Missing evidence, wrong arrests — How police agencies need to adjust responses to domestic violence calls

Unsafe at Home

The following is part of a multi-week series on domestic violence in South Carolina.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – Mary Jenerett endured years of abuse before leaving. But, despite how many times she was beaten, she never called police.

“I was afraid because I didn’t want to lose my kids,” she said. “I didn’t want to see my abuser go to jail. I didn’t want to see my name splattered like, oh, she locked him up. Was it really that bad? Because we can go from being a victim, to we’re the ones who caused it.”

There are about 35,543 cases of intimate partner violence in South Carolina each year, according to data from the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA). About 42.3% of South Carolina women and 29.2% of men will be physically or sexually abused, or stalked by a romantic partner, within their lifetimes.

However, only a small slice of those who are abused ever report the incidents to law enforcement.

That is theorized to be a mixture of not wanting an abuser to get arrested, being afraid of police or are terrified about making the situation worse. 

Case studies in the state’s domestic violence task force’s annual report are filled with stories of homes that were found to be riddled with bullet holes after a woman was killed, a victim who was arrested after hitting her abuser with a backscratcher in self defense, and others who lost faith in law enforcement and were later killed after orders of protection were not enforced.

The report recommends that law enforcement entities across the state need to use consistent responses to build confidence in law enforcement, and should also consider conducting lethality assessments to discover how much danger a victim is in. 

In Maryland, “fatalities have been reduced whenever law enforcement officers follow prescribed protocols after identifying the tell tale signs of domestic violence,” according to the report. That approach has also been done in Charleston. 

If a victim calls police and isn’t believed, they question if there’s ever a point in calling again, according to Sara Barber, SCCADVASA’s executive director.

“They are worried they aren’t going to be believed, and oftentimes domestic violence victims might appear to be the overly emotional, the angry one, at the scene, while the actual offender might be speaking very clearly,” she said. 

And if nothing happens, it might make the situation worse for the person being abused.

Enhancing training

Day one at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy starts with a class on domestic violence. By the time cadets graduate, they’ll have 14 hours of it.

“Those are calls you really have to put serious because it can be a matter of life and death, and you wouldn’t want it to be where something later happens and you go, ‘You know, I wish I had spent a little more time there, I wish I would have offered some services and tried to help them with services,’” said Lewis “Jackie” Swindler, the academy’s director. 

It’s one of the most common calls officers will get. That, combined with high stakes, and the potential for violence, is a reason why police are required to have training on domestic violence every year.

“It is something that we spend a lot of time on,” Swindler said. 

That training includes teaching about changes in law, or will have officers work through mock calls.

A few years ago, the academy filmed instructors teaching about domestic violence and sent the videos to agencies statewide. Swindler encourages departments to watch them, and then examine local incident reports. Based on what they learned, he wants officers to determine if there’s enough information in the incident reports they’re writing. 

Swindler also recommends departments pull up Google Earth in their training rooms and look at different types of housing and residences they commonly go to so teams can create a safety plan for parking and approaching a home. That includes coming up with specific plans for cul-de-sacs, which Swindler refers to as “a puddle of death.”

Getting those incident reports right is crucial to trying the cases in court, according to Fifteenth Circuit Court Solicitor Jimmy Richardson. He said police need to gather as much documentation and witness statements as possible, because victims often choose not to testify months down the line.

“She will just not, in a majority of cases,” he said. 

Injuries often won’t be immediately visible, especially bruising, which might not show up until days later. 

“Photographs taken the night of the incident are generally not going to be productive,” Richardson said.

He encourages police to return to the scene after a few days, both to get photos of possible bruising, and to see if more witnesses might be willing to talk. Even if an officer doesn’t approach a neighbor, he encourages them to call police with information that will help move the case forward.

“We have been told to mind your own business and stay out of it, and that’s fairly good advice on other stuff, but when it comes to domestic violence, it is critical that the community stands up and gives a voice to people who may not have a voice,” Richardson said. 

Swindler said the academy has greatly improved its training and has highlighted ways to gather evidence in domestic violence cases.

Officers should pay attention to signs that aren’t immediately obvious – busted blood vessels in the eyes and a raspy voice indicate if someone has been choked, and cameras are available that can take pictures and look underneath the skin for bruising.

“If you strangle them, it is going to cause your vocal chords to sound different,” Swindler said. “So you can hear and see those types of things. But a lot of those have to do with your interviewing, and following up and taking it serious.”

Instructors teach how to interview children who are involved, understand the dynamics of domestic violence and how to deescalate situations. That includes knowing when attackers have hit themselves to appear like the victim. 

Once the adults are separated, Swindler said more information comes out. 

Those situations are tough on officers, he said, especially when there’s children involved.

“I know officers that have quit the profession because of having to answer those calls,” Swindler said. “They get so frustrated that they are doing their job, and maybe incarcerate someone, and then a judge releases and they go back and harm that person, and then they feel, ‘I didn’t do as much as I could.’”

