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St. Paul preps 'Blueprint' for better domestic violence response

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Susan Gaertner
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner holds a copy of the Blueprint for Safety at a press conference Thursday announcing St. Paul's plans to handle domestic violence cases with more care and urgency.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Authorities in St. Paul say they are responding to domestic violence cases with more urgency and care, from the first 911 call all the way up to the judge's bench. 

St. Paul police, along with prosecutors, dispatchers, and victims advocates, launched a new program Thursday called the Blueprint for Safety. It requires the various agencies in the criminal justice system to share information that will help keep victims safe -- and their abusers accountable.

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said he came to understand the horrors of domestic violence when studying crime trends as a district commander 10 years ago. He said, to his surprise, he learned that domestic violence was the leading cause of death in his district.

"More than gangs, more than guns, more than drugs, more than traffic accidents, it was domestic violence that was killing my folks," he said.

Harrington, speaking to a packed auditorium of cops, corrections officers and advocates working on the front lines of domestic abuse, said every police officer knows that gnawing feeling after walking away from a call, in which the officer hopes that nothing bad happens to the family involved. But, Harrington said, hope is not a good crime-fighting strategy.

One critical element of the Blueprint is teaching officers how to identify potentially deadly situations. It takes many of the instincts that seasoned cops have, but puts those risk factors on paper.

For instance, officers are taught to ask domestic-violence victims four questions. One of the questions may sound unusual: "Have you ever known the suspect to harm animals?"

"And I'm guessing most of you have a pretty good idea why we ask that question," Sgt. Axel Henry said to his fellow officers and victim's advocates in the room. The question about animals can clue in officers to sociopathic behavior, Henry said, and the possibility that a person's next act might be hurting a human being. 

Henry has already begun teaching some of the Blueprint procedures to St. Paul's patrol officers. He recalled how one of these newly trained officers recently incorporated these questions while responding to a woman who called for help.

When the officer reached the question about harming animals, Henry said, the woman jumped out of her chair and said, "Oh my God, yes! Three weeks ago, my boyfriend took my daughter's cat, put it in a pillowcase, smashed it against the wall over and over until it was dead, and then held up the cat in front of us and said, 'This could just as easily be you.'"

That bit of information was a crucial red flag that the officer probably wouldn't have gotten if he weren't trained to ask for it.

Even if the officer was able to glean the right information, under the old system, it wasn't always passed onto the prosecutors, or to the judge. 

A couple of Twin Cities killings last year prompted many to wonder if the criminal justice system was working. In one case, a Lino Lakes woman with a history of being abused was killed after her husband was released on a low bail amount.

Cmdr. Steve Frazer of the St. Paul Police Family Violence Unit says the Blueprint will help decision-makers have all the facts when making important calls. He thinks the new approach will save lives.

"In some of the high-profile cases in the past six months, we've seen people after the fact say, 'Why was this person out on bail? Why was this person allowed to see this person again?' And I think those things will change because the judges, the prosecutors and the cops will have all the same information," Frazer said.

Under the Blueprint program, authorities say, cases are triaged according to risk, and are investigated more quickly.

Also, detention officials are monitoring phone calls made by suspects while they're in jail. Michael Seasly, of the St. Paul city attorney's office, said just this week, authorities listened into one conversation in which the defendant told his alleged victim not to show up in court to testify against him.

"You heard it over and over again. This defendant was saying, 'Don't come to court, don't answer the door. If they come for you, don't worry. I'll make sure my mom comes and gets you the day before.' Everything he could do to keep her away from court," Seasly said.

Seasly said even though the victim was planning not to cooperate in court, authorities were able use the jail call to strengthen their case against the defendant -- and charge him with violating his no-contact order. Seasly said the defendant pleaded guilty to both charges and will probably spend this summer in jail.

St. Paul authorities also say they are more vigorously pursuing cases involving suspects who flee the scene by the time police officers arrive.

Prosecutors with the city attorney's office say so-called "gone-on-arrival" cases represent about 70 percent of all domestic violence incidents. For the past several months, they have been working Frazer's unit to prioritize these cases and handle them more thoroughly.

Frazer says gone-on-arrival cases are more likely to end in death.

"Who are the bad guys we really want to go after? The ones who commit a crime and sit there and are there when we get there and say, 'Yeah, sorry, I slapped her,'" Frazer said. "Or do we want to go after the people who chronically abuse and offend and run and hide? That's typically the people who are most violent or problematic for law enforcement."

The St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, along with St. Paul city leaders and the faith group ISAIAH, secured about $500,000 in state funding a few years ago to create and implement the project. The Blueprint was authored by Minnesota-based Praxis International, whose founder, Ellen Pence, began researching domestic violence more than 30 years ago.  

Catherine Pierce, acting director of the Office on Violence Against Women with the the U.S. Department of Justice, said the Blueprint could be just that -- a model for communities to use across the nation.

"I do think this is a very, very strong effort that others can learn and take from, and many people will want to replicate," Pierce said. "To have judges and police chiefs come and sit with advocates as equal partners to hammer something like this out is truly amazing."