Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

October 28, 2013

Raising domestic violence awareness

STAFF REPORTS
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal —

Editor's note: What follows is a pared down version of an interview conducted Thursday between US&J Managing Editor Joyce Miles, City Editor Scott Leffler, Niagara County Sheriff Jim Voutour, Lockport City Police Chief Larry Eggert, Niagara County Domestic Violence Coordinator Susan LaRose and Assistant District Attorney Lisa Baehre, who prosecutes domestic violence cases in Niagara County. The topic was domestic violence, particularly how law enforcement handles it. 

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LEFFLER: Basically, my concern is, I want to know how each department handles domestic violence. ... I have heard some things from different people that seems disconcerting. And I’ve heard some things from different people that seems great. So I thought this would be a good way for the newspaper to tackle domestic violence awareness month and get the information out there. We seem to have the major players in the room and we’ll just chat. ... We’ll start with the county. Jim, in terms of what your department sees, what goes across your desk, how big of a problem would you say domestic violence is in Niagara County?

VOUTOUR: It’s major. It’s a major problem. Probably the only thing that would rival it would be car accidents, I would think. It’s probably our second most call that we handle. And they’re extremely difficult calls to handle. They can be extremely dangerous calls to handle for the patrol officers.

MILES: It’s a broad term. What all does it encompass?

VOUTOUR: It really encompasses any incident between two people with some type of relationship. It’s really a broad definition. It can be boyfriend/girlfriend, it can be husband/wife, it can be child and parent. It’s anybody that has a relationship. And that’s set forth by New York State law. ... As far as the enforcement of it, Scott, the game changed in the summer of ‘94 with the killing of O.J. Simpson’s wife. I might add by O.J. Simpson. But I wasn’t there. But it really changed it and that was my first year on the job.

LEFFLER: How so?

VOUTOUR: It had brought it to the limelight nationwide. And there were several laws passed. Including New York state. For really a zero tolerance for domestic violence. And a pro-arrest policy.

EGGERT: Actually Niagara County was the first county to embrace the new philosophy. So Niagara County was on the forefront. Even back then.

LAROSE: In 1994, there were 12 homicides in the county. And seven of those were domestic violence homicides.

LEFFLER: Officer safety. You mentioned that it is a concern with domestic violence calls. And of course there is the high volume of them. Is there special training that officers go through. That deputies go through?

VOUTOUR: Absolutely. We go through the same training, our officers. Both Larry’s and mine. But it’s always a two-man call or a two-police officer call. We never send a sole officer to a domestic. We’re not always afforded the luxury of having two officers there right away. Sometimes one gets there first and has to intervene before the second one gets there.

EGGERT: It’s obviously closer in the city. As long as we’re not backed up.

VOUTOUR: We teach them to separate if they can. In particular if something’s violent. They’re always looking out for the safety of the officer. Checking for weapons. And that begins with the 911 call. Our dispatchers are trained to ask if they’re intoxicated. Ask if there’s weapons. Ask if those weapons have been threatened or used. And we try to get as much information to the officer on his way to the call so that he has some type of idea what he’s walking into. As I said it’s a pro-arrest policy. If the officer has probable cause that a felony was committed, he must make an arrest. He must make an arrest if there’s a violation of an order of protection. I’m saying the word 'he,' but both of us have many females on our staff. I’m using the term like the dictionary uses. It’s a little bit different in violation cases.

LEFFLER: What do you mean by violation cases?

VOUTOUR: Violations of law come in three packages. There’s violations, there’s misdemeanors and there’s felonies. A violation has to be committed in the presence of a police officer for them to make that arrest. And that officer has to be in his geographical area of employment, if that makes sense.

LEFFLER: In terms of domestic violence, what would be considered a violation as opposed to a misdemeanor or a felony.

EGGERT: A slap across the face.

VOUTOUR: Harassment 2nd is the most popular.

MILES: In most instances the victim must pursue charges, right?

BAEHRE: We need her cooperation.

LEFFLER: Let’s talk about that. And Larry, let’s shift to you just because you’re quiet over there. Do you find in what comes across your desk that women are typically the victims in domestic violence?

EGGERT: It has traditionally been that way just statistically driven. I think that Susan could speak better that I could. But I think from my perspective, what I’ve started to see is more male victims.

LAROSE: More males reporting. 