He points to the Gabby Petito case, where Utah police responded after hearing that her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, was attacking her. Petito was later found dead. Laundrie, who was also found dead the following month, was named a person of interest in her disappearance, but has not been declared a suspect in her murder.

Swindler said the officer might not have had enough information at the time. Video has also shown that Laundrie was calm, and Petito was emotional, which isn’t uncommon.

“That’s why these cases are so, so important that you get it right while you’re there,” Swindler said. 

Barber sees a need for more education.

“I think once a year domestic violence training is not enough,” she said. 

Changing protocols

The Charleston Police Department, highlighted in the state domestic violence advisory committee’s annual report, changed how it responds to domestic violence calls following a 2015 grant. The grant, which was used to fund research the issue, led the department to consult with other agencies nationwide.

The department developed a domestic violence assessment tool, which helps guide which services a victim is offered.

“At the end of the day, it’s handled like any other crime,” said Lt. Matthew Stanley, the commander of the crimes against persons unit at the Charleston Police Department. “It is investigated to a point where there’s a decision to make an arrest or to engage additional resources, including detectives and our victims’ advocates, and everything else.”

That assessment includes if a suspect has access to weapons, if a victim has been threatened or intimidated, and if the abuser has tried to restrict their communications. Those factors, Stanley said, increase the chance of someone being killed.

The department has had a push to train officers about changes in law and adjustments to investigative procedures. 

Two officers will respond to any domestic violence scene and separate those who are involved to discover who the primary aggressor was.

“It can be difficult,” Stanley said. “In domestic violence situations, you are dealing with people who are emotionally charged a lot of times, and they may have differing stories. It’s tough sometimes for officers to navigate that and get to a decision that makes sense, but that’s what they’re trained to do.”

He said there’s been a “modest decrease” in domestic violence cases since 2016, coming it at 451 that year, and dipping to 396 last year. 

Responses are critical, he said, because of a long-term risk for violence. The victim and the aggressor are in a relationship, and will likely interact again. 

He said it’s why additional services, like being able to relocate victims, and provide help with mental health and addiction, would be useful.

The Charleston Police Department’s victim advocates immediate get involved in the domestic violence cases. The advocates will stabilize the situation, make sure victims are safe and conduct a needs assessment to find out what services will be offered. 

“We know the faster we can stabilize, it lowers the chance of impact,” said Catrice Smalls, the department’s victim advocates coordinator.

There’s separate specialists in the department for children, elders and bilingual victims. There’s also a mental health counselor.

They’ve made partnerships with restaurants to feed those escaping, connections with hospitals, an emphasis on community-oriented policing and are focusing on the creation of a resource center, which will help with those who are afraid of coming directly to police. 

The advocates train officers about abuse and its effect on children. Part of that education, Smalls said, is explaining to officers about why a victim may be acting a certain way, how to respond without re-victimizing the abused and why a woman might equate a male officer as a potential abuser. They’re aspects, Smalls said, officers usually haven’t considered before.

“We understand the dynamics of abuse,” Smalls said. “We understand the behavior and why we act the way we do.”

She wants the program to be community-oriented. In the past, people only saw victim advocates in court. Now, they’re everywhere. 

The advocates keep the door open for a survivor to call again. Smalls said the person who was abused might not want to go forward with charges at the moment, but that the advocates still want them to know they are cared for and can return.

“She may never remember your name, but she’s going to remember how you made her feel, and that’s very important, and I take that with me every day,” she said. 

Violence on vacation

The number of domestic violence calls Myrtle Beach receives increases during the summer. Families that experience abuse bring that violence on vacation, and situations can escalate when alcohol is involved, according to Michele Paitsel, a domestic violence detective for the Myrtle Beach Police Department.

Officers will interview the victim, first, and separate them from the suspect.

“It is a case-by-case basis, because a lot of times when we get on scene, everyone is emotional,” Paitsel said. 

The department’s policy is to photograph the injuries on scene. Paitsel will follow up after the reports are sent to her. 

She said the department can try to help relocate the people who have been abused and connect them with the Family Justice Center. Survivors are also referred to a magistrate court to pursue an order of protection.

Tourists are referred to services in their home communities.

However, Paitsel said that “victims sometimes don’t believe they are victims,” and don’t reach out. They will try to keep it in the household. Especially the offender, she said, because they have power over the victim. 

She’d like to see the department add an additional person or resource, just to give an extra person a survivor can reach out to.

Most of the department’s cases are among local families. Paitsel said there’s been an increase in the department’s workload, which might be attributed to people becoming more aware of domestic violence. 

She encourages a “see something, say something” approach.

“It never hurts to say something,” she said.

Domestic Violence Resources
If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, the following resources are available.
Family Justice Center
Crisis line: 844-208-0161
Website
Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault
Crisis line: 800-273-1820
Website

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