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Called to the Scene 

Police have not always been considered advocates for battered women. Many don't think of themselves that way, either -- but a new NOPD pilot project is working to change that.

Third in a three-part series

One look at the night's television lineup and Barbara Blunt can tell you if her crisis line is going to ring off the hook at the YWCA Battered Women's Program.

Blunt, the YWCA crisis-line advocate, knows first-hand that phone lines will be buzzing after an airing of The Burning Bed, the made-for-TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett as a battered woman. Calls also increase during A Cry for Help: The Tracey Thurman Story, based on the true story of a battered woman who successfully sued a police department for their indifference to wife abuse. Women also tend to call when prominent athletes, like New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd or recent Saints acquisition Victor Riley, are charged with domestic violence.

Battered women recognize themselves, explains Blunt. "They call us and say, 'I think this is what I'm going through.'"

Local women have been turning to the YWCA since the organization launched its program for battered women in 1976. The citywide fight against the problem began in earnest nearly two decades later, in 1994, when newly elected Mayor Marc Morial appointed a task force to study domestic violence. Soon after, the City Council adopted a municipal domestic-violence ordinance and New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Richard Pennington ordered his officers to enforce a "pro-arrest" policy, which encourages arrest in domestic-violence cases.

Blunt knows that the official NOPD policy is supposed to be supportive of battered women. But, she says, that doesn't fit with actual police practice. "The police say, 'We're here to help,'" she asserts, "but when women call the police they're not getting that person."

Officially, local domestic-violence police calls have dropped dramatically in the past several years -- from 22,609 calls for service during 1997 to 14,316 during 2001. At first glance, it looks as though domestic violence in New Orleans has declined significantly. Yet those who deal with domestic violence locally are perplexed by that statistic.

"Violence isn't going down," says Blunt emphatically, citing her crisis-line totals. Others in the field echo Blunt's sentiments, noting that shelters are full and domestic sections of civil court are overflowing.

Blunt concludes that police calls are falling through the cracks, based on what she hears from crisis-line callers. "We ask, 'Were the police called?' They say yes. But when we ask 'Was a police report filed?' the answer is most often no.

"Often the officers just say, 'If we have to come back for this same foolishness, we'll write a report and arrest both of you,'" says Blunt. "Then they tell the dispatcher, 'We went to such and such house, talked to a guy and talked to a lady and everything's all right.'"

Some officers do respond properly to domestic-violence calls, Blunt acknowledges. But in general, she believes that the police department's reputation among battered women is not good.

So it's no wonder that some observers thought that NOPD Capt. Louis Dabdoub was facing an almost insurmountable task last February, when he and his colleagues in the NOPD's Second District launched a pilot project focused specifically on domestic violence. In order to succeed, the project needed to do two things: change the attitude of the district's police officers and earn the confidence of its battered women.

Sixteen months later, it doesn't seem so impossible. The project's first-year results seem to indicate that this city's battered women, when approached differently, will begin to trust the police.

Dabdoub admits that he didn't embark upon the project to "do the right thing." His primary interest was reducing his district's crime numbers.

The seeds for the project were first planted when NOPD acquired "Comstat," a computer program that uses detailed mapping and analysis tools to rapidly identify crime patterns and trends. Comstat made headlines when it was introduced in New York City in 1994; it was soon embraced by urban police departments like the NOPD, which adopted it in late 1996.

When Dabdoub was promoted to captain in 1997, he began using Comstat to get a handle on his district's crime statistics. He was surprised at what he saw. "I started to realize that a great majority of my aggravated batteries and repeat aggravated batteries were domestic," he says.

Dabdoub began digging further. When he looked at 1,500 randomly chosen domestic-violence cases, he found that more than 70 percent of the people arrested in these cases had a previous felony arrest. Abusers didn't target only their loved ones for beatings. They were violent out on the street as well.

And so his focus on domestic violence began. "It was an 'I should've had a V-8' sort of thing,'" says Dabdoub, hitting his forehead with the heel of his hand. "I realized, 'I can lower my numbers.'"

