Using Research to Identify Domestic Killers Before They Strike

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Maureen Curtis at Safe Horizon is enthusiastic about the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with law-enforcement officers who can help to ensure the safety of her clients through 'offender containment.'

Adi Talwar

Maureen Curtis at Safe Horizon is enthusiastic about the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with law-enforcement officers who can help to ensure the safety of her clients through 'offender containment.'

New York City’s murder rate continues to fall. But among the killings that do occur, the city sees abnormally high rates of domestic violence homicides. Nationally, one out of every three female victims of homicide is killed by an intimate partner; in New York, it’s two out of three.

The problem is more intense in some neighborhoods than others. The East New York neighborhood, for one, has one of the highest rates of intimate partner violence in the city, with 530 felonies and 2,631 misdemeanors committed by family members from December 2013 through December 2014.

This year, some of the people involved in those violent incidents—both perpetrators and victims—will be the focus of a new federally funded project that uses predictive tools and interagency teamwork to figure out which victims of abuse are most likely to end up dead and try to prevent killings from occurring.

Predicting deadly patterns

Over the past two years, Brooklyn has been one of 12 jurisdictions in the nation to participate in a federal research study to determine the best locations to replicate two nationally renowned prevention strategies: the “High Risk Team” program originally developed in 2005 by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Massachusetts, and the “Lethality Assessment Program” developed in 2004 by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center program requires service providers and other first-responders to use research-proven risk indicators to determine whether a domestic violence victim is likely to be murdered by their partner. Studies show that a victim whose partner has previously threatened to kill her is 15 times more likely to be murdered later than someone who has never been threatened, and a victim whose partner has tried to strangle her in the past is 10 times more likely to be murdered on a later date.

A team of agencies then collaborate to form “individualized intervention plans” to protect victims at high risk.

The Maryland LAP program similarly requires first-responders to use a test assessment of a victim’s case, but then has a protocol to help connect victims to a victim services hotline. Both programs have been copied throughout the country.

In 2013, the Brooklyn DA’s office received $200,000 to research what program to implement, and in what neighborhood. They ultimately proposed that the 68th precinct in Bay Ridge replicate the LAP program, and the 75th precinct in East New York replicate the High Risk Team program. Organizations including the National Institute of Justice and the Criminal Justice Agency will also be studying the initiative’s outcomes to determine best practices for replicating the models elsewhere.

This September, impressed by the 75th precinct’s Domestic Violence unit, the DOJ chose East New York and Cuyahogo, Ohio to replicate the High Risk Team model, and chose two other counties, in North Carolina and California, to replicate the LAP program.

Multiple agencies in Brooklyn are receiving a total of $650,000 from the Department of Justice to implement the program.

Adapting a program

Under the initiative, police from the 75th precinct, prosecutors from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, probation officers, and the victim services nonprofit Safe Horizon will meet regularly to discuss serious cases and collaborate to ensure the protection of victims.

To get a sense of how they might work, one might look at a case handled by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center’s High Risk Team and documented by the New Yorker in 2012.

A few years after divorcing her abusive husband one woman called the crisis center and said her husband had been calling her repeatedly and threatening to commit suicide . Advocates involved in the case were still concerned for her safety, and asked law enforcers whether there was any grounds to arrest the husband for his harassment.

Since they had no grounds for arrest because the woman didn’t want to file a restraining order, all those involved agreed to monitor the case closely. Eventually she did file a restraining order, and as soon as the husband broke it, the police arrived to arrest him. The team calls this “containing” the offender, and says it is the best way to prevent homicide before it can occur.

There are some differences between East New York and northern Massachusetts that will require adaptation of the model. In Massachusetts, judges may hold a “dangerous hearing” for people charged with a violent crime to determine whether they will violent if released before trial. In New York state, most of those charged with a crime must be offered bail. To keep offenders behind bars, Brooklyn prosecutors will have to convince judges to set bail at a high rate based on evidence that the accused person previously violated court orders or has been previously convicted of possessing an illegal firearm. In addition, while the Newburyport team was able to track some offenders released from jail before trial using GPS, New York City does not have the funding to use GPS for each person released on bail.

All things considered, Kelly Dunne, Chief Operating Officer at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, says they’ve had lots of practice adopting the model to different communities. “We’ve always said that 75 percent to 80 percent of the model will stand,” she says.

Filling the gaps in DV services

Those involved in the initiative are especially excited about providing East New Yorkers with more resources, time, and focus.

