Minnesota program offers 'blueprint' for pursuing perpetrators of domestic violence
‘We will always work together for what's best for victims,' advocate says
This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.
Night had just fallen on St. Paul, Minn., when the call about a possible domestic assault came over Officer Michael Shead's radio. He relayed dispatch that he was on his way and drove past icy, snow-filled streets into a quiet residential area in the city's Eastern District.
"We're a few blocks out, but we'll still wait for backup — domestics are always dangerous. Never know what you're walking into," Shead told CBC News, which was along for the ride. Within minutes, two other squad cars pulled up in front of the home.
Shead and his partner, Officer Jessica Stiffarm, entered the home.
Within minutes, Shead walked the suspect outside. The ex-gang member's plaid shirt hung from his shoulders, his bare chest covered in tattoos and his hands cuffed behind his back.
"Is that all your blood or is it hers?" Shead asked.
"I don't know, but I'm fine," the man replied, staring straight ahead.
Shead pulled out his cellphone and took a photo of the man. The flash revealed he was covered in blood.
Inside the house, Stiffarm went over a series of questions with the victim. It was part of her training, to gauge the level of fear victims feel and to assess the lethality of her situation.
"How did you feel when this was happening?" Stiffarm asked. "How frequently and seriously does he intimidate, threaten or assault you? If I can't contact you, who is someone who will always know where you are at, no matter what?"
While Stiffarm took a detailed history, Shead patiently waited outside with the man, who was sitting in his cruiser.
"It doesn't seem like the victim in this is too co-operative. She says she doesn't want him to go to jail, but we have enough evidence," Shead said, referring to her bloodied ear and the roommates who heard her screams. "So with all the circumstances and independent witnesses, we got enough to take him to jail even without her statement."
WATCH: CBC does ride-along with St. Paul officers responding to domestic violence call
This isn't how it's usually done, but St. Paul has taken domestic violence seriously. It's the birthplace of Blueprint for Safety, a program bringing together police, prosecutors and victim support services in an effort that promises "sure and swift consequences" for intimate partner violence. And it begins with the first contact.
The goal has been to take the onus off the victim to press charges and put it squarely on the shoulders of police and prosecutors. If there's enough evidence of a domestic assault at the scene, officers have been trained to make an arrest and the wheels of justice start spinning very quickly.
Stiffarm joined Shead outside. She left her card with the victim, telling her she'd be on duty late and to call if she changed her mind.
"She needs to know," Stiffarm said. "I'm here to help her and make sure she is safe."
'I could see blood on her face'
An hour after the call first came in, the suspect was in a concrete holding cell at the police station, while three officers wrote their reports in a room around the corner. The walls of that room had no fewer than 10 reminders to police to notify the family violence unit of any new domestic victims who might need urgent help.
Shead picked up the phone to call the unit and the community's domestic violence advocacy support service centre, St. Paul Intervention Project.
He then went over his report one more time, reading aloud: "'He immediately opened the door, and I noticed he was sweating profusely, had blood on his face and scratches. I saw the victim standing behind him in the corner, and I could see blood on her face as well.'"
Shead took a closer look at an image of the victim's bloody ear. "We don't know if it's a busted eardrum or anything like that, so we take pictures, and these are the pictures that the prosecutor sees," he said.
The victim refused medical attention, and police didn't know the full extent of her injuries. To be safe, they decided to go with a more serious charge of felony assault. The prosecutor would make a final decision the next morning.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, Sgt. Jim Nash and city prosecutor Tara Patet went through the weekend's domestic violence cases. Every weekday, morning prosecutors and police decide which cases to charge.
An image of a woman with a badly bruised and swollen cheek filled a large screen in the room. Along with the pictures were reports from police and witness interviews — just one of a half-dozen cases up for review that morning.
Patet, her arms folded, leaned back and looked at the images of the victim on the screen, her file and the risks to her safety assessed by the officers on the scene.
"I'll call his probation officer, because I am going to charge this one," she told Nash.
Patet said the questions officers have been trained to ask at the scene of domestic assault provide prosecutors with vital information about the history of violence in the relationship. "As a prosecutor, that really gives me a good sense of risk and danger in the case."
