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Published March 03 2012

Domestic abuse cases vexing for police

FARGO – The middle-aged woman with the pink cast on her hand walked from the back of the courtroom to the lectern and pleaded with the judge to lift the no-contact order against her boyfriend.

He’s not a dangerous person, she said.

Police misread the situation when they arrested him, she said.

It was her fault, she said.

“I broke my own hand by punching him because I was stupid,” she said, a statement that clashed with the police report saying she hit her hand on the headboard of a bed as she was defending herself.

It didn’t matter.

Cass County District Court Judge Steven McCullough said he had no information that her boyfriend had completed the required domestic violence assessment.

Request denied.

Another woman, who told police the father of their infant child had slapped her and stepped on her neck, was making the same request for the second time.

“I want my husband to come back to me and my daughter,” she said through an interpreter.

Again, the judge noted the alleged abuser hadn’t done a domestic violence inventory or assessment.

Request denied.

A man whose wife was charged with simple assault for allegedly biting his arm told the judge he was having difficulty running his business when she wasn’t around to help watch their 4-year-old and 4-month-old children.

“I’m not in fear for my life,” he said, adding his wife sought counseling.

But a domestic violence inventory revealed the woman had problems with control and violence, McCullough noted, saying he wasn’t quite ready to lift the no-contact order.

Request denied.

A parade of similar requests streams through a Fargo courtroom every Thursday, underscoring the challenges faced by police, prosecutors and advocates in cases where victims often don’t want to stay victims or are pressured by their abusers to recant.

Chris Nichtern encounters those challenges daily.

He’s the Fargo police detective whose sole duty for at least the next two years is to review and follow up on domestic abuse cases to make sure victims stay safe and offenders comply with court orders. The position was created in November, as Police Chief Keith Ternes launched an awareness campaign titled “Domestic Violence: It’s Everyone’s Business.”

Fargo police don’t keep separate statistics for domestic violence and other assaults, but the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead does track who it serves. Last year, 1,832 adults and children received services for domestic violence, an 8 percent increase from 2007.

The number of protection orders granted in civil court also jumped from 87 to 102 during that time, a 17 percent increase.

Nichtern, who previously spearheaded the sex offender program, said the new job can overwhelm at times, but he hopes the added support for victims empowers them and helps curb domestic violence.

“We’re trying to show them that we take this more seriously and that we’re not going to leave them to fend for themselves,” he said.

Different kind of crime

Domestic violence crimes differ from other crimes in that the victims often don’t cooperate with police because they know the perpetrators and want them at home for emotional, psychological, financial or religious reasons or because of shared children, Glen Hase said.

“They’re calling (police) because they want this violence to stop at this point in time,” said Hase, criminal justice advocate for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center. “They don’t necessarily want all the repercussions of that criminal justice field in place.”

Police responding to domestic calls must try to identify the dominant aggressor, which isn’t always easy, Nichtern said. Officers are trained to identify offensive and defensive wounds, to look at the overall circumstances and to talk not only to the parties directly involved but also neighbors and kids who may be witnesses or have knowledge of the situation.

“At times it can be difficult,” he said. “For me, it’s been more frustrating and difficult when you have so many victims that recant.”

Sometimes, they recant on their own. But often, victims are pressured by their abusers to change their stories, Nichtern said. He hears it when he listens to recordings of calls made from the Cass County Jail by alleged abusers to their victims – calls sometimes made within 30 minutes of the suspect’s arrest, he said.

Abusers tend to minimize their behavior and lay the guilt on victims, saying things like, “I’m going to lose my job,” “We’re going to lose everything” and “You need to make this go away,” Hase said.

“Then the victims start minimizing it themselves,” she said.

Because of the likelihood victims will recant, police are under a lot of pressure to collect everything they need to build a case when they first respond to a scene, Hase said. She recalled one trial in which jurors told her they were disappointed the victim’s smashed phone wasn’t collected as evidence.

Nichtern now reviews all domestic violence reports and follows up on certain cases, interviewing suspects who left the scene before police arrived or children who weren’t interviewed by the investigating officer. He also tracks down recordings of 911 calls, text messages and voicemails related to cases.

When an arrest is made and a no-contact order is issued, he follows up with victims to ensure they’re safe and not back together with their alleged abusers. He said he works closely with Rape and Abuse, the YWCA women’s shelter and county prosecutors to maintain victims’ safety.

‘A difficult situation’

Protection orders can be sought by victims through civil court or by prosecutors in criminal cases.

Assistant Cass County State’s Attorney Reid Brady said prosecutors usually request a no-contact order in domestic assault cases. It’s often a condition of release from jail.

Prosecutors consider the impact the order will have on the victim’s family and financial situations, but “safety really is the main issue,” Brady said.

“We don’t want to neglect safety because it’s more convenient,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation.”

Violating a no-contact order in North Dakota is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Common excuses offered by violators, Nichtern said, include that they thought the order was lifted or had expired, or that the victim invited them over and they were getting along fine – though police often return because of another violent incident, he said.

“And then you’ve got the guys that they just don’t care,” he said. “They look at it as their property. ‘That’s my wife. Those are my kids. You’re not going to tell me that I can’t be in my home.’ ”

Defendants who receive no-contact orders are required to undergo an initial domestic violence inventory at Restore, a nonprofit community corrections program established in 1992. The inventory is followed by a more in-depth assessment.

“The bottom line is to try to determine how can this person be helped and what sort of issues do they have and what kind of treatment would be best,” Brady said.

Approaches to treating batterers have changed as domestic violence has come to be viewed as a tactic of power and control.

“These people are not stupid, and they do not have an anger management problem because they’re not assaulting everybody else in their lives,” Hase said. “They’re only assaulting their partner. So they’re very controlled, and it’s not a management problem. They have a thinking problem.”

Mark Wynn, a retired Nashville, Tenn., police lieutenant and nationally known trainer on domestic violence issues, conducted a two-day session for Fargo police in February. He said because abusers are such manipulators, officers must analyze situations carefully to avoid arresting someone acting in self-defense.

“It puts the police officer in a position where, I hate to say this, we’re tricked basically into believing the victim is the offender and the offender is the victim,” he said. “That doesn’t happen with any other crime we investigate. This one, it does.”

Wynn is a strong supporter of domestic violence courts, such as the one that started in Clay County in October, which aim to boost supervision in domestic violence cases between intimate partners.

Brady said a domestic violence court may be something to look at in the future in Cass County, but he’s not aware of it being discussed right now.

In Nashville, Wynn created the nation’s largest police domestic violence investigative unit – a total of 39 personnel.

Nichtern said he already could use more assistance in his new job.

“I think if what we are trying to do seems successful, I could definitely see it growing,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528