The spotlight on efforts to combat domestic violence continues to shine on groundbreaking changes in policy and procedure developed by a Chicago citywide task force formed last year by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The task force – which is a collaboration between the Mayor’s office, the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney, the city Department of Family and Support Services and the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network – has formulated new training protocols for first-responding officers to increase sensitivity to the psychological and emotional aspects of domestic situations, enhance coordination between the police, the prosecutors and service providers to keep victims safe, and to improve evidence collection techniques to assist in prosecution and conviction of offenders.
Against a backdrop in which the CPD annually responds to more than 200,000 domestic- related calls, Mayor Emanuel explained the need for this coordinated response by pointing to the 31 domestic violence-related murders in Chicago in 2013, and the fact that many of these victims contacted the police at least once before they were killed. Believing that “[i]f we handled it right the first time, we could [have] prevent[ed]” these deaths, Emanuel charged the group with improving the system. To that end, focus was placed on the pivotal role police officers play as the first contact abused women have with the justice system when they decide to seek help and leave their abusers.
As part of its fact-finding process, the task force heard disturbing stories that included women being interviewed by police in the presence of their alleged abusers, and then being left in that household if no arrest was made. The problems also reached into the legal system, including that prosecutors were routinely handed incomplete police reports lacking necessary information making it extremely difficult to pursue domestic violence cases if the victim declined to testify.
In response, the task force developed a set of specific goals and implemented new strategies for first responders, service providers and prosecutors, including:
- Identification of households at an elevated risk for injury;
- Elevation of the law enforcement response to those households;
- Proactive connection of high-risk victims to services, including counseling, shelters, and legal advocacy/representation; and
- Prioritizing higher-risk offenders for prosecution.
These new approaches have been successfully implemented by the CPD in a pilot program which has been running in the City’s 14th District on the North Side. Officers responding to domestic violence calls now use newly-developed assessment forms to determine whether a victim is at elevated risk for injury as a result of repeated and increasingly serious incidents of domestic violence. The officers ask the victim a series of questions, including whether the alleged abuser has threatened to use a weapon, threatened to kill the victim, or prevented her from leaving the house, seeking help or calling the police.
If the officers decide that the situation is high risk, they then refer the household to a special unit of the State’s Attorney’s office, which targets prosecutions against certain defendants. The household will also receive priority for immediate follow-up investigations, which may include well-being checks. In addition, the officers ensure that the victims are connected to resources, such as social service agencies that offer counseling, shelter and other help to ensure the victim’s safety.
Finally, new procedures for evidence collection are targeted to improve prosecution of these matters. It is not unusual for domestic violence victims to change their minds about pressing charges between the time of the incident and trial. Therefore, the quality of the evidence collected during the initial contact is critical. Improved techniques include the use of evidence technicians to photographically document injuries and requiring officers to complete detailed reports of statements made by the alleged abuser and the victim.
The results of the pilot program are encouraging, as they reveal that response time to domestic calls has decreased, while the collection of evidence, connection of victims to services and arrests have all increased. Specifically, arrests in the pilot district increased by 53% when compared with the same period in 2013, even though incidents of domestic violence decreased by about 9%.
By the end of this year, it is expected that the pilot program will be expanded to include the South Side’s 3rd District. By all accounts, further positive results will lead to the use of these procedures city-wide, providing concrete steps to stop the cycle of domestic violence.