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Long IslandInvestigations

Domestic violence policing on LI has evolved since Bird case, experts say

Keith Scott, director of education at The Safe

Keith Scott, director of education at The Safe Center LI, outside the agency's office in Bethpage. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Twelve years after Nassau County police repeatedly failed to protect Jo’Anna Bird from her homicidal former boyfriend, domestic violence policing has markedly evolved across Long Island, according to Newsday interviews with law enforcement authorities and advocates for abuse victims.

The interviews found that police in Nassau and Suffolk have formed partnerships with advocates and are enforcing a New York law requiring police to make arrests after most domestic violence reports. Additionally, the Suffolk County Police Department uses a computer program to help determine when victims are at high risk of more violence.

"The Jo’Anna Bird case opened the eyes of Long Islanders that domestic violence is here, and unfortunately it takes a death or mass coverage to mobilize communities," said Keith Scott, education director of The Safe Center, a nonprofit organization that provides services to domestic violence victims in tandem with Nassau police.

"Since her death, policing of domestic violence has improved, and it’s been at the forefront of our conversations with victims."

In line with a national trend, domestic violence reports and arrests have declined in Nassau and Suffolk since Bird was murdered in 2009. But New York State statistics show that the number of people counted as victims has risen over the past two years in Nassau, driving that number to a mark that was 45% higher in 2020 than it was the year she died.

Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, spokesman for the Nassau department, did not respond to emailed questions aimed at understanding both the trends and reforms enacted after Bird’s murder. Commissioner Patrick Ryder refused interview requests.

Big picture

Violence between intimate partners has long challenged law enforcement authorities.

After summoning police, victims are often reluctant to press charges. They can balk for reasons ranging from embarrassment to fear that abusers will retaliate after police are no longer present. In many cases, getting away from an abuser entails leaving a household, often with children. To help victims establish new living arrangements, many local governments provide temporary shelter at undisclosed locations.

The number of people needing temporary shelter on Long Island is often greater than the number of available beds, even as domestic violence reports have fallen, Newsday’s interviews showed. Measured by population, Nassau and Suffolk fund the lowest numbers of shelter beds among all the state’s counties, according to the New York Office of Children and Family Services.

"I just find that frightening," said Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who has interviewed more than 3,000 victims of domestic violence during four decades of research. "That’s really distressing."

Social scientists who have studied the prevalence of domestic violence believe it may occur as much as 50% more frequently than officially reported.

'Women don’t call police unless things are really bad.'

Jacquelyn Campbell, a Johns Hopkins professor who has interviewed thousands of domestic violence victims

"Women don’t call police unless things are really bad, and they've most often experienced physical violence before they ever call the police," Campbell said. "Because they’re trying to figure out a way to resolve this without getting the police involved."

In New York, a state system attempts to track abusive relationships by requiring police to file a form known as a Domestic Incident Report after they respond to calls involving family members or people in intimate relationships.

The reports cover both crimes, such as assaults, and noncriminal matters, such as occasions when officers supervise an exchange of children between divorced parties for visitation.

From 2009 to 2020, domestic incident reports fell 18% in Nassau (from 16,085 to 13,267) and 21% in Suffolk (from 34,678 to 27,424).

LaToya James, a former Suffolk assistant district attorney who prosecuted domestic violence cases, said police may be deterred from taking action when responding to a domestic violence call because filling out a domestic incident report can take up to 45 minutes.

'If they don't feel like it's worth the paperwork, they're going to tell you to go away.'

LaToya James, a former Suffolk assistant district attorney who prosecuted domestic violence cases

"If they don't feel like it's worth the paperwork, they're going to tell you to go away," said James, who is in private practice and assists Long Island Against Domestic Violence. "The new catchall is: This is not something we can really handle, so go to Family Court."

Acting Suffolk Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron recognized that filling out the form "can be a little onerous."

"You're going to be at that call for a while doing that report," he said. "And I think most of our officers recognize the violent nature of those situations and the need to fill that report out to start the process."

Arrests offer a second yardstick for gauging domestic violence.

From 2009 through 2020, those declined by 46% in Nassau (from 2,790 to 1,504) and by 37% in Suffolk (from 4,570 to 2,863).

The downward trends continued through the first 10 months of 2021, department statistics show.

Using a third measure, the state Division of Criminal Justice Services tracks how many people have been victimized in incidents ranging from assaults to violations of orders of protection. A person will be counted as a victim more than once if the person is victimized more than once.

From 2009 through 2020, the number of victims reported by the Suffolk Police Department fell by 20% (from 3,025 to 2,412).

In Nassau, from 2009 to 2018 the count reported by the police department dropped by almost one quarter (from 1,129 to 874). Then the downward trend reversed, with the number of reported victims almost doubling in two years. The spike drove the number of domestic violence victims reported by the Nassau police department to a mark that was 45% higher in 2020 than it had been in 2009 (1,638 compared with 1,129).

