Study: Police often first line of defense against domestic violence

Some departments are providing more sophisticated training for responding to domestic calls


By Heather Mongilio and Wyatt Massey
The Frederick News-Post

FREDERICK, Md. — Anastasia Kornilova had a premonition. She stood outside the home she had been living in with her then-boyfriend Derwood, Montgomery County.

She had left for a night or two to stay at a friend's place, she said. Her boyfriend was spiraling out of control. Kornilova had been in this spot before. Four years prior, after leaving a previous boyfriend for a couple nights, she had been beaten up upon her return, resulting in a monthlong stay in the psychiatric ward of a hospital due to the trauma.

Standing outside of her home in July 2012, that feeling returned. If she went inside and ran into her boyfriend, it would be worse than the last time.

“I just didn’t want to die in that sh-tty basement,” she said.

Kornilova, 32, now lives in Frederick. It’s been about six years since a period marked by domestic violence and since she started her recovery from alcohol use disorder.

“They’re perfect partners,” Kornilova said about domestic violence and alcohol use disorder.

Kornilova said she had three abusive boyfriends before her 26th birthday, all ranging in styles of abuse. Some happened in Maryland, some in Ohio and Minnesota. And while her abuse did not happen in Frederick County, it is emblematic of a problem that affects the county daily.

“On both a social and personal level, secrets keep us sick. Abusers rely on their victims’ silence and fear to keep their control. Societally, denying victims, survivors, and women their right to testimony and their experiences is hugely harmful,” Kornilova said in an email. “Thinking of abuse as something that happens sporadically or by one bad egg is wholly incorrect and damaging as a narrative.”

Domestic violence arrests

Kornilova snuck into her apartment, grabbed her passport and left the country to go see her parents, who were living in the United Arab Emirates. When she returned to her apartment in Montgomery County a month later, she was escorted by police to ensure her safety while gathering her belongings.

Kornilova reached out to the police, but she did not press charges against her abusive boyfriends, and neither did the police. That is not unusual in domestic violence cases. Approximately half of female intimate-partner violence victims will alert the police, according to a 2018 study in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice.

The police is usually the first, and possibly the only, criminal system intervention for these victims, according to the study, but it is just one way that Frederick County addresses domestic violence. During October, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, The Frederick News-Post will examine different entry points into domestic or intimate partner violence and the resources that people in the county can use.

Based on numbers from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and the Frederick Police Department, police in the county respond to at least one domestic-related call a day. Due to a fear of or reluctance to call police, the number of domestic-violence or intimate-partner violence incidents in the county is likely higher.

So far in 2018, deputies with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office have responded to 399 domestic incidents, with 55 on-scene arrests. In the city of Frederick, officers responded to 387 domestic incidents, with 117 arrests from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31.

That breaks down to approximately 50 calls for the sheriff’s office in a month, and approximately 50 calls for the Frederick Police Department.

Maryland State Police did not return a Public Information Act request in time for publication about the numbers of domestic calls or arrests made by Frederick Barrack troopers, but Barrack Commander Lt. Wayne Wachsmuth said that they respond to calls weekly.

Based on the amount of calls responded to by the sheriff’s office in 2018, deputies are projected to respond to approximately 100 fewer calls than in 2017.

Deputies have made on-scene arrests in about 13.8 percent of domestic calls. In 2017, the rate was almost 14.8 percent. Through Sept. 24, there have been 32 cases with multiple offenders this year, with one arrest made.

In Frederick, police have arrested offenders in approximately 30.2 percent of cases. In 2017, they had an approximate 32.8 percent arrest rate in domestic cases. The city police have made three dual arrests in 2018.

According to the 2018 study in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, arrest rates for male perpetrators of intimate partner violence range between 15 to 76 percent, depending on the data source, collection methods and analyses.

The numbers also only include on-scene arrests, which doesn’t necessarily mean an arrest won’t be made in the case, said Chief Milton Frech, of the Brunswick Police Department. In Brunswick, there were 117 domestic violence calls, with seven on-scene arrests, in 2017 and 2018 year to date, according to information provided by the police department.

Maryland law allows for warrantless arrests to be made in domestic violence cases up to 48 hours after a report was made to police.

There are a variety of reasons arrests are not made in every domestic violence case. In some cases, the victim doesn’t want to press charges. They might be scared of increased abuse if the offender is released from jail or they might not have financial resources without the offender, according to the study.

In other cases, the study found that the majority of cases where there wasn’t an arrest, it was because the offender had fled the scene. It was also less likely for there to be an arrest if the offender was a former partner.

Offenders were nine times more likely to be arrested when there was physical violence, according to the study.

“Although the research and practice communities commonly conceptualize IPV as a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour [sic] that often includes violence, these findings corroborate previous research indicating that non-violent abusive tactics (such as stalking and coercion) often fly ‘under the radar’ of police officers, particularly in the USA,” according to the study.

