Community

A new audit of Louisville’s domestic violence services portrays a disjointed, inconsistent system that allows both victims and offenders to fall through the cracks.

The report, funded by the Louisville Metro Police Department and commissioned by the Domestic Violence Prevention Coordinating Council, was the first assessment of the city’s domestic violence systems since 2005.

It identified many positive changes over the last 13 years, like the creation of a domestic violence intake center at the courthouse and an electronic system for processing protection orders so they are available 24 hours a day.

But the report came with more than 80 recommendations, which police chief Steve Conrad characterized as an “extensive to-do list” for service providers, city agencies and criminal justice entities.

Emily Sack, who researches domestic violence as a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island, authored the report. She delivered her findings to the DVPCC, including Conrad and Mayor Greg Fischer, Tuesday.

She said Louisville has “very hard-working pieces of the system, but there are gaps in how the agencies and various partners link together.”

These gaps are evidenced throughout a victim’s interaction with domestic violence services. Sack said one victim might have to tell her story to an advocate at the Center for Women and Families, and then the LMPD, and then the domestic violence intake center, for example.

Sack recommended creating wraparound resources that follow victims throughout the process as much as possible. This also would encourage communication between agencies to do proper follow-up, Sack said, like if a victim retracts a request for an protection order or if an offender stops complying with the terms of his release.

Areas Of Improvement For Police

Sack applauded LMPD for creating a domestic violence unit with specialized detectives who also provide training to patrol officers.

She also lauded the agency’s “lethality assessment program,” where officers assess how likely a victim is to be killed after police are called to respond to domestic violence.

Between 2012 and 2016, 70 percent of those victims screened as a high risk for lethality. Most were then connected with a counselor from the Center for Women and Families.

But Sack was concerned by how few of those women had previously interacted with the domestic violence system. She said it raises concerns about a group of “undiscovered, high-risk victims out there, and we need to think about how to identify them and get them linked to services.”

The report also highlighted the low number of “domestic trouble” 911 calls that end in a JC-3, which is a police report indicating that an officer suspects domestic violence.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

The report highlighted the low number of “domestic trouble” 911 calls that end in a JC-3, which is a police report indicating that an officer suspects domestic violence.

Conrad attributed that to how MetroSafe, the city’s 911 service, applies the term “domestic trouble.” He said many of those calls are neighbors who hear fighting, and when the officer gets on the scene, “the facts may not meet the statutory definition requiring a report.”

But those reports are an important way of tracking a history of domestic violence, Sack said, and noted that the rate of calls for service turning into reports seemed low.

MetroSafe and LMPD using different terms is one example of a larger problem Sack identified. She said a major step for improving services for victims would be getting all the relevant agencies to keep and share data in similar ways. The report points out that not every agency even defines the term “domestic violence” similarly.

“The way the data is collected does not necessarily answer the questions that we need answered,” said Sack, to help with “understanding currently what is happening in domestic violence and understanding what to do to help prevent it.”

Insufficient Firearm Protections

Louisville-area criminal justice agencies are not doing enough to reduce the use of firearms in domestic violence cases, Sack said. She acknowledged that local agencies are limited by state law, but said they are not doing enough to enforce laws that already exist.  

In Kentucky, a judge can, but doesn’t have to, prohibit having firearms as a condition of an EPO or DVO. Sack found judges are inconsistently utilizing that power, and the sheriff’s office has no written procedure for seizing firearms.  

Fischer said more needed to be done to advocate and enforce gun safety laws.

“We had seven domestic violence homicides in January,” said Fischer. “They all have different reasons behind them, but what they almost all had in common was a gun.”

Both Fischer and Conrad pledged to put their support behind this report, which will be up for approval at the next meeting of the DVPCC. But many of these initiatives will require significant resources, a potential limitation that Sack acknowledged.

“You’re not going to agree with all the recommendations,” said Sack. “Maybe not all of them will be feasible. But I really hope you’ll use them as a starting point to think about how to improve domestic violence response.”

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.