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Tough Love


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It’s a hot day. Jamal Pasha, a detective in the San Diego Police Department’s domestic violence unit, is searching his trunk for a file. He’s following up on the work of patrol officers who responded to domestic violence calls the night before.

He pulls out one of several police reports. The victim is a woman whose husband beat her in front of their children and neighbors. Pasha drives to a run-down, two-story apartment building and finds Ellen (not her real name) heavily medicated for pain and wearing a neck brace. Her legs are badly bruised, and there’s a lump on her head.

Ellen’s husband came home in the middle of the day to find her napping on a neighbor’s couch, having had one too many midday cocktails. Their two young children were playing on the floor nearby. To rouse her, he pulled Ellen up by her hair and slammed her to the ground while screaming obscenities. And then he threw a phone at her head.

He dragged her upstairs to their apartment and continued to chase and beat her, even pouring a bottle of brandy over her head. Eventually the neighbors called 911. Ellen’s husband was arrested.

As Pasha questions her, he is sympathetic and gentle, trying to verify all the facts in the police report and making sure Ellen knows about the resources at her disposal.

She cries continually during questioning. “We’ve been together eight years, and he’s never done something like this,” Ellen says. “He threw me against the wall; all my neighbors heard. I tried to call to get help, but he wouldn’t let me.”

The apartment is a shambles: Overflowing ashtrays sit on a coffee table that’s covered in an old sheet; trash is scattered over a stained carpet; stuffing pokes out of couch cushions. There’s a hole in the wall where Ellen hit her head. Pasha asks if she wants her husband to be held responsible.

“I do, I do,” says Ellen, sobbing. “But I love him to death.”

“I know you do,” says Pasha, “but it’s a criminal act to assault you like this, and he should be held responsible.” Ellen nods her head; she’s crying so hard now her face is soaked with tears.

Pasha leans forward to hear better. Ellen whispers, “I don’t want my children to grow up this way.”

There is a positive note: Ellen’s assault occurred in San Diego County in 2000. The city and county’s domestic violence units—which use specially trained detectives and response teams to follow up on these crimes—are among the best in the country. The police unit’s multidisciplinary approach, which ties together law enforcement, prosecutors and community resources, is a model for municipalities nationwide.

“We formed this unit in 1992, and it was one of the first in the nation to start addressing domestic violence. In many respects, we lead the pack,” says Lieutenant James Barker, who heads up the police department’s DV unit. “We now train all our patrol officers specifically to deal with domestic violence situations, and our DV investigators get even more training.”

The DV unit has 30 investigators reporting to four sergeants and four to five volunteers trained to make follow-up phone calls to victims when police can’t. The entire unit, supervised by Barker, responds to between 300 and 1,000 calls in a three-month period.

Whenever a DV call comes in, patrol officers go to the scene to do

a preliminary investigation, make arrests if necessary and send the report over to the special unit. If investigators want to press charges against a batterer being held in jail—a policy implemented in 1985—they have 48 hours to come up with enough evidence for the prosecutor. Half of the 12,000 cases handled each year are prosecuted.

Mondays are the worst day of the week. Janet Right, one of four sergeants in the DV unit, says a recent Monday was typical: 32 cases where the batterer was in custody and 39 where the batterer had not been arrested. She supervises seven of the unit’s 30 investigators; 12 were working that Monday.

“I have to assign all the in-custody cases, and it’s tough,” says Right. “I was able to assign 19 of the noncustody cases; 20 didn’t get assigned. Each investigator got six cases that morning, and they are as thorough as they can be within the short time constraints the court gives them.”

Collecting evidence in domestic violence cases is a much more delicate procedure than with other types of crimes. Someone who has had a home burglarized wants to work with police, but a woman who fears for her life may not only refuse to cooperate with investigators, she often recants original statements.

“We deal with complex emotions involving family, so being an investigator here feels a bit more like a counselor or social worker,” says Pasha. “You really have to communicate well with victims.” Unlike other models of law enforcement, the police and sheriff’s domestic violence units work with professionals outside of their own departments, such as area shelter managers, mental health professionals and assistance organizations.

“We fill in a piece of the puzzle,” says Kimberly Pearce, director of residential services at the YWCA of San Diego, which runs the first shelter founded in San Diego for women and children victims of domestic violence. “It’s not like we are the shelter people and they are the guys with the guns. We work together to make safe, happy families.”

John Whiteman is the senior deputy from the city attorney’s office working exclusively on domestic violence cases. Three mornings a week, he’s making the rounds at the DV unit, checking on the status of cases, offering advice, strategizing. Whiteman is young and eager. Before an interview with San Diego Magazine, he participated in a “sweep” to find batterers with outstanding arrest warrants. The sweep team included Whiteman, members of the probation and parole departments, detectives and Right.

“Very often the detectives will show me what they’ve got in a case, the fact pattern and the evidence, and ask what else they need, what else might help,” says Whiteman. “Or if it’s not going anywhere, we can talk about it and decide if it’s worth pursuing. It saves everyone time.”

Whiteman’s boss, assistant city attorney Gail Strack, says, “People are stunned when they hear about our relationship with the PD. Even though other jurisdictions are moving forward to catch up with San Diego, they don’t have this kind of team effort among cops and prosecutors. And that’s key.”

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