Domestic violence detectives remain rare in title and duties

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 | 7:14 p.m. CST; updated 11:48 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Detective Jeff Westbrook, left, shows Detective Bob Dochler some pictures of domestic violence cases that are available for training and educational purposes Wednesday morning in their office at the City of Columbia Police Department.

COLUMBIA — Jeff Westbrook and Bob Dochler work with the tough stuff.

The two detectives make up Columbia’s Domestic Violence Enforcement (DOVE) unit, the first and only of its kind in Missouri. They meet with abusers as well as the abused, collect evidence and work with prosecutors to build cases. They also train other police officers around the state at least once a month on handling domestic violence cases.

This kind of job could be depressing. But that's not always the case with these two.

Westbrook and Dochler are tight. They learn from one another, ask each other for advice and even manage to have a little fun as they work together on heart-wrenching and violent crimes.

Take, for example, the few banjo lessons Westbrook has given Dochler.

“I might learn how to pick a banjo from him after three years of this,” Dochler said, referring to his three-year contract.

“I played the banjo for about six years and took lessons for a while,” Westbrook said. But he admits he hasn’t played it much recently.

“But we did have a couple of sessions in here,” Dochler said.

“We did,” Westbrook said.

“On our lunch break,” Dochler said.

“Several people walked in,” Westbrook said, smiling. He broke into a laugh as he recounted the confusion of the co-workers who walked in on the banjo session.

It’s been a year since their last lesson. They’ve been busy.

Each morning they find stacks of domestic violence reports on their desks. Their job is to contact the victim, see what danger he or she is in and attempt to build a case.

It’s difficult work. Sometimes the victim doesn’t want to cooperate. Sometimes the victim can’t talk on the phone because the offender is within earshot. Sometimes bruises and injuries don’t show up until after the incident.

As the new guy, Dochler has a lot to learn, he said. But Westbrook is a good teacher. “He’s a founding father,” Dochler said of Westbrook, who has been a part of the DOVE unit since its inception in 1998.

“A thousand things a day I go, ‘Hey, I’ve never come across this yet Jeff, what do I do here? Am I on the right track?’” Dochler said. “He’s got the answer.”

Westbrook has learned from Dochler, too. Westbrook recalled the first time he watched Dochler call a suspect being sought on an arrest warrant. About 20 percent of domestic violence offenders aren’t arrested at the crime scene, so sometimes there's no arrest for months. Dochler decided the process needed speeding up. He got on the phone and tried to talk a suspect into turning himself in.

“He’s sitting here talking on the phone and I’m thinking, ‘Nah. Not going to happen…That guy’s not going to do it,’” Westbrook said. “Well, pretty soon he’s getting up. I said, ‘Where you going?’ He goes, ‘Well, the guy’s out in the lobby.’ I go, ‘You’re kidding.’ So I thought that was a fluke. But then it happened again and again and again. I’m taken aback. He’s a master at it.”

Dochler is a bit modest about his talent: “I’m not a master at it,” he said.

“You are,” Westbrook insisted.

Dochler tried to explain his method. “I have a conversation with them. I say, ‘Hey, you need to come in and talk to me about this because it’s not going away, OK?’ Kind of make them feel like they have a little control over it. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worked on a fairly good majority.”

When Westbrook tried Dochler’s strategy, he didn’t get quite the same result: “So I tried it, and my guy…” his voice trailed off, “didn’t turn himself in,” he admitted with a sheepish smile.

Every day has its successes and failures for the detectives.

“You help those you can,” Dochler said. “I’ve seen a case just go away in an instant when someone decides they don’t want to be a witness. That’s the disheartening part.”

He talked about a case in which a woman was stabbed 34 times, all around her body, including her head. “It’s amazing she survived,” Dochler said. “It was horrible. Surprisingly enough, when I went to visit her in the hospital, after two months when she could talk to me again, she basically told me: ‘I need to live with my mom, or I’ll go back to him.’”

The woman didn’t yet know that the man was in prison. “But that was her mindset. He has something that draws her. She’ll go back to him again,” Dochler said. “I find that frustrating and intriguing. So I don’t think this job will ever get old, in some ways. It’s fascinating.”

This is the same guy who sometimes says he’s ready “to go back to the road” after his three years are up, back to working as a patrol officer, which he did before he took the DOVE job. “What I liked about working patrol is when you’re done, you’re done,” he said. He doesn’t like to watch cop shows, let alone bring work home in his head.

When Westbrook started the job, he didn’t think he’d stay with it either. Now he plans to retire in four years, when he’ll reach his 25th anniversary with the Columbia Police Department. His years spent working on domestic violence haven’t been easy. He admits he’s a little burned out.

“You get burned out, not just in this particular work, but in police work in general,” Westbrook said. “Police work is hard on a person. Only after I’ve been here 20 years have I started to get a handle on how that manifests itself.”

For Westbrook, it becomes negativity, he said. “The glass is always half empty. I look at the bad side of things. I’m very skeptical,” he said.

But he hasn’t always been this way. “My wife points that out. We’ve been married 25 years and have been dating since high school. So she’s seen me change over those last 25 years, and those changes haven’t always been good.”

Sgt. Ken Hammond, who supervises the detectives, has known Westbrook for 20 years. He said police work always affects people. Westbrook is no exception.

But he’s also seen how Westbrook has changed the domestic violence system. “Jeff is probably one — if not the most — premier person in the state of Missouri when it comes to domestic violence,” he said.

Hammond said the two detectives handle a caseload that’s twice as large as other major crime units, even while organizing training. But they still manage to be there for victims. Aleshia Marso can attest to this. She works as a victim’s advocate for DOVE, and she sees Westbrook and Dochler daily.  “They honestly care about women’s safety,” she said. “Sometimes they just come (to court) because they’ve worked with a woman and they want to be there for support.”

Sometimes a tough job like Westbrook’s and Dochler’s isn’t depressing, but inspiring. While they aren’t always able to be the heroes in every case, they do know they make a difference.

Westbrook took a look at the framed Batman comic near his desk and said he no longer aspires to be a superhero like he did as a kid. But even so, he has faith in the work he and Dochler do. “We are going to be the guys that say (domestic violence) isn’t right,” he said. “And we’re going to do something about it.”

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