Reports of domestic violence fell nearly 20 percent in Suffolk and more than 6 percent in Nassau last year, which law-enforcement officials and victim advocates attribute to aggressive policing that identifies individuals most likely to escalate violence and intervenes in the most potentially dangerous cases.
Domestic violence-related arrests — criminal offenses from verbal harassment to homicide — dropped 21 percent in Suffolk and 3 percent in Nassau last year, according to police statistics.
“The district attorneys and the police on Long Island are proactive,” said Anthony Zenkus, senior director of education and communications for the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, an advocacy group. “Domestic violence is a priority for law enforcement on Long Island, and I am heartened by this.”
Domestic violence incidents and arrests
Zenkus and other experts, however, caution that the figures don’t tell the full story because domestic violence remains an underreported crime. Only about half of intimate partner physical violence cases in the United States are reported to police, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and about a third of those injured by intimate partners receive medical care for their injuries.
Long Island law enforcement officials and victim advocates say the #MeToo movement and decades of work by activists who pressured police and prosecutors into treating domestic violence as a serious crime rather than a private matter has paid off in a steady decline in arrests and reported incidents. Police on Long Island work closely with victim-advocate organizations such as Long Island Against Domestic Violence and the Safe Center. Years of outreach by women’s organizations and social service agencies, meanwhile, have informed victims how to obtain restraining orders and leave abusive relationships.
“People are more willing to talk about domestic violence now than they were in the past,” said Sgt. Kelly Lynch, commander of the Suffolk County Police Department’s Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse Bureau. “People are more likely to intervene now.”
Sgt. Sabrina Gregg, domestic violence liaison for the Nassau County Police Department, said the decline in arrests also reflects an increase in programs aimed at stopping offenders from assaulting spouses and other loved ones.
“There is so much intervention, not just for the victims, but for the perpetrators as well,” Gregg said.
The Suffolk Police Department said it received 6,992 reports of domestic incidents where there was an arrest in 2018, down from 8,671 in 2017 . The Nassau County Police Department said it received 3,825 reports of domestic incidents with an arrest, compared with 4,080 the previous year.
Suffolk police made 2,871 domestic violence arrests in 2018, compared with 3,625 in 2017. Nassau police made 1,648 arrests in 2018, compared with 1,699 arrests the previous year.
Nassau police renewed calls for victims of domestic violence to seek help in February after Douglas Kelly, 54, of Bellmore, fatally shot his wife Dawn Kelly, 50, before killing himself. Det. Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick, commanding officer of the Nassau homicide squad, said a day after the murder-suicide that Dawn Kelly had never sought help from authorities despite years of verbal abuse from her husband.
“This is a public health crisis and we have to ask ourselves if we are doing all we can,” Zenkus said. “These crimes happen because society lets them happen.”
Colleen Merlo, executive director of Long Island Against Domestic Violence, said too many victims remain reluctant to report abuse or leave offenders. Some fear perpetrators will seriously injure or kill them, their children or other loved ones, Merlo said. Some may not have the financial resources to leave abusers. Many might simply love their assailants and believe it when offenders promise not to beat them up again. On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she finally leaves for good, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
“When the victim makes the decision to leave, that is the most dangerous time,” Merlo said. “That is when the offender is losing power and control. That is when it escalates and gets dangerous.”
Suffolk Chief of Police Stuart Cameron said the department has made domestic violence a priority, expanding Lynch’s domestic violence and elder abuse staff from two officers to four in recent years. The unit, which used to conduct outreach to about 400 victims a year, now contacts 2,000 a year, informing them of the steps they can take to get out of abusive relationships.
“Kelly and her team turn, for many people, a hopeless situation into a viable one,” Cameron said.
Lynch and her unit, Cameron added, have made a dramatic impact on domestic violence by using a risk assessment scale originally developed by Kris Henning, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University in Oregon. Information such as an offender’s criminal record and history of domestic violence is used to determine a score that indicates if a perpetrator will assault a partner again, and if the level of violence will escalate. A member of the domestic violence unit will then meet with the victim to inform them of potential dangers.
“You can imagine the wake-up call for a domestic violence victim when you tell them ‘You are at risk,’ ” Cameron said.
Officers who initially respond to domestic violence calls use computer tablets that are now standard equipment in SCPD patrol cars to photograph evidence such as bruising that can be used to prosecute suspects, Lynch said. Forensic nurses who meet with victims at precinct houses or hospitals also collect evidence.
“Many times the victims won’t show up to testify,” Lynch said. “Procedures like this allow the district attorney to build a case.”
Nassau police were criticized for the way the department handled domestic violence cases after a New Cassel woman, Jo’Anna Bird, was stabbed to death in 2009 by a former boyfriend, Leonardo Valdez-Cruz of Westbury. Former Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey said in 2009 that an internal investigation revealed that seven officers, including a patrol supervisor, did not properly investigate at least four domestic violence calls before Bird was murdered. Police never identified the officers nor disclosed any disciplinary action.
The department has made tremendous improvements since then, victim advocates said. “They said they need to do better, and they do,” Zenkus said.
Each of the NCPD’s seven precincts now have domestic liaisons, deputy inspectors or higher in rank, who comb through every report to identify dangerous cases and provide appropriate assistance to victims. They are counseled on how to file for orders of protection from courts and how to receive assistance from the Safe Center. Gregg, the Nassau liaison, says the units partner with other providers to make sure the victims are provided with resources beyond the police's capabilities.
“Every single report gets forwarded to the Safe Center,” Gregg said. “We can’t be everywhere at once and we want to make sure everybody is safe.”
Domestic abuse statistics:
Suffolk 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Arrests 4,187 3,919 3,759 3,625 2,871
DV incidents 9,310 9,059 8,902 8,671 6,992
Nassau 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Arrests 1,772 1,890 1,755 1,699 1,648
DV incidents 2,859 2,862 4,197 4,080 3,825
Source: Suffolk and Nassau police departments.