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Newspaper says police response to
domestic violence depends on location
[Portland, ME]

January 04, 2001
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Newspaper says police response to
domestic violence depends on location
[Portland, ME]

David Hench Staff Writer
December 18, 2000, Monday, City Edition
Copyright 2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.
Portland Press Herald
December 18, 2000, Monday, City Edition

(PORTLAND, Maine) -- Where a victim lives in Maine may determine how police, prosecutors and the courts respond to domestic violence.

"Some counties and some jurisdictions are taking quite an aggressive stance, and for some it's not on the radar screen," says Chris Fenno, director of the Abused Women's Advocacy Project, serving Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties.

The varying levels of response, experts say, may be a factor behind why the rate at which men kill women in Maine is among the highest in the nation and the highest in New England. Since 1990, 56 women have been killed in domestic assaults. In some U.S. communities with a focused and swift response, domestic violence is on the decline.

While police classify domestic violence under a wide umbrella to cover all forms of family violence, law enforcement officials say their primary effort is to curtail abuse by men against women. It is the source of most domestic violence cases in Maine and in the nation.

This series focuses on that problem and how the system is struggling to stem the carnage.

A three-month analysis by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that there are few requirements in Maine for how police, prosecutors and judges enforce laws in cases of domestic abuse, leading to different responses across the state.

Many police receive only minimal training in dealing with domestic violence; some get no training.

There is no requirement that people turn in firearms while they are subject to temporary protection-from-abuse orders -- typically the most dangerous period for an abuse victim. Even when judges issue permanent protection orders, a person can possess firearms unless the judge specifically orders them surrendered.

The effectiveness of police response and court orders is limited in rural areas because of resources, geography and victims' isolation. In some parts of the state, police response can sometimes take up to an hour.

Computerization of criminal records is extremely limited, making it nearly impossible to tell whether a person has been charged previously with domestic assault or has been the subject of a protection-from-abuse order. This is especially true when complaints are made in more than one county.

A coordinated response to domestic violence in Cumberland County has led to increased effectiveness. The conviction rate for domestic abuse crimes, for example, has doubled in Cumberland County since the response team was launched 18 months ago. There have been no domestic homicides over that period.

Other areas of the state, however, lack similar efforts.

Law enforcement responses vary

Police are the front line of the struggle against domestic abuse. How officers respond can determine whether a victim lives or dies. At the same time, successful prosecution and appropriate sentencing can be impossible without thorough police work.

"My bias is that cops are the most important because I see them as the gatekeeper with the criminal justice system," says Anne O'Dell, a retired police sergeant who started San Diego's highly successful domestic violence unit.

"Everything we're going to be able to do after that point depends so much on that police report. If I see the typical police report, one to two pages long, and it doesn't have witnesses' statements, interviews of children, evidence collection, recording spontaneous statements -- you can't do squat with that report."

But police response varies in Maine, because of differences in leadership, funding, geography and cultural views about domestic abuse. "There continue to be battered women who are arrested in many parts of the state, and that's because of a lack of understanding by officers about who the primary or dominant aggressor is," said Tracy Cooley, coordinator of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

New police officers, troopers and sheriff's deputies get four hours of training on domestic violence out of a total of 480 hours of education at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

In small towns and rural counties, many departments rely on part-time or provisional officers who may have no training.

In Massachusetts, by contrast, all new officers are required to have 40 hours of training on domestic violence.

Lewiston, the state's third largest municipal police force, is in the midst of an extensive training program following the 1999 killing of Carol Cross by her abusive boyfriend in the presence of a police officer.

Citing numerous incidents of abuse, Cross had obtained a temporary protection-from-abuse order against her longtime boyfriend, Kenneth Emrick. Like all temporary orders in the state, it did not require Emrick to surrender his guns. Cross had a police escort when she and friends retrieved belongings and her children from the apartment Emrick still lived in.

