When Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright trains police officers on responding to domestic violence calls, he has one ask: Have a "give a damn approach." Officers and anyone working with those affected by domestic violence, he says, must be sensitive about victims' fears of their abuser retaliating, and an understanding of the ongoing cycle of violence in which offenders can trap victims. He tells officers to respond to victims' calls swiftly and thoroughly, without shaming or doubting victims who have trouble leaving abusive relationships, even if they've called for help before.
"Take some pictures, for God's sake. Do the same investigation you do in a burglary," Carnright tells me. "A call today for a low-level domestic violence incident, the next time [the victim] calls, this could be a homicide. Statistically, that's what happens. These cases escalate."
More than 10 million women and men throughout the country are abused each year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; domestic abuse now accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime.
The majority of abuse victims are women. And those women who do flee a physically or emotionally abusive relationship are often at the highest risk. According to a report from the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, "women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship."
Some cities and states have begun to combat domestic violence by improving access to social services and engaging police departments in mandatory arrests, precipitated by victims' calls.
But mandatory arrests can prove ineffectual when offenders are released a day or even hours after the incident, or when law enforcement officers and judges let the offender off with a warning: A 2014 study found that only 59 percent of misdemeanor domestic violence cases result in conviction. For years advocates have wondered: How can abusers effectively be held accountable for stalking, harassing, assaulting, threatening, or killing their current and former partners? And how can their violent behavior be deterred?
Carnright, who has been district attorney for New York's Ulster County for 11 years, understands the data and the dilemmas. Last month, Kingston, New York (a city of about 23,000; also where Carnright's office is based), launched a pilot program, in partnership with the National Network for Safe Communities, that will both offer more government support to victims and provide offenders with resources like anger management counseling and job training. Abusers are warned that, if their violent behavior continues or gets worse, legal action will be taken. In essence, abusers are being held accountable by prosecutors, police, and community victim advocacy groups. The program is the first of its kind in New York state.
As part of the program, the NNSC reviewed data from Kingston's Domestic Incident Report—which is made up of forms that police must complete every time they respond to a domestic incident, whether or not an arrest is made—to create a four-tier system to classify offenders and a system to hold them accountable. David Kennedy, one of the country's most celebrated criminologists and director of the NNSC, developed this strategy, also known as "focused deterrence." Focus deterrence has shown success in High Point, North Carolina (population: about 111,000), where there has been a reported decline in intimate partner homicides since 2015, when the strategy was implemented.
According to Governing Magazine, High Point's district attorney's office and arresting officers used a four-tier system, similar to Kingston's. D-Class offenders are first-time offenders; they were also given resources, anger management training, and warnings about escalating charges from patrol officers. Repeat offenders were reclassified as C-Class offenders, accompanied by a visit from the sergeant of Kingston's police department, and increasingly severe punishment. The next offense leads to reclassification as a B-Class offender; offenders are required to meet with a multi-department task force of officers, prosecutors, social services providers, and city representatives to offer rehabilitation services and a stern warning—one more incident, and they'd be labeled an A-Class offender, a classification that means prosecutors would be seeking the maximum punishment allowed by law. First-time offenders who have committed egregious domestic violence offenses using a weapon or causing significant injury can also be classified as an A-Class offender.
The intervention cannot be done, especially if the victim is still with the abuser, without local police, prosecutors, and domestic violence advocacy groups working in tandem to provide victims with safety through trauma-informed support and resources simultaneously.
When High Point services followed up with victims, they learned that the offenders had taken the increasing warnings seriously. The abusers were initially angry that they couldn't charm their way out of trouble, but, for the most part, they didn't retaliate against their partners for the law enforcement's intervention. A year into the program, High Point officers found that only 9 percent of listed offenders had assaulted again, in comparison to 20 to 34 percent of abusers nationally. In 2016, recidivism rates were so low that High Point didn't have to schedule a call-in for B-Class offenders.
While it's hard to gauge whether the program will be as effective in Kingston, prioritizing interdepartmental cooperation and victim safety is paramount to success.
"Family of Woodstock is very pleased to be working with the DA, his staff and other partners to hold perpetrators more accountable for their violence," executive director Michael Berg said in a press release. "The more perpetrators are held accountable, the more likely they will not re-offend."