Spokane’s Domestic Violence Unit cut to make way for Violent Crimes Task Force

Victim advocates fear the impacts of short-staffing the previously effective unit.

Victim advocates fear the impacts of short-staffing the previously effective unit.

When police officers in Spokane respond to domestic violence calls and determine a crime has been committed, it’s likely to take 30 days for a warrant to be issued and the alleged abuser to be arrested if they have fled the scene. Prior to May 1, Spokane Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit would track these cases and arrest perpetrators within days, not after weeks or even a month had passed.

Before May, the DV Unit arrested an average of 13 alleged domestic violence perpetrators a month as quickly as they could track them down. Since staffing cuts to the unit — which reduced the staff from two detectives and four officers to three detectives and one officer — the unit has made only one such arrest.

Since the dissolution of the DV Unit, “​​there is nothing to stop a perpetrator from returning to the victim,  unless patrol happens upon them by chance,” explained Sergeant Jordan Ferguson, the head of SPD’s DV Unit.

“The advantage of getting them booked into jail is one: you have the immediate repercussions for what they’ve done, and two: it usually gets a no-contact order generated,” Ferguson said. Having an abuser in jail, and on a restraining order when they get out, buys the survivor vital time and space to figure out their next steps.

For the foreseeable future, victims of domestic violence in Spokane aren’t likely to have the relief that comes from a quick arrest. There will also be greater challenges monitoring domestic violence perpetrators in the community and getting guns out of the hands of domestic violence perpetrators (check out this recent Inlander article on the unit’s work to get guns out of the hands of abusers). That’s due to the ongoing reorganization of the Spokane police force. The cuts to the unit were made in order to create a new Violent Crimes Task Force (VCTF), according to Corporal Nick Briggs, a SPD public information officer.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors who partner with SPD’s DV Unit give the unit credit for reducing domestic violence in Spokane and fear the impacts of short-staffing the unit. “I think it’s concerning that we have a model here that appears to be working … and then we’re choosing to change it,” said Annie Murphy, the executive director of the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Coalition.

Spokane has a serious domestic violence problem. A 2019 study by the Women Helping Women Fund found that Spokane County domestic violence related incidents were well above the state average — in Spokane 10.4 out of 1,000 residents experienced domestic violence in 2016, while the state average was 7.4 out of 1,000. During the lockdown phases of the pandemic in 2020, domestic violence nationwide increased by 8%, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. Spokane was no exception. According to the YWCA, calls to their domestic violence hotline increased by 40% in 2020.

Amid growing incidents of domestic violence nationwide and in Spokane, the work of SPD’s DV Unit has been a source of hope for people experiencing domestic violence in the area, and a vital piece of a delicate regional ecosystem that includes the Department of Corrections. Without a properly functioning unit in Spokane, that ecosystem is now under threat. Since the unit was created in 2017, the city has seen a decreasing trend in reported domestic violence aggravated assaults, according to SPD data shared in a recent public meeting. So far this year, there’s been a marked decrease in domestic violence from 2021, which could also be due to the easing of the pandemic.

A screenshot of data from the Spokane Police Department shared in a recent public meeting.

“We are very concerned that the decrease in staffing will further increase the length in response time to domestic violence calls,” wrote Jeanette Hauck, the CEO of YWCA Spokane in a statement emailed to RANGE Media. “The focused deterrent work performed by the officers has shown to be effective. Without the staff to perform this work, it is very possible we will see an increase in perpetrators ignoring restraining orders. As a result we are likely to see an increase in intimate partner violence.”

Because of the unique nature of domestic violence, which often happens between people who share deep family and social ties, it takes partnerships between many different agencies and organizations, some governmental, some private, to address all the potential needs and touch points of victims and the accused. That’s made partnering with community groups and across the criminal justice system essential to the Spokane DV Unit’s success.  In Spokane, the DV unit has close ties to the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Team, which includes the Spokane Police Department, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, YWCA advocates and the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office. The DV unit also works closely with the state Department of Corrections (DOC). With the abrupt reduction in staff, the unit doesn’t have the same capacity to work with those partners.

For example, prior to May, the DV Unit would accompany DOC teams on check-ins with offenders on probation and execute arrest warrants for DV offenders who had violated probation. Since the downsizing, there’s no longer capacity for any of that work. “We can keep an eye [on offenders], but we don’t have anybody available to go out and help at this time,” said SPD’s Ferguson.

The county prosecutor’s office echoed the challenges. According to a statement shared by SPD from lead domestic violence prosecutor Andrew Warlaumont, downsizing the unit has led to “an immediate impact and reduction in ability to work alongside [the DV Unit].”

Victims of domestic violence don’t always contact the police. Often their first move is to a crisis shelter or the YWCA. The DV unit worked with the YMCA to create a safe, low-barrier way for survivors to meet with law enforcement and seek accountability for their abusers. On average, the unit met with six survivors of domestic violence a month through this relationship. None of these meetings have occurred since May 1.