Dabdoub then began plumbing the dynamics of the problem. "You ask 'Why does she stay?' and you start realizing why," he says. "Some women depend on these men for support. Then there are children, religious beliefs, and the fact that this person who she fell in love with comes back and swears in blood and mercy that he's not going to do it again."

A few years ago, Dabdoub took the class "Women and Violence" from Loyola University professor and sociologist-criminologist Dee Wood Harper. Harper says that he challenged Dabdoub to write a grant proposal as part of his coursework. Dabdoub did. After presenting the proposal to a private (and anonymous) funding source, Dabdoub found himself with nearly a million dollars to implement a pilot project spanning three years.

He formed a domestic-violence team, including a database manager, a victim liaison and Detectives Hilal Rohli and Willie Bush. Harper agreed to assemble data and work with the Second District as the project evolved.

To present the pilot project to the rest of his command, Daboub used the numbers he'd crunched when he first became captain. It was a new way of thinking about domestic violence for many in the department, including Dabdoub.

"Back in the early 1980s when I went through the police academy, it was standard training that if you stuck your nose in domestic violence, you were going into something you had no business in," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the victims dropped charges before you finished writing your report."

So officers often resolved things unofficially. "We would encourage the man to go spend the night at his mama's house," he says.

There are stories from the 1970s and 1980s of New Orleans police officers responding to domestic-violence calls and then driving the man to his mother's house or dropping him off at a strip club "to cool off for awhile." Such "interventions" may seem old-fashioned to say the least. But at the time, it wasn't clear that there were better ways of dealing with domestic violence.

Knowledge about the problem is growing, but it's still limited -- partly because it's a new field. "We've only been working on it since about 1969," says University of New Orleans professor and criminologist-sociologist Pam Jenkins, who has studied and written about domestic violence for two decades.

It's also a far-reaching problem. Researchers have found connections between domestic violence and poverty, child abuse, homelessness, unemployment, mental health, drugs and alcohol.

Police are often faced with these complicating factors -- on top of an already-complex call. "It's not a guy running down the street with a TV," Jenkins explains. "The dynamics of it are difficult to understand." For example, even a seasoned officer, if untrained in domestic violence, might misread a typical domestic scenario, in which the perpetrator is often very calm, even if the victim is hysterical.

Back in the 1970s, it wasn't clear that police response could help domestic-violence situations. Instead, counseling and mediation were often considered better responses. Then, in 1984, came the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment, conducted by researchers Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk. Minneapolis police officers responding to misdemeanor domestic incidents were randomly assigned to do one of three things: arrest the suspect, order one person out of the residence, or mediate the dispute. The study determined that the chance of re-offending was nearly cut in half when the suspect was arrested.

It was landmark research, says Jenkins. "There are very few cases in social science where one piece of research has had such an impact," she says. "With this study, arrest became a solution."

That same year, the U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence issued a report recommending, among other things, that arrest be considered the preferred response in domestic-violence cases. By 1986, the Washington D.C.-based Crime Control Institute found that 46 percent of urban police departments had instituted arrest policies for domestic violence.

Something else was behind these new arrest policies: lawsuits. During the 1970s, several class-action suits on behalf of battered women had triumphed. Most resulted in policy changes that made police more responsible for protecting victims. Then, in 1985, Tracey Thurman won a $2.3 million lawsuit against the city of Torrington, Conn., because of its police department's indifference to her husband's abuse of her. Suddenly police were at financial risk if they didn't act.

The next major growth period in the field began a decade later, says Jenkins, when the Violence Against Women Act, an attachment to the 1994 omnibus crime bill, funded shelters, training, victim advocates and domestic-violence courts.

Yet some innovations -- such as the pro-arrest and mandatory-arrest policies that came in play during the mid-1980s -- turned out to be a mixed blessing for victims of domestic-violence. "There are always unintended consequences when you attempt to change behavior by law," say Jenkins. "For police, an easy answer to mandatory arrests is to say, 'You both take a ride; I can't figure it out.'" The practice became known as "dual arrests."

