Abuse & the law

Domestic violence was once ignored; now Boone County team focuses exclusively on the problem
Sunday, November 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:28 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Detective Jeff Westbrook of the Columbia Police Department heads to a crime scene in his unmarked Impala. Three days ago, a man bent his girlfriend’s fingers back so far she thought they were broken. Westbrook is on his way to question the victim.

“He was arrested for third-degree assault,” Westbrook says. The woman’s fingers were X-rayed. No breaks.

“On the way to the jail, he said several times in the car, ‘When I get out, I’m going to kill her,’” Westbrook says. The patrol officers who made the arrest notified the judge of the threats. He set bail at $20,000 instead of the usual $1,000.

The house is blue and slightly shabby. Painted wooden butterflies decorate the recently mowed yard, and a small U.S. flag waves from the mailbox. From the porch, a young boy watches silently.

Westbrook calls in his location to dispatch before he heads inside to talk to the woman.

Westbrook is a member of Boone County’s Domestic Violence Enforcement unit, known as the DOVE unit. It was created in January 1998, and he was its first member. At 46, he’s a dapper, intense man who heats up when he talks about victims and the “jerks” who abuse them.

“When I first started as a police officer, we basically went to what we called ‘family disturbances,’” Westbrook says. “And very rarely did we arrest anybody. We’re talking about within the last 17 years. We go in, and we tell the guy, ‘Hey, take a walk around the block, cool off. But don’t make me come back, ’cause if I have to come back, someone’s going to jail. So solve it,’ and you’d look at both of them. See, we were trained that way.”

The DOVE unit created a series of procedures for patrol officers, detectives, victims’ advocates and prosecutors in 2003. The procedures require investigators to work as part of a team with other agencies such as victims’ advocates and the prosecutor’s office to provide a coordinated response to domestic violence. Investigators may attend hearings for ex parte orders of protection, more commonly known as restraining orders. The procedures also allow for actions such as patrol officers calling the judge to recommend a high bail in an assault case. Detectives investigating incidents must contact victims for follow-up within two days — sooner if the circumstances seem extremely dangerous.

“Typically, I talk to the victims,” Westbrook says. “I’m taking statements from them. I’m taking photographs. I’m getting 911 tapes. I’m talking to witnesses. I’m making that case. I’m trying to put together what’s called evidence-based prosecution. That’s basing the case on the evidence, not on whether or not she’s willing to go to court in three to six months.”

Police photos show a variety of wounds, which experienced investigators such as Westbrook and his partner, Barbara Buck, can decipher at a glance: whippings with wire coat hangers, boot marks, cigarette burns. They also document bruises, black eyes and bite marks.

Westbrook describes such injuries as “a dime a dozen.” They often result in misdemeanor domestic assault charges. More severe assaults are less frequent and can lead to felony charges.

“Strangulation is a felony,” Westbrook says. “That’s a law change; it used to be a misdemeanor.”

He asks Buck, the department’s expert on strangulation, how much pressure it takes to kill someone.

“Thirty-three pounds of pressure,” she says.

“Many times with strangulations,” Westbrook says, “you will not see any injuries to the neck, but you will see what’s called petechiae, the broken blood vessels in the eyes.”

The photos are stark: trashed homes, blood-smeared walls, cut phone lines.

“They’re not fancy pictures, they’re not award-winning pictures, but they’re just a great job of documenting what happened in this home that particular night,” Westbrook says.

One photo shows a woman with swollen lips and cuts on her cheek. Another shows her holding her own tooth, knocked out by her abuser.

“That’s the kind of documentation Barbara and I are looking for from the scene,” Westbrook says.

Officers also take pictures of children at the scene. One photo shows a little girl with a bloody leg. She was caught in the crossfire of a domestic assault.

Westbrook values that picture. “The reason I like it is I want to show that to a judge and a jury,” he says

His voice gets loud and emphatic. “Let them see that picture. They’re not going to like it.”

Domestic cases built differently

Rene Atkins is a detective at the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, and, in December 1998, she was the second officer assigned to the DOVE unit. She has a quiet voice but is passionate about her work. She works late sometimes and takes her work home. She keeps track of how many pregnant women are attacked because no one else is doing it.