And while the decision to cut staff was a big blow all on its own, that impact was made worse by failures within SPD to clearly communicate how changes would impact these partnerships, even as the partner organizations noticed the drop in support.

According to DOC, their staff was not informed of the changes to the DV Unit until after the changes were in place. “DOC heard rumors of the unit being eliminated from stakeholders, and it was confirmed by the DV Coalition and then the officers themselves [that the unit was being restructured],” according to DOC spokesman Tobby Hatley.

According to SPD, the lack of communication was due to their urgency to create a new Violent Crimes Task Force (VCTF), which required moving staff from the DV Unit. “We wanted to give as much notice as we could,” said Corporal Nick Briggs, a SPD public information officer. “The need for this violent crimes task force was a very acute one and a very immediate one,” he said. “Violent crime and saving people’s lives has to take precedent.”

Using the SPD’s own data, though, violent crime has gone down in 2022 across various important metrics, leading to the obvious question: what is so acute and immediate as to require such an abrupt restructuring?

SPD’s VCTF was announced in late April amid a string of shootings earlier that month. This task force, which was pushed for by Mayor Nadine Woodward, focuses on keeping close police contact with repeat offenders, which can include domestic violence perpetrators. “[The VCTF is] specifically seeking individuals that are believed to be responsible for a multitude of violent acts, and then also concentrating their efforts in specific areas if we’re seeing a geographic area that needs additional attention and resources,” said Briggs.

So far this year, reported rape is down 16%, reported aggravated assault domestic violence is down 3%, and homicide is the same as 2021, according to SPD’s publicly available CompStat data. The overall violent crime rate is up 3%, but the vast majority of the violent crime increase so far this year comes from a more than doubling of commercial robberies. A robbery is when someone steals or tries to steal something through force or the threat of force. In all, the 3% increase amounts to a total of 25 more crimes in all of Spokane compared to this time last year. Since the creation of the VCTF, the rate of violent crimes has nudged slightly up.

When asked about the discrepancies between the publicly available data and the rhetoric about major increases in violent crimes, Briggs wrote in an email:

“CompStat data is not official. It is published for the sake of transparency and education, but those using it should know its limitations. One of those limitations is that incidents may be re-classified based on further investigation, but if that re-classification happens outside the CompStat reporting window it will not be captured on that report. For example, if a death investigation occurs and the cause of death is undetermined, that will not go into the homicide numbers. If, a month later for example, the medical examiner determines the cause of death was a homicide, that previous report wouldn’t have captured the incident as such because that information was not available at the time.

Second, we have seen a dramatic increase in shooting case reports, which present a unique and acute threat to public safety. We have seen increases in shooting incidents every year since 2018, with dramatic increases lately. From 2019 to 2020, shootings rose 81%. From 2020-2021 shootings rose an additional 60%. Through the end of June 2022, we have seen a 25% increase from the same timeframe last year. Shooting incidents have over tripled when you compare 2018 numbers with 2021 numbers. A large number of these shootings are “drive-bys” which account for over half the 2022 shootings year-to-date.”

Police accountability activist and Spokane Human Right Commission Anwar Peace said he questions the way SPD continually reshuffles its units. “This police department needs to do a geographic policing study of the department and the public safety needs of our community,” Peace said. He said such a study would give a more comprehensive framework for aligning staffing with community needs and hopefully slow the continual churn of the department. “Since September of last year we have seen this department reshuffle things — in which they claim to deal with the rise in crime — and every time they do one of these reshuffles it doesn’t work,” Peace said.

One example Peace cited of the ineffectiveness of SPD’s recent restructuring was the dissolution of SPD’s traffic unit last September, which coincided with a major increase in driving fatalities while the unit wasn’t operating.

Advocates and the head of the domestic violence unit are concerned that the progress that’s been made in quelling domestic violence is fragile and warn that losses to the unit could spell trouble in the future. “I don’t think we’re gonna be able to do everything that we’ve been doing,” said Ferguson, the head of the DV Unit. “I’m fairly fearful that something bad is gonna happen because we’re gonna miss something along the way.”

Apart from the fear of domestic violence increasing, advocates are also drawing attention to the fact that domestic violence is a form of violence that affects the community now and in the future. “I want there to be recognition that violence [in the community] and domestic violence are not completely separate issues,” said Murphy, the head of the domestic violence coalition. “They’re very, very interrelated.”

“Violent crime is intersectional,” Murphy said. “You aren’t just violent out in the community – out in the streets. There’s most often violence that’s also happening inside of your home and that’s whether you’re witnessing domestic violence or child abuse, you’re a victim of it, or you’re someone that’s perpetrating that violence. These are not separate issues.”

Simply put: one of the most effective ways to curb violent crime in the community is breaking the cycle of domestic violence at home.

“Domestic violence is one of the number one predictors for all crime,” SPD’s Ferguson said, echoing Murphy’s concerns. “If we start allowing more offenders to go without being held accountable, they’re going to be empowered and emboldened to do more crimes — that’s where the threat to the community is going to increase.”

—edited by Luke Baumgarten & Valerie Osier

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