It's now recognized that dual arrests hurt victims, who are arrested along with their abusers. Although dual arrests are still fairly common, the NOPD, like many other departments across the country, is concentrating its efforts on determining the "predominant aggressor" in every domestic-violence incident.

"Law enforcement has come a long way in the 20-something years I've been doing this," says Jenkins. Not only in arrest policy, she adds, but in general knowledge of the problem. "The question now isn't 'Why doesn't she leave?' It's 'Why does he hit?' And that's the right question."

Amid the usual buzz in the Second District lobby, a woman sits in a chair reading a blue domestic-violence brochure from the literature rack.

An officer, whose brass nametag reads Sgt. Blanchard, makes a slow swing by the chair. The woman looks up and he stops -- casually -- and nods at the brochure. "Is everything OK?" he asks. They begin talking.

This encounter might not have happened before February 2001, when Dabdoub and his team began focusing on three objectives: the elimination of dual arrests, vigorous enforcement of restraining orders, and facilitation of "victimless" prosecution.

The new Second District policy no longer allows officers to make a dual arrest alone; they have to call in a supervisor. The change was immediately noticeable. "Before we did training, we would average 15 or 20 dual arrests a month. For the first year, we did zero," Dabdoub says, forming an O with his thumb and index finger for emphasis.

He says that the district is also really "turning some heads" with its emphasis on victimless prosecution, necessary since victims are unwilling to testify in 84 percent of domestic-violence cases.

Second District investigations focus on gathering enough evidence to make each case stand on its own -- without the victim's testimony. En route to the scene, the communication room checks for priors and outstanding warrants so that officers can understand what they're going into. "At the scene itself," explains Dabdoub, "we separate them [the couple] for interviews, talk to the 5-year-old kid, talk to neighbors, talk to the mother-in-law."

"Then," Dabdoub continues, "24 hours later, our detectives visit every DV victim. If he gave her a black eye, she'll have a shiner by then. If she was strangled, she'll have little red bumps on her scalp." Rohli points out that the additional evidence from that second call can sometimes upgrade the case from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Rohli says that they document the crime scene and catalog any items that can help in prosecution. "If there's blood on any clothing, we confiscate that. And many times the perpetrator will take the phone cord out of the wall or break the phone. So we'll take photos and confiscate the phone." Officers also keep their ears open when they arrive on the scene, says Rohli, because court cases can include "excited utterances," or statements made in the heat of the moment by the victim or the offender.

In the past, officers might not take photos of injuries, because many victims are reluctant to be photographed. "Now the policy mandates photographs of injuries," says Det. Willie Bush, Rohli's colleague. "So we say, 'I'm required to take these photos' and we get them at every scene." He says that the Second District also sends a 911 tape with every single case -- so that the court can "hear the victim at the moment she's in terror."

It's difficult, time-consuming work, but results are encouraging. Citywide, only 22.8 percent of domestic-violence cases are "accepted" -- pursued to trial by the prosecutor. Second District cases just passed the 50 percent acceptance mark, close to the national average for domestic-violence cases.

Rohli has another focus: the kids. There are children in the home about half the time, Rohli estimates, and she pays special attention to them. That's partly in her role as a detective, because they're most likely to tell the truth. And partly because she's a mother herself.

"The kids always get me," she says. "I've given my card to 5-year-olds -- 'Call me if you need anything.' Their homes are like hell to them." If there are children under 5 in the home, Rohli and Bush call Safe Start, a Louisiana State University-based program that provides counselors to speak with the youths.

Both Rohli and Bush are on call at all times for the project. Their cell phones seem to ring non-stop. "I give victims 24-hour access to me, and they use it," says Rohli as she reaches for another call.

Across town, the attitude about domestic violence still leaves something to be desired. Or so it seems to Amy.

Amy, who asked that her last name not be used in this article, recently arrived at her home downtown to find her ex-boyfriend on her doorstep. Not that this was new. She says she already had "a big stack of item numbers" -- or police calls she'd made about his threats and appearances at her house.