“Survivors in Brooklyn are really going to have a well-lit pathway to expanded choices and options in the highest risk cases,” says Wanda Lucibello, chief of the Special Victims Division at the Brooklyn DA’s office. “Given what a high volume place Brooklyn is for domestic violence, it’s even more important to have a really systematic, regular way of really focusing on these cases.”

In November, Mayor de Blasio launched a $800,000 initiative dedicating new staff to conduct outreach to victims in NYCHA complexes with the goal of connecting them to city services. Lucibello says the federal program will serve people outside of public housing projects and be a complement to De Blasio’s initiative.

Michelle Kaminsky, chief of the Brooklyn DA’s Domestic Violence Bureau, said she was particularly excited about the collaborative aspect of the project. “The goal here is implementing, in a very meaningful way, the concept of victim safety. You’re bringing many different people to the table who could address the victim’s needs.”

She said that as a prosecutor she has limited capacity to assist her clients with the issues they face, like finding alternative housing or supporting their families. Kaminsky said that working closely with Safe Horizon and other community organizations will make it easier to connect victims with external resources.

Maureen Curtis at Safe Horizon, for her part, was enthusiastic about the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with law-enforcement officers. With their assistance, she could help to ensure the safety of Safe Horizon’s clients through “offender containment.”

The High Risk Team may also be beneficial because it provides an alternative option for women who do not want to move to a shelter. By closely monitoring each victim and their abuser, the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center’s original High Risk Team was able to protect women in their homes. If the victim’s partner violated a protection order or committed another act of abuse, the police would snap into action, arresting the partner before the violence could escalate. Of the 129 victims assisted by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Greater Newburyport, Massachusetts, only 6 percent relocated to a shelter.

Protecting women in their homes is an especially attractive option to domestic violence services providers like Curtis, who says that the number one problem for victims in New York City is a lack of alternative housing options. Despite de Blasio’s many efforts to increase affordable housing for victims—he started a rent subsidy to move victims into new homes, and loosened the documentation requirements for domestic violence victims to qualify for first priority status on the waiting list for public housing—demand still far exceeds supply. The lack of housing options forces some victims to stay with their abusers to avoid homelessness. Those with the means to leave may still find the move disrupting.

“You are literally picking up your life in a very short time,” says Dunne. “You essentially go into hiding.  [It’s] almost impossible to keep a job when you’re in a shelter.  Typically the kids have to be taken out of school.”

Kaminsky warned that the project would not always have this benefit and could depend on the outcome of the perpetrator’s trial.

A shifting focus

The federal project, known as the Domestic Violence Homicide Initiative, is the next phase of a national effort to increase the arrest and incarceration of abusers. Over the past twenty years, government agencies and law enforcement have increased their efforts to prevent intimate partner violence.

The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 is often credited for beginning to dismantle sexist attitudes in police departments and make domestic violence publicly unacceptable. The $30 billion bill pumped money into victim service agencies, police departments and jails to combat domestic violence, and established the Office of Violence Against Women, which bankrolls federal initiatives like this one. VAWA also spurred a number of local policy changes, such as the passage of mandatory-arrest laws in New York and over 20 other states. The laws required police officers to make an arrest if they had “probable cause” to believe an act of domestic violence had taken place, even against the victim’s wishes.

Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was at the forefront of this national shift, starting a domestic violence bureau in 1990 and opening the nation’s first court for domestic violence felonies in 1996. Hynes also opened the city’s first Family Justice Center in 2005; now victims can walk in to the downtown Brooklyn Center on any day of the week and access the services of 23 agencies free of charge. Lucibello and Kaminsky said the High Risk Team is the natural next step, enabling increased coordination between agencies for the most high-risk cases.

As focus has shifted to removing potential abusers from society, a debate lingers about whether it’s possible to rehabilitate abusers. Those involved in the initiative shared differing views on the effectiveness of batterer’s intervention.

Kaminsky says research shows such programs to be ineffective and believes systemic change would require changing social concepts of masculinity—something outside the scope of this initiative—though she says a batterer’s intervention class is sometimes a good “accountability” or punishment tool.

Dunne, on the other hand, says that she supports more batterer’s intervention programs for low-risk cases, but that abusers in high-risk cases are usually too far-gone. “In my experience, it’s very hard for batterer’s treatment to undue what’s been many, many years in the making.”

The social context

The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center is unapologetic about the role of the criminal justice system in its “High Risk Team” approach. Among the abusers involved in the Center’s original 129 cases, about 60 percent were incarcerated after trial. 39 percent were required to complete Batterer’s intervention as a condition of probation.