While Cross waited in the front seat of a van, friends and the police officer went upstairs to the apartment. Emrick told the officer he had to get a few of the children's things, and disappeared into a nearby bedroom. Once out of sight, Emrick took up his rifle, aimed it out the second story window, and shot Cross through the windshield of the van. He then killed himself.

After the shooting, the Abused Women's Advocacy Project conducted a study of how clients characterized their interactions with Lewiston officers.

The study found that over a 14-month period, there were 105 instances in which victims felt that police badly mishandled a situation.

The criticisms said officers sometimes failed to arrest the abuser, gave misinformation to the victim, threatened to arrest the victim, and threatened women with having their children taken away. The impact of such behavior can lead women to fear calling on those charged with protecting them because they believe the system will fail to help them and will leave them vulnerable to future abuse.

Setting an example

The effectiveness of a police department's response to domestic violence depends on whether it has support in the department, experts say.

"If the chief of a department takes domestic violence very seriously and really understands what victim safety means and holds offenders accountable, then they're role modeling for their officers," says Cooley, of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Advocates for domestic violence victims have criticized Lewiston Police Chief William Welch for setting a bad example for his department. Two domestic violence workers last fall accused Welch of pretending to strangle them during a community policing conference in April 1999. Welch said he regrets the incident and meant it to be a joke. But the Maine Human Rights Commission concluded last week that the conduct represents discrimination. The women plan to sue the department.

A need for training

Some departments also have fallen short in conducting thorough investigations of domestic violence.

Police should assume that a woman who is the victim of a domestic assault will be too fearful to cooperate with prosecutors, said Faye Luppi, a lawyer who directs the Violence Intervention Partnership in Cumberland County.

Because victims are likely to be uncooperative, she said that officers should collect as much evidence as possible. This may include photographs of injuries and bloody clothing.

In Wilton, part of rural Franklin County, Clarence Bayliss shot his wife to death in July 1999, then killed himself. In the preceding six months, police were called to the elderly couple's home several times for what the local police chief termed "squabbles." No arrest was ever made, even though on one occasion Evelyn Bayliss had bruises on her arms.

After the shooting, police recovered several guns from the house, including the .44-caliber Magnum handgun used in the killing.

In 1998, one of that department's four officers drew a written admonition by training officials during a course on domestic violence. The officer reportedly belittled the crime of domestic violence and criticized advocates for abused women as discriminating against men.

York County District Attorney Michael Cantara, who sits on his county's domestic violence task force, says such attitudes are a troublesome obstacle to curbing domestic violence.

The geographical dilemma

Geography poses another obstacle. In sparsely settled parts of the state, there is little chance a county sheriff's deputy or a state police trooper will arrive in time to arrest an abuser violating a protection order, much less intervene during the assault.

"For a lot of women in rural areas, protection orders mean nothing," says Fenno, whose service agency covers the remote parts of Oxford and Franklin counties. "They're not going to be able to get any kind of response quick enough to prevent any kind of assault."

Of 15 women killed in domestic violence in 1999, only three of the deaths occurred in communities of more than 4,500 people.

Oxford Sheriff Lloyd "Skip" Herrick, who has worked in rural law enforcement for the past 27 years, agrees that travel time can be a major obstacle in responding to domestic abuse complaints.

Under ideal conditions -- with nobody out sick or on vacation -- his department has three road deputies covering 31 towns over 2,400 square miles. Responding to a call can take an hour, he said.

"Sometimes it takes a while to even locate the person to be served these (protection) papers," Herrick said. "If the paper is violated, again the response time in rural areas is one of the biggest setbacks in enforcement because of the larger area to cover."

The isolation -- from authorities and from neighbors who might offer help -- leads many rural women to conclude the criminal justice system cannot protect them, so sometimes they choose not to call for help.

Enforcing protection orders

Advocates say enforcement of protection-from-abuse orders -- by police, prosecutors and judges -- is vital in stemming domestic abuse.

In fiscal year 2000, more than 6,000 people sought protection-from-abuse orders from Maine district courts. The vast majority were women seeking protection from male partners.

