alert with probable cause to arrest if the abuser was not present and there was evidence of a crime at the scene. An alert tells police who encounter the abuser that he is wanted and should be arrested, and under the pilot program, alerts are more common and sent by the end of the day.

“In the past, it probably would have been a couple days, based on how we responded. We’ve made some tremendous improvements,” he said.

The increased effort to find and arrest abusers accounts for much of the increase in overall arrests in the district, Escalante said, and a quick response affects prosecution.

Victim testimony is ideal in a domestic violence court case, but it can be hard to get. Victims may change their mind about pressing charges, forgive their abuser or want to move on .

For prosecutors, evidence collected immediately following a 911 call is critical, said Jen Greene, violence against women policy adviser in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Until 2011, state’s attorneys ran roll-call trainings for officers, a process that was stopped until the task force restarted it earlier this year. Police reports from the scene were brief and difficult to use, especially in situations when a victim declined to participate, Greene said.

Within the pilot program, information collected by first responders is much more thorough, said Jennifer Gonzalez, an assistant state’s attorney and supervisor of the office’s sex crimes division.

“Evidence techs come to take pictures of injuries; they’re doing a really good job now of that. Documenting defendant statements when you first pull up . . . who called 911, fleshing out more of the details for us,” Gonzalez said.

Since the program began, the number of cases dropped because a victim decides not to pursue charges or doesn’t appear in court has stayed fairly high at more than 50 percent, but it has declined about 8 percent compared with the same period last year.

“I think that really what it comes down to is the nature of domestic violence ,” Greene said. “As time moves on , and there’s generally up to 21 days between the call and the court date, the abuser may say I’m sorry or maybe she’s moved on .”

But increased attention and improvement in evidence collection has the potential to make a change in the number of dropped cases, Greene said.

This fall, two additional detectives, including a sergeant, are joining the detective assigned full time to the county’s Domestic Violence Court. These detectives take a close look at cases, identify those that could be upgraded to a felony and help the detective assigned to the case gather information to give prosecutors.

“The partnership with the detectives will really fulfill a need we identified a long time ago,” Greene said. “We’ve been really concerned about a number of cases that come into domestic violence that should be looked at as a felony.”

Alvarez said that regardless of the cases’ outcome, victims benefit from the connections court can give them to services. “I don’t think the goal is just to rack up convictions.”

Officers in the pilot district also are instructed to connect victims with the Illinois Domestic Violence Help Line, which puts them in touch with advocacy groups that can help them leave their situation. Victims initially identified as high-risk get a call from the hotline on a number they have identified as safe.

Calls to the hotline went up 31 percent in the 14th District in the first four months of the pilot.

Improved police interaction with victims, as seen in the 14th District, is “exactly what we need,” Doherty said.

“Women learn that when they call 911, they get someone who comes out there who is sensitive to their situation and able to respond.”

More than 2,000 Chicago Police officers have taken the updated domestic violence training, which is an e-learning course, according to the mayor’s office. The training, which all officers are required to undergo, was developed with the help of the battered women’s network and included information from a focus group of domestic violence victims and law enforcement.

Stephanie Love-Patterson, executive director of Connections for Abused Women and their Children, is not part of the task force but has seen the victims’ improved interactions with police.

The group’s shelter has received victims referred by the 14th District pilot, and her staff says officers from the district have been very responsive, Love-Patterson said.

“We’ve worked with officers that have been wonderful and we’ve worked with officers who we thought could have used some additional training and support,” she added.

Under the task force, the city’s Department of Family and Support Services has expanded a program that gives children a safe place to have supervised visits with a noncustodial parent and a program that provides advocates for domestic violence victims in the court system.

Connections’ 42-bed shelter is often full, and Love-Patterson said sometimes women and their children have to be turned away.

“There is a need.”

Email: dnovak@suntimes.com

Twitter: @dhnovak

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