But now that Brooklyn is importing the model from a middle class, majority white community in northern Massachusetts to an urban precinct with triple the population, questions have emerged about how to be sensitive to demographic differences. 86 percent of East New York’s residents are Black and Latino and over a third live in poverty.

“East New York is huge. The demographics are different.  [There’s] a lot of poverty in East New York. How do you translate this?” asks Kaminsky.

Lucibello says they’ve made it a point to reach out to organizations that specialize in addressing violence in different racial communities, including Black Women’s Blueprint, the Institute of Domestic Violence in the African American Community (IDVAAC), Casa de Esperanza National Latin@ Network, and the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence (APIIDV). They also intend to reach out to East New York-based organizations and clergy—what she called the “whole community” approach to preventing domestic violence.

“This model needs to recognize that there are racially and economically diverse communities that come to experiencing domestic violence—and reporting domestic violence—in different ways,” Lucibello says. “We have to have guidance and knowledge and not assume we know better. We don’t!” Before launching the “High Risk Team,” they intend to conduct an outreach campaign in East New York to build trust in the neighborhood and figure out how they can build on the domestic violence prevention work of existing community groups.

Darma Diaz, vice president of the 75th precinct’s Community Council, says that domestic violence is still a taboo for many East New York families, and that many residents rely on their pastors or imams for guidance rather than turn to the police. Economic dependency, she says, also keeps many victims from leaving abusive relationships. She said the neighborhood could benefit from more awareness about social services available to victims.

Broader concerns about policing

Critics of the new thrust of DV enforcement say that the increased law-enforcement presence in communities of color fails to take into consideration the desires of the domestic abuse victims themselves, and that interaction with law enforcement has too often had negative consequences for victims, including deportation and assault by officers. In addition, many argue that incarceration is an ineffective way of healing communities, and only serves to inflict state-sanctioned violence on the abuser and abuser’s family.

Some in East New York share these concerns. Nyasha Rivera and Rosalyn McIntosh, the co-founders of Sisters Building Sisters, an East New York-based women’s empowerment organization that held the neighborhood’s first “Walk to End Domestic Violence” this October, on the one hand expressed support for the upcoming High Risk Team. They have also had positive experiences working with the 75th precinct to host a workshop on abusive relationships.

On the other hand, they also emphasized the importance of police accountability and noted that a member of the precinct’s Domestic Violence unit is currently under investigation for allegedly holding a pregnant woman in a chokehold last July, only a week after the death of Eric Garner. While wishing not to comment on the ongoing investigation, Rivera and McIntosh said they did not support violence of any sort—be it in the family or by the police.

“While we do think it’s great, this initiative and that the 75th precinct has been chosen…we think that some things need to be dealt with going forward,” Rivera says. They added that simply arresting offenders does not help abusers to change in the long run, and called for more rehabilitation programs.

“It shouldn’t be only about arresting these individuals. There should be something pushing for more of a rehabilitation of these individuals,” says McIntosh. Their organization plans to hold another workshop this year to provide guidance for abusers. “Everyone is a victim. At some point even the batterer was a victim.”

Yet they still believed law enforcement and mandatory arrest, even against the victim’s will, could be an important component of maintaining a community’s safety.

“Sometimes the victim may be in denial. … [S]ometimes the women are not in a place to think things through,” Rivera says.

Lucibello emphasizes that the High Risk Team will deal with “death or near death cases.” While it’s possible there will be times when the High Risk Team chooses to prosecute an abuser against a victim’s wishes—something prosecutors already do—this method makes sense when the case is high-risk and the victim is in grave danger, she says.

“No one’s measuring the success of this model by: ‘Are we getting more people to prosecute?'” she adds. “It’s, ‘Are we getting more and more pathways to safety?'”

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  • LP Marie

    Great news. The county in Ohio that was also awarded DOJ funding is spelled Cuyahoga, and it’s the home of Cleveland. Last fall Plain Dealer reporter @RachelDissell wrote: News of winning the competitive $650,000 federal grant comes after the recent deaths of three Cleveland mothers — all killed by ex-husbands or boyfriends, according to authorities.

    Their deaths focused attention on whether the justice system could do more to keep people who report domestic abuse safer.

    As part of the grant, the Cuyahoga County Witness/Victim Services Center and the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center will work with Cleveland police in the First and Fifth districts to form a “Domestic Violence High-Risk Team.”
    Thumbs up for all districts focussed on ending DV.