In at least 686 instances, or more than 10 percent of the cases, the subject of the restraining order later was charged with violating it.

Protection-from-abuse orders may not offer a shield against abuse, but as long as they are strictly enforced, they can be the first step in a woman's escape from an abusive relationship.

"Anybody can say it's just a piece of paper and it won't stop a bullet or a knife, but the piece of paper is more obeyed than less obeyed," says O'Dell. "The vast majority of batterers we have, have learned a behavior that works for them. Maintain control in the home and punish people who don't comply. As long as it works for them, they will continue to do it, until society steps in."

The system of serving and enforcing protection-from-abuse orders is fraught with delays.

"Right now we lose a lot of time on a protection order, because it has to get delivered here by somebody, sometimes in the mail," said South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins. Then an officer has to find the target of the order and formally serve that person with the paperwork, he said.

The information barrier

Ironically, police can find out almost instantly the number of speeding tickets a person has but not whether the person has been accused of assaulting a spouse or partner. That is because there is no state clearinghouse for information about domestic crimes.

Similarly, there is no way for Maine authorities to know whether an abuser is subject to an out-of-state protection-from-abuse order unless the woman has a copy of the order with her when she makes a complaint.

A federal law prohibits a person convicted of domestic abuse from possessing a firearm but enforcement is sporadic because of the lack of state and national computer databases that would make such criminal records quickly available to law enforcement.

At Cumberland County Jail, a computer check is done of each person arrested for domestic violence, but the system has huge limitations. The check won't reveal criminal history from another county or arrests for which the person was bailed directly from a police department. Other counties are even more limited.

A single database for domestic violence could prevent potentially dangerous mistakes.

William Gorham, a bail commissioner in Cumberland County for 13 years, says at times he has set bail believing a man had no criminal history only to find out later the man had assaulted before and was forbidden from having contact with the victim.

"I'm sure in some cases people have slipped through the cracks because we don't know their history in some other part of the state," Gorham said.

Money is scarce

Maine's lack of a centralized database for domestic abuse is one of many deficiencies that can be traced to a lack of funding. Money is a major obstacle to developing a comprehensive and thorough response to domestic violence across the state.

The Maine Commission on Domestic Abuse, which makes policy recommendations to the governor and Legislature, has identified 28 areas where the response to domestic violence in Maine should be improved, including victim safety, offender accountability and training.

The commission concluded that in 18 of those areas, the missing ingredient is money.

National experts and those fighting domestic abuse in Maine say the safety of victims and the accountability of offenders depends on the criminal justice system presenting a coordinated response.

That requires communication and education at each stage of the criminal justice process, from police to prosecutors to bail commissioners to probation officers.

"Domestic abuse is a wide spectrum of behavior, not always criminal in nature, but must be presumed to be potentially lethal in nature if left unchecked," said Cantara, the York County prosecutor and president of the Maine Prosecutors Association.

One county responds

Cumberland County is the state's wealthiest and most populous county, and the one with the most domestic violence cases. It also is the most aggressive in Maine in its approach to stopping domestic violence.

With the help of a $ 500,000 federal grant, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson last year established a domestic violence unit of two prosecutors, an investigator, three victims' assistants, two secretaries, one state probation officer and a victims' advocate. The unit handles 1,200 cases in a year related to domestic abuse.

Since the unit started in July 1999, conviction rates on contested cases have doubled from 35 percent to 65 percent and no domestic violence homicides have occurred in the county.

Prosecutors, trained by the Department of Justice, have specialized in trying defendants without victim cooperation, and a county sheriff's detective makes periodic checks on whether the subjects of protection-from-abuse orders are obeying them.

Throughout Maine, the effort to stop domestic abuse must be constantly evolving, says York County prosecutor Cantara.

"You have to be relentless in getting out the message that domestic violence can be criminal, can be a danger, and as we know in Maine," Cantara said, "can be very lethal."

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