Theresa Hiegel, victim services coordinator at the sheriff’s office, said that one reason the department’s arrest numbers may be low is that there isn’t always an arrestable offense when deputies arrive on scene. Incidents can range from verbal arguments inciting fear to physical assault.

It can be a gray area, she said, because physical abuse may have happened, just not that time. And not every response requires police. There might be other steps that they can take, like connecting them with community resources or creating a safety plan if the abuse escalates.

“Just because it’s at that stage doesn’t mean it couldn’t rise to a physically abusive relationship,” Hiegel said.

Currently in Maryland, verbal arguments aren’t a crime, unless they include harassment or threats.

“So sometimes there isn’t enough to make an arrest,” Hiegel said.

Protective orders

Kornilova didn’t press charges against the boyfriend who beat her. The trauma of the beating and psychological abuse from the boyfriend caused her to have sustained psychological effects. After the monthlong stay in the psychiatric department of a hospital, her parents whisked her away to Minnesota, where she met her next two abusive boyfriends.

Her first boyfriend in Minnesota was verbally and psychologically abusive.

“His abusive behavior escalated, doing things like berating me, yelling at me, throwing my phone's SIM card out the window, breaking my car, driving me in the opposite direction of my work while speeding dangerously and yelling, threatening to hurt my pets, and breaking into my apartment,” she said in an email.

She ultimately got a restraining order against him, and there were services in Minneapolis, like a locksmith changing her locks pro bono, that helped her in that relationship, she said.

Protection orders are one way a person can protect themselves from an abuser. Police can often provide information to victims about getting a temporary protective order, and Hiegel said that her unit can help the person through the process.

Temporary protective orders can be issued at any time of the day by a District Court commissioner. Final protective orders are issued by a judge and require a court hearing.

Hiegel’s unit or the Heartly House, which connects victims to legal advice, can help a person navigate through the protective order, Hiegel said.

But a protective order is just a piece of paper, and while it legally orders an abuser to stay away from a victim and sometimes a victim’s family, they are violated, Hiegel said.

“In domestic violence cases, it’s all about power and control,” she said.

Violating a protective order is an arrestable crime, and Wachsmuth said that his troopers do get calls for protective order violations.

Arriving on scene

For police, a domestic call can be one of the more dangerous, Wachsmuth said. Procedure says that two troopers are supposed to respond to the call, although it can be a while before a second trooper gets to the location, he said.

“It’s just a volatile situation. I’ve personally been shot at a domestic several years ago. They are very dangerous,” Wachsmuth said.

There are a lot of unknowns with domestic calls, especially whether a weapon is involved.

Deputies are trained on domestic violence during the academy, said Maj. Tim Clarke, spokesman for the sheriff’s office. They’ll also get in-service trainings, which can include topics on domestic violence.

In 2017, deputies were trained on strangulation, a common injury in domestic violence, Hiegel said. They started using a strangulation supplement in 2018. Strangulation, in 50 percent of cases, doesn’t leave bruising and the trauma of it tends to make victims appear hysterical. In training officers on strangulation, police are better able to assess a situation.

Domestic violence is traumatic, and that leaves effects on the brain, said Frederick Memorial Hospital forensic nurse Pamela Holtzinger, at a conference on domestic violence presented by the sheriff’s office on Oct. 5.

That trauma means a person might not always remember the attack. That happens with strangulation because without oxygen to the brain, it can’t form memories, Greater Baltimore Medical Center forensic nurse Rosalyn Berkowitz said at the conference.

That can also affect later testimony if the case goes to court.

“That’s why documentation by everybody is so important,” Berkowitz said.

The Frederick Police Department, Frederick Memorial Hospital and Heartly House were trained on strangulation by the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in 2015. Thurmont, Hiegel, Frederick Memorial Hospital and the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office also got training in 2016.

But for police, it’s often not until they arrive on the scene that they know what is happening, and every domestic will be different, said Maj. Troy Barrick, operation division commander for the sheriff’s office.

“We don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors,” he said.

Domestics are the situations where they want the most information, but often, they can’t get it. So when officers approach a situation, it’s unclear if there’s a weapon, or if people have been drinking. Sometimes the only information is that it was a 9-1-1 call that was hung up and screaming was heard in the background, Barrick said.

Hiegel said deputies follow procedure that instructs them to interview each party separately. That allows them to check for injuries and determine the primary aggressor.

There are standardized forms police will fill out, including domestic violence supplements and lethality screenings, which help determine the risk of serious harm or death. But police interaction doesn’t end at the scene.

What are lethality screenings?

A lethality assessment is a form that contains a series of questions, which are used to determine the risk of danger and death in a domestic violence situation. They are used by police but also health care providers.

Questions on the lethality screenings include ones on threats, access to weapons, strangulation, control, employment and children.

Based on how a person answers, police can encourage the person to reach out to domestic violence advocates, including helping the victim call a domestic violence hotline or get them in touch with local resources.

Wachsmuth said that troopers follow up within 24 hours and then again in seven days. Following up makes it easier for them to provide resources or connect victims with services. It also lets them see any bruising that shows up, especially in strangulation, where bruising doesn’t always show up right away, he said.