EGGERT: Maybe that's what it is. More males reporting. You’re starting to also see some same-sex cases where female/female, male/male. And there’s no decrease in the level of violence or the risk of violence. We treat those calls the same as we do any other. ... In a relationship — the definition of a relationship, really is it could be one date, essentially. It could be one date at some time in the past. And that becomes a relationship. So domestic violence is not only a good policy. It’s a pro-arrest policy, but it’s big enough that we could use it in a lot of situations where 20 years ago, 30 years ago we didn’t have those tools to deal with … to diffuse it. Thirty years ago, you would go to the same house five times in one night. Six times in one night. 

LAROSE: Separate the parties.

LEFFLER: I feel like I still hear the same addresses on the scanner a lot. I mean, doesn’t that still happen to a degree?

LAROSE: We would hope not.

EGGERT: Well to a certain extent it probably does because like Jim was saying about the harassments, you can’t make an arrest. You can’t force anybody to leave their house. There are times when we do have to walk away. But there’s a very small amount of those because if there’s anything but a harassment, generallly, somebody’s going to go to jail.

VOUTOUR: The big difference is today, though, Scott, is those houses that we have to walk away from, we now at least, we hope that our officers document it. A domestic report. Even though they may not want a report, we still have a requirement to write it.

LEFFLER: Susan, you mentioned that more men are reporting. Is that a stigma that’s breaking down? Is that what that is?

LAROSE: That’s a tough one because sometimes they beat the other one to the phone. … Statistically, across the country, 95 percent of victims are female. Five percent are male. The county’s more 80/20. That’s because we take into consideration not only husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend. But we’re talking father/son. Those relationships. Which there ends up being more males in that population. But we take male reporters just as seriously as female callers because oftentimes it takes a lot of courage for them to report that they’re being physically harassed or emotionally harassed by a girlfriend or a partner. We take each and every call just as serious as the other.

LEFFLER: Now, you said that sometimes one beats the other to the phone … how …

LAROSE: It’s primary. Trying to determine who’s the primary physical aggressor in a situation … is one of the most frustrating parts, I think for a police officer. And they’ve been trained in the law enforcement academy. They all get 14 hours of training. … And four of it includes role play. Actual role play. In determining the primary physical aggressor, sometimes your going in and there’s equal injury. The situation is discombobulated. You can’t figure out who started what. The stories are conflicting. It’s the police officers’ duty to do some good interviewing and find out if there’s history involved. Who made that defensive wound. Who has worse injuries. And we don’t like to do dual arrests. Unless it’s absolutely necessary.

LEFFLER: Why is that?

LAROSE: Just because it’s not putting the onus on one party or another so you may end up revictimizing the actual victim in the situation. 

BAEHRE: And empowering the aggressor.

LEFFLER: So you show up, you interview both subjects. You typically take someone back with you. They get charged. Booked. And is there often bail? Is there sometimes bail? How is that determined? 

EGGERT: Domestic violence there’s no bail. They have to see the judge. 

LEFFLER: Why is that?

EGGERT: It’s just the protocol we follow. And I think it’s a good protocol. Because if you let someone out after an hour, or quite frankly, like Lisa was saying, if they love the spouse, the boyfriend, the girlfriend, they actually go and bail them out. So that takes away that temptation to succumb to your romantic feelings for the person. It just doesn’t allow that. Which also creates a cooling off period as well. So they stay, depending on when they come in, they stay at least overnight.

VOUTOUR: We’re a little bit different. Because we have 24-7 town judges. And in domestic arrests, we take them before a town justice. So the bail is out of our hands. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the DA’s office will be consulted regarding bail. For a run-of-the-mill assault 3rd or something, sometimes the judge will just release them. Sometimes they set $500.

BAEHRE: It depends on the muni. 

MILES: Does your office ever make an outreach to certain town courts on that? 

LAROSE: All of the town judges go through domestic violence training. Sometimes our deputies will even state that they’re not living in the same home. If they’re not living in the same home, then it shouldn’t be a safety issue. … it’s up to the judges for what bails to set. 

LEFFLER: Are you saying you wish it were harsher? 

LAROSE: I wish it were harsher. It would give people a little bit more of a safety net. A little time to think. Because they come back out and they’ve got that guilty feeling that you’ve just spent that night in jail. No matter what, they still think it’s their fault that they did this. … But bail is just to ensure they come to the next court date. It’s not punishment. 

