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The peacekeepers in Domestic Warfare

"An angry man with whiskey breath is in your face, telling you to get the hell out of his home. His face is bloody from scratches. The phone has been pulled off the wall and the refrigerator door is off its hinges. The children are occupied watching Jerry Springer on TV.A woman is standing in the kitchen. She seems disoriented. She doesn’t want to talk to you.You have an hour to sort out the pieces, dig into the family’s background and decide who, if anyone, needs to go to jail. What would you do? Domestic violence can be one of the toughest crimes to investigate, one of the toughest to police, and one of the toughest to prosecute, police say.But it’s a crime that Oak Harbor police officers face, on average, three or four times a week. Last week, they got a little help in dealing with it.For the second straight year, the Oak Harbor Police Department and Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse teamed up to bring Anne O’Dell, a nationally recognized police expert in investigation domestic abuse, to the city last week to give an eight-hour training seminar to local law enforcement officials.O’Dell is a 20-year veteran of the San Diego police officer who started the city’s domestic abuse unit in 1990, which has become a national model. Three years after the program started, the number of domestic abuse homicides decreased by 59 percent and reports increased 60 percent.This year, she focused on ways to identify self-defense wounds in domestic abuse situations.It’s a topic that seems relevant for local police.According to a report prepared by Halley Smith-LaBombard, a program evaluator for CADA and the Oak Harbor Police’s Domestic Abuse Response Team, 30 percent of the people arrested for domestic violence in the first half of this year were women.In 1998, 23 of 100 people arrested were women.O’Dell said the high percentages are “a big red flag” that the investigation is going wrong somewhere. She said that 10 to 12 percent is the “absolute max” of domestic violence arrests that should be women, based on national statistics.“It indicates that the officers do not know how to screen for self-defense,” she said.Oak Harbor Police Department Tony Barge agreed that the statistic seems high and that he is going “pay particular attention” to it in the future.The problem, Barge said, may be officers’ misunderstanding of the state’s domestic abuse law, combined with the difficulty of investigating abuse scenes that can be wild.Under the law passed in the late 1980s, officers are required to make an arrest if they find evidence of domestic violence. Before that, the victim had to agree to press charges before an arrest could be made.What might be happening, Barge said, is that officers are arresting women who injure their attacker in self-defense, thinking they are required to make an arrest since an injury is visible.“It should not be an automatic conclusion that if there are scratches on the man’s face, arrest the woman...” Barge said. “The attitude sometimes is arrest everyone and let the judge sort it out. But it’s not the judge’s job. It’s really the officer’s responsibility to do that.”Scratch marks, particularly to the face or neck, are common self-defense wounds, O’Dell said. And wound patterns can be deceiving. Strangulation, for example, is one of the most common types of domestic assault, but it only leaves visible injuries on the victim 16 percent of the time. On the other hand, people who are being strangled often claw at the person who is doing the strangling, leaving very visible marks.Bite marks are also common self-defense wounds. O’Dell said she’s seen many cases in which a woman will bite a man in the chest or neck while he is holding her down — a scenario that may leave no marks on her, but lead to her arrest.“It’s not very common for a woman to run across the room, lift a man’s shirt and bite him on the chest for no reason,” she said.O’Dell walked through a set of questions that officers should ask to determine whether a victim has internal, less visible injuries from strangulation.She said that a couple’s past history should also be taken into account during an investigations. She said officers should take the time to interview any children, other family members and neighbors to get the full picture.CADA director Valerie Stafford agrees. She said she has heard of too many cases in which the police are called repeatedly to a house because a man is beating a woman, but on the sixth or seventh time the woman is arrested.“Finally the woman finds the strength to fight back and she’s arrested,” she said, adding that such arrests could have a chilling effect on reporting.That’s why CADA teamed with the police to do more training.“We have to make the abuser know that he’s not going to get away with it anymore,” Stafford said. “He has to know that we know what’s going on.”Stafford and Barge said they have worked with the Department of Social and Health Services and other agencies to develop a list of high-risk families in the community, which officer are alerted to before responding to a call.Despite the problems, Stafford, Barge and City Attorney Phil Bleyhl said there are also plenty of solid investigations turned in to local prosecutors. And police responses are improving by the year.Officer Elizabeth Luvera said officers go into domestic situations assuming that the victims will not testify against their abusers, so they collect as much detail as possible.They are not clairvoyant. ”You are asking an officer to walk in off the street and make a decision about a complex case that attorneys will be arguing about for months,” Sgt. John Dyer pointed out.Female abuse victims are often reluctant to talk to male authority figures in uniforms after they’re just been beaten by a husband or boyfriend.But even with the problems, Dyer said that police response to domestic violence is “1,000 percent” more effective today than it was just 10 years ago, when attitudes were different and police were hindered by the law.“We’d have women with black eyes and bloody faces, and we’d beg them to press charges...” he said. “The same thing would happen over and over and over again, and there was nothing we could do.”"

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