Patet recalled another assault case that could have been dropped because it first appeared to be minor. "But because the officer on scene had done such a beautiful job of … writing a narrative of the history that had occurred in that relationship, including really recent, really significant assaults for which she hadn't called the police, I decided to charge that case."
She presented the information gathered by the officer to the judge at the bail hearing, and the judge decided to set the maximum bail. The suspect was held in custody, which gave the victim a little more time to get to shelter and get an order for protection and other things to secure her safety.
"That's really a good example of how having context really significantly changes things for us," Patet said.
'Gone on arrivals'
In roughly half the cases where officers were called to a domestic assault, the suspect was no longer there. Police referred to those cases as "gone on arrivals," or GOAs.
"That's a lot," Patet said. "We also know from the research that often, these are the offenders that are more dangerous. They pose a higher risk."
Ten years ago, it took roughly 76 days for law enforcement to track down those suspects and charge them. But once they prioritized the GOAs, it dropped to eight days.
"In the first year that we started looking at these cases immediately, the day after they happened, we quadrupled our conviction rate," Patet said.
"More importantly, we're just keeping victims safe faster. We're responding in a way that tells victims, 'We do care about your safety, and we're going to respond in a timely manner.' So that's had a really big impact on how we do our work in St. Paul," Patet said.
Nash, an officer since 1993, said it was frustrating to constantly visit the same address and witness the same things before the Blueprint for Safety program began.
"After the Blueprint, that happened less. It's still a common occurrence, but it happened way less. You get a sense that you're making a difference."
While Patet and Nash reviewed the previous night's cases and decided which ones to prosecute, another team was out pounding the pavement. This was another special feature of the Blueprint.
Sgt. Michele Giampolo and Lindsey — victim advocates never disclose their last names — visited some victims that day. Giampolo was in plainclothes, but under her coat she packed a weapon and a radio. A police bodycam was attached to her coat, recording her interactions.
The two worked separately but together. While Giampolo's job was to get more information from the victim, Lindsey's job was to provide the victim with confidential advice on how to access services to help her end the abuse.
Following up with the victim the next day is a critical step in the program, and they visited eight homes that day.
"Sometimes, they don't have a cellphone. Either the suspect took it or they broke it or maybe they just lost it.... So they don't have a way of contacting the police," Giampolo said. "So me going out there provides them a voice to contact and give their side of the story."
Lindsey said advocates often know more details than the investigators because of their confidential conversations.
"Sometimes after speaking with [victims] and going through what is going to happen so that they can gain that knowledge, then they'll be more forthcoming and willing to work with the system."
'A triangle of support'
Giampolo said some victims don't want to have anything to do with police, but others change their mind when they see caring officers in their homes.
Police and victim advocates didn't always work so well together.
"They used to call us the St. Paul Interference Project," said Shelley Johnson Cline, one of the leaders in Minnesota's battered women's movement, who oversees St. Paul & Ramsey County Domestic Abuse Intervention Project.
"They would turn their chairs and have their backs to us," she said. "Now, we have each other's backs. Now, we work side by side. We may not always agree, but we will always come back to the table, and we will always work together for what's best for victims."
Becky, a woman whose abusive husband was so angered by her decision to leave that he threatened to kill her, owes her life to the collaboration of police and victims support in St. Paul.
After she left her husband, police kept in touch and drove by her home frequently to let her know they were watching. Meanwhile, victim advocates attended her ex's court appearance and kept a close eye on the proceedings.
When police arrested him, he had the blueprints to her home and her workplace, as well as a gun and multiple rounds of ammunition in the trunk of his car.
Becky said she wasn't sure how she would have gotten through the ordeal without the help she received.
"There was somebody at my elbow every step of the way," she said. "It was like a triangle of support. I felt like I had law enforcement on my side. I had St. Paul Intervention advocating for me. And I had the police force, too."
Additional reporting by Sylvene Gilchrist
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To read all the stories in CBC's Stopping Domestic Violence series, visit cbc.ca/stoppingdomesticviolence