LEFFLER: You said that they think it’s their fault. Are you saying that victim feels guilty for their abuser going to jail? 

LAROSE: Yes. No matter how many times that you tell them that it’s not your fault … 

BAEHRE: The real problem is, we’re sending a signal off to these victims not the call the police. Because they call the police and there’s low bail, that perpetrator gets out immediately or soon thereafter, what do you think is the first thing he does? He blames her for being in jail. So it really creates a problem with the victim’s trust because she knows every time she calls the police to save her life or her children's life or both, he may be bailed out immediately and he comes back and most of the time takes it out on her. And she knows the next time she calls, that’s what’s going to happen. 

MILES: Are you saying retaliation is the norm in these cases? 

BAEHRE: I would think so, yes. 

VOUTOUR: It’s all part of the cycle. 

BAEHRE: Because he doesn’t blame himself. That’s the whole point of a domestic violence abuser. He blames her. It’s her fault that he beats her. He doesn’t have a problem. She has the problem. So she puts him in jail. And she did this to him. And he goes right back to her and the children. When the real issue is, I think, when there is no bail or low bail, it just creates a horrible cycle of these victims, ‘why should I call the police? Why should I call for help? Because he’s going to be immediately released and retaliation is much worse. 

MILES: Tell us about a domestic violence court. A specialty court. I think there might be one in city court. County court. 

BAEHRE: Integrated Domestic Violence Court will incorporate Family Court as well as Supreme Court and Criminal Court. So the big benefit is that we don’t have these women who don’t have vehicles who are trying to support their family as single moms or vice versa, just going to one court. You can imagine before Integrated Domestic Violence Court they couldn’t make criminal court because they’re in family court. So there’s one judge hearing all of the cases. In the past when there were two of three judges involved, one judge didn’t know what the other judge was doing. Or one judge didn’t know the criminal or the truth about the criminal. And now it’s one judge hearing everything so there’s no snowballing. 

LEFFLER: Other than IDV court, domestic violence cases just go through the normal court system? 

BAEHRE: The only way they go through IDV court is if there’s a pending custody or matrimonial. 

LAROSE: With the criminal. 

LAROSE: But all courts in the county have specific days for domestic violence cases. 

MILES: I’d like to go back to the something that the sheriff said. You talked about the confidential nature of details in these cases. ... The question that we get from our readers is ‘Why don’t we see these arrests in the paper — or that one.' They’re frequently involving domestic incidents. Was somebody charged with the crime. What was the crime? The alleged crime. These details are not readily available. Why not? 

VOUTOUR: Because we protect victims. It’s a simple answer. I know Bill (Wolcott) wanted that one domestic. It was actually the victim who wanted it in the paper. 

MILES: We know Bob Freeman (from the NYS Committee on Open Government) told him there are no secret arrests. What do you say to that? 

VOUTOUR: FOIL it and we’ll have the county attorney look at it. 

MILES: What makes these different than any other arrest? 

VOUTOUR: You’re right, there could be a street fight at the bar where a victim gets beat up and that will make the paper. But domestic violence is domestic violence and it’s my policy to protect victims to every extent that I can. 

LAROSE: Many victims will not report if they think it’s going to go in the paper. It’s commonly brought up, ‘is this going to go in the paper? Is this going to go in the paper? And it’s our policy at the sheriff’s office that it will not go in the paper. 

MILES: But it will end up in the paper when the reporter is sitting in court hearing for the first time that a man in Gasport was charged or indicted for allegedly raping his girlfriend. It’s coming out public at that time. What’s the difference?

VOUTOUR: It’s not coming from us. 

BAEHRE: Let’s not forget that oftentimes the reason they stay with the perpetrator is because they’re trying to keep their family together. And in their eyes, they’re protecting their children by staying. Because they know what he’s doing. They know what he’s capable of. They’re afraid of losing their children to him. Or not having knowledge of what he’s doing. So for them, to stay in the relationship makes sense. In their own mind, they’re safer. ... But their whole role is to protect their children. And when it’s released into the paper, you can imagine what the children go through.

VOUTOUR: Just remember that you may say that you won’t put the victim’s name in, but if you know the guy that got arrested, you know who got beat up. 