Hiegel said that her unit can also help to provide resources after police leave a scene. They work closely with Heartly House because the organization has an emergency shelter. It also has a legal department that helps victims with peace and protective order, usually free of charge.

“So, that has been really helpful because when victims go in front of a judge and they have just been through a very traumatic experience, it’s really hard for them to collect their thoughts because they’re really nervous and they’re, frankly, really overwhelmed, and a lot of times they don’t know the legal system and what to present,” Hiegel said.

They also work with Frederick Memorial Hospital and the forensic nurse team. To help a victim feel safe, they work with patrol teams to keep them updated on different people and locations so that they can do increased patrol checks.

But Hiegel’s unit only has two people, she said, which means they cannot respond to every domestic incident handled by the sheriff’s office.

Domestic violence in the courts

If a charge is filed, domestic violence cases are then taken to the courts. In the District Court, there are domestic violence dockets, specifically focused on cases that involve intimate partner violence or abuse between cohabitants.

What is domestic and intimate partner violence?

Domestic violence and intimate partner violence, while similar, are not interchangeable. Domestic violence refers to violence or abuse that happens in the home, and while it includes abuse between partners, it also includes child abuse or abuse against parents, as well as abuse between people living together. Intimate partner violence refers to the abuse or violence between current or former partners or spouses.

Cases might also go to the Circuit Court, where they could fall on the desk of Lindell Angel, chief of the sexual offenses and family violence unit, or Assistant State's Attorney Tammy Leache. Domestic and intimate partner violence cases are difficult because they are dealing with witnesses who might still love the defendant or don’t want charges brought against them.

“We have many victims that recant or minimize what happens,” Angel said.

Typically, domestic violence is charged as a first- or second-degree assault, with some people also being charged with reckless endangerment.

Definitions of assault

First-degree assault: Section 3-202 of the Maryland code prohibits a person from intentionally causing or attempting to cause serious physical injury to another. It also prohibits a person from committing an assault with a firearm. First-degree assault is considered a felony in Maryland and is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

Second-degree assault: Section 3-203 of the Maryland code prohibits a person from committing an assault. Second-degree assault is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a $2,500 fine.

Strangulation cases can be charged as either, depending on the severity of strangulation. But first-degree can be difficult to prove, especially in cases where strangulation is for a few seconds, Angel said.

In those cases, medical testimony and expert witnesses can help better inform a jury about why strangulation is so serious, she said.

Strangulation, as well as traumatic brain injuries, another common injury for victims, can also be difficult because it can affect how well a person can recall the assault, she said.

Like with police, the state’s attorney’s office also has a unit dedicated to helping victims navigate the legal system. While the state’s attorney’s office is focused on prosecuting a case, the victim’s advocate acts as the liaison between the state’s attorney’s office and the victim, Angel said.

Shifting paradigm

One thing that is agreed on by legal and police experts, as well as survivors and advocates, is that the attitude toward domestic violence has changed.

There’s also more that needs to be done.

“In the past, a lot of the domestic violence, child abuse, things like that, a lot of people kind of kept it in the family, kind of kept it quiet,” Leache said.

Now it’s better understood that it is a crime, something that should be reported to the police. Leache said she’s also seen more understanding of the cycle of abuse and more of why people might not want to press charges against a loved one.

Angel said she’s been in the state’s attorney’s office since 1990. She first handled domestic violence cases in the District Court before moving over to felony domestic violence cases.

“It’s changed dramatically, from understanding why a victim would recant, from understanding just that this goes on, that it’s prevalent. People who you think are the nicest of couples, you can find out that domestic violence has been ongoing, that it has been ongoing for years,” Angel said.

Frech, who has been a police officer since 1987, said that how police respond to domestic calls has changed over the past decade, especially since the introduction of the warrantless arrests for domestic violence.

“We had domestics back then, but they were handled a little differently in those days,” he said.

Training, such as the ones on strangulation, or the introduction of lethality screenings have helped, Hiegel said. It helps emphasize that these can’t be private matters.

“I think we just realized that this is not a problem that people should have to deal with on their own, and this is something we need to take a stance that we’re here to try and protect people,” Hiegel said.

Berkowitz said she has to give kudos to police departments around Maryland, including in Frederick County, because they have added the different supplemental forms to better document domestic violence.

But in Maryland, strangulation is still not a felony crime, she said, despite conversations by the Maryland General Assembly about it.

And while there has been a shift and improvement in the last 10 years, it doesn’t mean that awareness about domestic violence didn’t exist. Even among abusers.

Kornilova met her first abusive boyfriend while she was a student at University of Maryland College Park in 2008. She followed him to Case Western University in Ohio where he was a student.

They were walking across the campus in October, when they saw a sign about Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“And he looked at it, and he was pretty callous, and he was like, 'Who’s not aware of domestic abuse?’” she said.

A week later, he beat her up.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, here are some resources you can call:

Heartly House: 301-662-8800

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

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