But this time, Amy had just come from civil court, where she'd obtained a restraining order. She called 911 and showed the officer her documents. What happens next was shocking, she says. "The responding cop turned to my ex and said, 'You know, this restraining order is not in effect until you're served with it.'"

Amy knew that this wasn't true, because restraining orders go into effect as soon as the judge signs them. But, more than that, this "legal advice" had come from a police officer to a guy with a history of threats against her.

That's because this town as a whole still needs to change, says Joanne Schmidt, the city's deputy commissioner of criminal justice for domestic violence. "Our police department and courts reflect our community. Batterers are elected to office, batterers are hired on police departments."

"What we're doing in New Orleans is very piecemeal-y because we're woefully underfunded," says Schmidt, who is considered by those in the field to be an unequaled repository of knowledge about domestic-violence programs and policy in New Orleans. "We have one DV detective in every district except the Second, which has two. (Orleans Parish District Attorney) Harry Connick has one person in his office devoted to DV."

"Other cities have separate prosecution and police units devoted to DV," says Schmidt. "We can't afford that in New Orleans."

This spring, New Orleans took a step toward unifying judicial response to the problem. With funding from the Violence Against Women Act grant office, the city published a bench book, Domestic Violence in Criminal Court Cases, that outlines research and cites pertinent state and municipal law. Copies were distributed to all judicial districts in Louisiana.

But women like Amy say that it's about civil court, too. Police officers, they say, are not trained to understand or respect civil orders.

Civil Court Judge Madeleine Landrieu has been talking with Criminal Court Chief Judge Gerard Hansen about coordinating the two courts, she says, because "we frequently have cases in both courts at the same time or leap-frogging over each other."

Landrieu oversees one of civil court's three domestic-relations sections, which determine family issues such as divorce, child custody and visitation. The portion of her caseload devoted to domestic-violence cases is growing rapidly, Landrieu says, perhaps because of the economic downturn. DV cases now take somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of her time.

Currently, however, they can't even quantify the problem, says Landrieu, who's working to change this. "We keep track of how many automobile accidents are filed," she says, "and how many medical malpractice are filed, how many contracts and family-law-related cases, but there's no separate category for domestic violence." Landrieu notes that the only data currently counted by civil court are petitions for protection from abuse; by mid-June of this year, the number of petitions had already surpassed the entire 2001 total.

Civil court has no social workers or case screeners to interview families, which means that the judges have to figure out a lot in a short time. Landrieu tells a story about a husband and a wife who both came through her courtroom one Friday. They had different names and told such different stories that, she says, she didn't even realize it was the same family.

"I was being as conscientious as I possibly could," says Landrieu, "but I gave custody to two different people." Late that night, she got a phone call from the police saying, "He's here, he wants the kids. She's got the kids. I've got two orders, both say they get the kids."

Landrieu said that the officers were able to keep the couple apart while she, over the telephone at 11 p.m., talked first to one person, then the other, and reached a compromise.

Mistakes like these are inevitable when so few resources are devoted to the problem, says Landrieu. "Understand," she explains, "that I've got 20 cases set before me on Monday, 20 on Tuesday, 60 on Wednesday. Now I've got to resolve some major systemic issues happening within a family -- in what, five minutes? It's really very frightening to think that I can issue orders in that time and people have to live with them." -->

This is the final installment of a three-part series on domestic violence in New Orleans. Local resources for help with domestic violence include:

· YWCA Battered Women's Program (486-0377), which operates a 24-hour crisis line and offers individual and group counseling, along with information on emergency shelter and other programs;

· Crescent House (866-9554), which offers 24-hour shelter services

· Project SAVE (523-3755 ext. 2216) and the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation (529-1031), which offer legal assistance for battered women; and

· Family Violence Intervention Project at Family Service of Greater New Orleans (822-0800 ext. 218), which offers counseling and therapy to victims and witnesses of domestic violence.

Katy Reckdahl's reporting is supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. She can be reached at reckdahl@bitstream.net.

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