The state Division of Criminal Justice Services manages the domestic incident reporting system. An agency spokeswoman declined to answer questions about whether the number of victims had actually grown or whether Nassau’s department had started capturing previously unrecognized cases. The spokeswoman said the department is best equipped to explain the data it reports.

Newsday submitted written questions about the statistics to LeBrun, the police’s public information officer. He did not answer.

Team approach: Nassau

Across the country, many police departments have adopted new approaches to domestic violence, often forming partnerships with organizations that provide support services to victims.

In Nassau, the police department has headquartered its Special Victims Squad in the Bethpage offices of The Safe Center, a nonprofit group largely funded by contracts with local, state and federal agencies. The group’s mission is "to protect, assist and empower victims of family violence and sexual assault."

With a mandate that extends beyond domestic violence to alleged sex crimes, The Safe Center’s office also is staffed by representatives of the district attorney’s office, Child Protective Services and Nassau University Medical Center's Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect Unit.

In every Nassau police precinct, a designated officer is responsible for forwarding domestic violence reports to The Safe Center. Those are then distributed to both civilian and law enforcement members of the team.

Former Nassau Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki said that police have surrendered complete control over investigations because of its setup at The Safe Center.

'This new model opened the doors where other people would be aware of the reporting almost instantly.'

Steven Skrynecki, former Nassau chief of department and current Southampton Town police chief

"This new model opened the doors where other people would be aware of the reporting almost instantly, if not instantly, and would have an eye on how police conducted themselves," said Skrynecki, now Southampton Town police chief.

Nassau police provide $250,000 in annual funding to The Safe Center. Scott, the nonprofit’s education director, said that navigating the criminal justice system can be daunting for domestic violence victims, who often are wary that involving law enforcement could worsen their situations at home.

"We believe everything should be under one roof," he said. "It helps our survivors and helps our clients, and it helps our service providers as well. So, things don’t get lost in transit."

Det. Sgt. Sabrina Gregg serves as the police liaison to The Safe Center.

In written responses to questions submitted to the department’s public information officer, Gregg wrote that a team approach aims "to reduce the trauma a victim/survivor endures when he or she has to engage with these different entities at different times in order to achieve justice."

The department declined to make Gregg available for an interview.

Brendan Brosh, a spokesman for Nassau District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: "These cases are by their very nature extremely challenging and it’s helpful to have all the partner agencies working together under one roof."

Team approach: Suffolk

In Suffolk, the Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse Bureau, a four-officer unit, reviews domestic incident reports filed by officers across the county. Additionally, staff members of a nonprofit group called Long Island Against Domestic Violence work in every precinct. They provide emotional support, explain legal systems and offer shelter if necessary.

"The more cohesively law enforcement and the domestic violence service provider work together, the better positioned survivors are, so that it just becomes commonplace that as law enforcement respond to an incident, they link the victim to an advocate," said executive director Wendy Linsalata.

'When a survivor is trying to leave, that's when they're in the most danger.'

Wendy Linsalata, executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Against Domestic Violence

Saying that domestic violence is "rooted in power and control," she added: "When a survivor is trying to leave, that's when they're in the most danger."

Suffolk police attempt to gauge the danger — and to explain the perils to victims — using a computer program developed by Kris Henning, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University in Oregon.

"Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior," Henning said in an interview.

Cameron, the acting Suffolk commissioner, cited calculations showing that victims face an elevated risk of being murdered if they stay in a relationship after a partner has choked them.

"The number of prior domestic violence reports a suspect has is the single best predictor," he added. "Having other crimes on your record like drug/alcohol offenses, non-DV violence also added to the prediction."

The department’s domestic violence bureau uses the computer program to determine whether officers should inform victims they are in danger. Police rapidly visit those who are seen at high risk, Cameron said.

Officers then arrive equipped with a 20-question form designed by Campbell, the professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University.

Victims are asked to answer questions including: "Does he own a gun?" "Do you believe he is capable of killing you?" "Is he violently and constantly jealous of you? (For instance, does he say: 'If I can’t have you, no one can.')"

Mounting "yes" answers indicate mounting danger.

"That may be just the information that that person needs to say, ‘Oh, boy, I want to get out of this situation,’ especially if there are children in the house," Cameron said.

Suffolk police have used the questionnaire since 2016. Cameron believes giving the victims "a dose of reality" has helped reduce the number of domestic incidents and domestic violence reports in the county.

"It really becomes eye-opening to them when they put it on paper," said Sgt. Kelly Hartill, the commanding officer of Suffolk’s Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse Bureau.