Atkins and her Columbia police counterparts have the biggest caseload among detectives. DOVE detectives know the suspect’s identity and work on building cases, while other detectives work on “whodunits.” Atkins investigated 613 cases in 2002. Recently, she worked for two weeks full time on a stalking case.

The reason officers make evidence-based prosecutions such a priority is that victims refuse to testify against their abusers in as many as 50 percent of cases. Why?

Workers in the field offer a number of reasons. Victims fear retaliation when their abusers are acquitted or, if convicted, get out of jail. Some victims just want the violence to stop, but they don’t want a still-loved husband or father of their children to go to jail.

Victims still blamed

“I’d say the biggest deterrent is they’ve had a horrible experience with the justice system,” says Mark Koch, a victims’ advocate in the Boone County prosecutor’s office, “where the first person who responded to their situation doesn’t take their concern seriously, doesn’t make the arrest.”

Koch ran a shelter for women in Fulton before moving to Columbia. Like many in the DOVE unit, he has been working in the field of domestic violence for more than a decade.

There are officers, Koch says, who are aware of the change in attitudes toward domestic incidents. But there are also officers who still think victims are to blame.

“We do trainings with the police and sheriff’s departments in other jurisdictions on an annual basis,” Koch says, “and the first thing we get is all the horror stories about working with victims.”

An officer walks into a scene that is already complicated when responding to a domestic violence call. The victim might have undergone hours, days or years of abuse before she makes the first call to police.

“She’s finally able to let out some of the stuff that she’s been holding in. And so she’s crying, hysterical, she’s angry at what happened. But what’s the batterer doing? He’s contrite, he’s helpful with law enforcement, he’s manipulative. So, as an officer, who would you rather work with? A calm, collected guy that’s helping you out, or the crying, hysterical victim?”

There are also batterers among law enforcement personnel, Westbrook says, just as there are among the general public.

Some police attitudes are more subtle. In one 911 tape, a woman frantically begs for help as her home burns, set on fire by her abusive partner. The 911 dispatcher dryly tells her help is on the way and orders her to get out of the house. As she continues to scream, he loses patience and tells her to shut up.

Westbrook says he can’t answer for each officer’s private attitudes.

“I can’t dig into their inner self and say, ‘Do you think it’s OK for a woman to get her ass beat?’” he says. “I can’t measure what’s inside of them. But what I can measure is how many times they’re dispatched to these calls, how many times somebody gets arrested, and that’s how I know there’s been a change.”

He’s right. Columbia police statistics show that arrests were made at the scene of domestic incidents in 68 percent of cases in 2003. Warrant requests were made in an additional 23 percent. Once again, it’s hard to compare with arrests 15 years ago because domestic violence was not recorded as a separate category. As Westbrook says, it was a “family matter.”

Westbrook has nothing unusual to report when he emerges from the shabby blue house. The woman told him that her boyfriend got mean when he was drunk, but she didn’t want him to lose his job over it. Westbrook told her she didn’t deserve to be abused and help was available. He also arranged to talk to the woman’s adult daughter about the real extent of what appeared to be an ongoing violent relationship.

As he drives back to the station, Westbrook shakes his head.

“She’s not going to go forward with this,” he says. The woman said she wasn’t afraid of her boyfriend’s threat, but Westbrook is not convinced.

“I asked her, is he liable to do it? Well, he’s liable to do anything, but she says he doesn’t have any access to weapons,” he says. “But you just don’t know. If someone makes the threat to kill someone, will they do it or won’t they? You don’t know. I tend to take those kind of threats pretty seriously.”

He has good reason.

Westbrook went on a similar call in November 2000 to talk to a teenager named Nettie Hisle. He talked to her about getting the locks on her door changed. She had a history of abuse by her ex-boyfriend and a restraining order against him, but he had violated it by getting in and stealing her father’s ashes.

“I hadn’t been home but a few hours, and I get a call from my supervisor,” Westbrook says. “He said, ‘You go see Nettie today?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ He said, ‘Well, (the ex-boyfriend) was hiding in the closet when you were out there. After you left, he took her at gunpoint, forced her in the car, there was a pursuit, he killed her and killed himself. Can you go out to the scene?’ So I go out to the scene.

“It’s a horrible thing to see. It was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen as a police officer.”

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