LEFFLER: Backing up to the very beginning. This is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is an issue. … How do you raise awareness while simultaneously hiding the crime. And I get that you’re trying to protect the victim. But aren’t you really protecting criminals? 

BAEHRE: I don’t look at it as hiding the crime. I look at it as making the victims feel as comfortable as possible. 

EGGERT: Look at the last 20, almost 20 years now since O.J., I think it’s pretty well publicized now anyway. I think there’s so much out there. The movies they’ve made over the years. The outreach that the Y does. The outreach the county does. The outreach that we do, quite frankly. There is a ton of information on domestic violence out there. So I don’t know how publicizing an arrest report would be critical to that. 

BAEHRE: Our primary goal is safety. That’s number one. Prosecution comes second. First thing we do when we meet with the victim is we assess their safety and then we talk about prosecution. And after we talk about prosecution, we go back to safety. And then after that we go back to safety. And then after conviction we go back to safety. Safety is number one in these cases and I think that’s where we’ve changed.

LEFFLER: There is a stigma to being a victim … my thought would be that the more … information that comes out, the more you might find people aren’t afraid to report because suddenly they realize that domestic violence really does happen to other people and 'I’m not some freak and my neighbors aren’t going to think that there’s something wrong with me because he hit me.' … by publicizing it, you may actually find that you get more people who are willing to come out because suddenly it doesn’t seem so rare and suddenly they’re not so alone.

LAROSE: We have so many professional people, like teachers. You get a teacher in the paper, then the whole classroom knows and they say, 'my God, do we trust her being our teacher? She’s in domestic violence. Is her mind going to be on her class?' 

LAROSE: One of the first sentences that comes out of the victim’s mouth is ‘I’m so embarrassed.’ Because they think it’s just embarrassing to them. 

LEFFLER: You’re almost supporting my position.

LAROSE: But I’m not sure that putting her name in the paper will help that … 

LEFFLER: Not the victims' names. Nobody wants to print victims’ names. 

LAROSE: What is it that you would like to print? Explain that. 

LEFFLER: Criminals’ names. 

MILES: Alleged criminals’ names. 

LEFFLER: We print accused criminals for everything else. 

LAROSE: So the article would read ‘so and so was arrested on a domestic.’ 

LEFFLER: The article would read ‘John Smith was arrested Tuesday afternoon on High Street for assaulting a woman.’ 

VOUTOUR: And if that name on the arrest were Steven LaRose, anybody in Newfane or Wrights Corners or Lockport who read that arrest would know that she’s the victim. … And the likelihood of her calling again when she really needs it is greatly diminished. 

LAROSE: And if you’re not addressing domestic violence in the article then how would you be educating the public, knowing that that is a DV rather than a robbery. 

VOUTOUR: I understand your frustration and any journalist that you put in this room would agree with the both of you … 

EGGERT: And any cop or victims’ advocate would agree with all of us. 

LAROSE: We have to talk about safety. We talked about low bails. We talked about releasing on their own recognizance and what happens as soon as their released. Imagine what it does to these guys when their name’s in the paper? What happens at home? ‘You ruined my career. You ruined my life. All my friends are looking at me.’ 

LEFFLER: Couldn’t that very easily be a deterrent, though? 

LAROSE: Not to these guys. 

LAROSE: There’s no such thing as a deterrent to domestic violence. 

VOUTOUR: It’s a unique crime. It really is. And it really has to be handled in a unique way. 

LEFFLER: I hear the same names. ... There’s a guy’s name that I hear on the scanner once a week. And yet, he apparently keeps getting out. 

VOUTOUR: Is it domestic? 

LEFFLER: Yes. 

BAEHRE: Is it going through the court process? 

LEFFLER: I don’t know. And that’s part of our problem because we can’t get reports. So we don’t know what happened. And I hear this guys name. I’ve heard it over the scanner at least a dozen times. … Do the judges take it seriously? 

BAEHRE: I think we are very fortunate in Niagara County with the judges that we have. Especially on the county court level. I think we’re very very fortunate with regards to bail. … I have secured over $500,000 bail. I have secured $2 million bail. And and I’ve secured remand. ... So I think we’re very fortunate in Niagara County with the judges we have. Do all of them get it? No. But I think we are, especially on a felony level, very fortunate.