"Because when you're living in it, and it becomes your every day and your norm, you don't realize how frequent things are occurring," she said. "But when it's black and white, written down in front of you, it really helps them to see what's going on."

Mandatory arrest law

Nassau police failed six times to take Bird’s violent former boyfriend into custody under New York’s so-called mandatory arrest law.

The statute requires police to make an arrest — even if a victim says not to — when there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed or that an order of protection has been violated.

Long Island criminal defense attorneys said police began rigorously enforcing the law after Bird’s murder.

"My recollection is that things tightened up in that respect after that whole incident," said Marc Gann, a criminal defense attorney based in Mineola who served on the county’s domestic violence task force a decade ago.

'If there’s a domestic violence allegation, somebody’s getting arrested...'

Marc Gann, a criminal defense attorney who served on the Nassau's domestic violence task force 

"If there’s a domestic violence allegation, somebody’s getting arrested, and they’re not getting an appearance ticket, even on lower-level misdemeanor charges," he added. "They’re being held until they can see a judge, so that at the very least, an order of protection can be issued."

Linsalata, of Long Island Against Domestic Violence, said she "absolutely" believes police are strictly enforcing the mandatory arrest law.

Police and activists back the approach.

"Mandatory arrest policies save lives, period, and they are vital for victims and survivors of abuse," said Scott, The Safe Center’s education director.

Added Cameron: "It separates the parties and starts the process where the victim can get help, can be connected with the advocate and can get a dose of reality that they're in a dangerous and potentially toxic situation."

The Suffolk and Nassau police departments are moving to equip officers with body cameras. Cameron believes that video recordings may help prosecutors press charges, including when victims refuse to testify after officers make mandatory arrests.

"When an officer goes to a domestic situation and someone's telling the story of what happened to them and they subsequently recant, we'll have the video to be able to utilize in court, possibly to help us bolster the case," Cameron said.

Even so, the law’s wisdom is debated.

"There's some research that suggests that in some cases the batterer will come back even angrier and do more damage depending on many factors such as socioeconomic status," said John Eterno, who chairs the criminal justice program at Molloy College.

Henning, the Portland State University professor of criminology and criminal justice, said mandatory arrest policies enacted in the 1990s sent a message about the seriousness of domestic violence.

Three decades later, he said researchers have not been able to determine how the policy plays out in the long run between abusers and their victims.

"Part of the problem is that mandatory arrest is a one-size fits all approach," he said.

Futures Without Violence, a three-decade-old nonprofit that seeks to end domestic violence through policy change, no longer supports mandatory arrest policies.

"We recommend what we call ‘victim-centered responses’ — what does the survivor want?" said Kiersten Stewart, its vice president. "We call for listening to her because she understands what's best for her safety."

Shelter beds

To help domestic violence victims leave dangerous households, Nassau and Suffolk work with advocacy groups to provide temporary shelter. The services are small compared with those offered elsewhere in the state.

In Nassau, one shelter offers 17 beds. Per capita, that amounts to one bed for every 82,100 county residents, lowest among the state’s 62 counties, which average one bed for every 10,800 residents.

Suffolk, with 57 beds, ranks second lowest in the state with one bed per 26,770 county residents.

In New York City, domestic violence shelters have one bed for every 3,592 city residents.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office said through a spokesman that the county’s three shelter facilities meet the needs of victims seeking a place to stay.

"At times we are all full, other times there are plenty of beds," said Linsalata of Long Island Against Domestic Violence, which operates a 20-bed facility.

The Safe Center operates Nassau’s single shelter, a 17-bed facility. Education director Scott said that the facility is often full, requiring the group to place victims at hotels and motels before referring them to shelters outside the county for longer stays.

Shelter operators receive a mix of local, state and federal funding. The Safe Center’s 2019 budget included $5.7 million in public funding earmarked for domestic violence victim support services, such as its telephone hotline. The organization receives around $700,000 annually in state funding to operate its shelter.

An organization like The Safe Center needs county and state approvals to expand. It would then receive state payments at a rate of $122 for every night a shelter houses someone. In 2019, Nassau backed increasing The Safe Center’s capacity by 15 beds.

County Executive Laura Curran’s office said that Nassau contracts with a number of organizations that help people who need temporary shelter for a variety of reasons. Typically, a spokesman said, the organizations lease space.

The Safe Center plans instead to buy and convert a building into a shelter, as well as to renovate its current location. The county does not pay for those kinds of real estate investments.

In 2020, The Safe Center started raising $3 million in private donations to fund its expansion. The group declined to say how much it has raised or when it expects to move ahead with the plan. Scott acknowledged, however, that families need local shelter now.

"We are dealing with victims at their most vulnerable point, and telling them we don't have shelter for them right now in Nassau doesn't go over well, rightfully so," he said.

With Sandra Peddie

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