Cracking down on domestic violence

A little bit of extra paperwork has made a world of difference in successfully convicting domestic violence offenders in Southwest.

After a year of trial, a pilot program tested in the 5th Precinct saw a 22 percent jump in the conviction rate for misdemeanor cases, and the strategy will now expand into the rest of the city. The pilot hinges on better evidence-gathering when officers respond to a 911 call.

In typical misdemeanor cases — perhaps the victim gets a black eye, bruises or scary threats — police simply arrest the suspect and book him or her without an interview. If the victim recants the story, as happens a majority of the time, prosecutors often have nothing to go on and are forced to drop the case.

"With misdemeanors, a lot of times it’s just her and him," said Assistant City Attorney Kathy Rygh. "And if you’ve got her there saying it didn’t happen, that’s kind of hard to overcome."

The new pilot protocol asked officers to spend an extra 20 minutes or so at each household. Officers took pictures of injuries and damaged property, and asked the victim to write down what happened and sign a medical release form. Police also asked questions to help determine the victim’s future risk in the relationship — whether the suspect had access to a weapon, whether he might injure children or whether he’s threatened to hurt family pets. The answers help probation officers decide whether the offender should be allowed back into the house.

Minneapolis Police Department 5th Precinct Insp. Kris Arneson said the pictures that officers collect tell "a thousand words."

"The officer can write in their report, ‘She had a contusion under her left eye.’ Well, in your mind [and] in my mind, we’re probably thinking different things," Arneson said. "But when you show a picture of someone with a 3-inch egg under their eye where they have been struck, that tells the whole story. There’s no doubt as to what happened."

The pilot program also required officers to read suspects Miranda rights, place them in the back of the squad car and attempt to interview them under the watch of a surveillance camera. When the officers started to drive Downtown, the camera continued to roll, and anything the suspect said could still be used to prosecute the case. In many cases, the suspect eventually started to talk.

"That really locks the defendant into a version of events, and it makes it harder for the defendant to change his story later on to best suit his case," Assistant City Attorney Michelle Jacobson said.

Evidence-gathering to this extent was previously used by investigators only in felony cases, where a victim might have sustained broken bones or a brain injury or endured another type of severe assault.

But prosecutors have found officers’ initial investigations to be very helpful, because they are less dependent on the victim’s testimony to have a strong case.

"And then if she cooperates, that’s just gravy," Rygh said.

Prosecutors said victims tend to be much more cooperative in the hours immediately following an incident. Just one day later, they are far less likely to sign medical release forms or back their own original version of events.

In domestic violence cases that had been charged and resolved last year, the victims wanted the case dismissed 63 percent of the time.

"Part of domestics is recanting victims," Rygh said. "They need to protect themselves. They may be dependent on this person financially; they may love them. They have kids together, [or] they think the best way to protect themselves is to try to stick up for them."

Jacobson sees hope in the stats that have come back from the 2008 pilot year.

For repeat offenders, domestic violence calls have gone down by about one report per person. It’s hard to draw conclusions this quickly, but the hope is that more convictions will lead to less recidivism.

A misdemeanor domestic violence conviction can yield 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. A gross misdemeanor might bring a year in jail or $3,000 fine. Those types of sentences aren’t the norm, however. Many offenders end up on probation and enrolled in programs designed to eliminate the criminal behavior. Programs can include treatment for chemical dependency, a mental health examination, domestic counseling or a no-contact order.

The pilot program will initially expand into the 3rd Precinct before spreading citywide.

"To me, it’s very impressive that we were able to increase the conviction rate in such a short amount of time," Jacobson said. "You just don’t see that big of a jump in a short amount of time."

Reach Michelle Bruch at 436-4372 or mbruch@mnpubs.com.