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Anna G. Larson, Published October 08 2012

InDepth: Police role to encourage, empower victims of domestic violence

FARGO - A year ago, Fargo Police Det. Chris Nichtern’s position didn’t exist.

In November, Nichtern was appointed the domestic violence detective. His role involves reviewing and following up on domestic abuse cases to make sure victims stay safe and offenders comply with court orders.

“It’s one of the changes we’ve tried to implement is to let these victims know that they’re not alone in this, and that we’re there to support them, we’re there to help them,” Nichtern said.

He recalled how his role as a domestic violence detective helped a domestic abuse victim feel more empowered.

As he was monitoring calls between a man and a woman (all phone calls made at the jail are recorded, and they’re not considered private), he could tell the woman, while trying to stay strong, was wavering.

“That’s really scary for a victim,” said Nichtern, the police department’s domestic violence detective. “All of a sudden this person that they’re with has been taken to jail, and now there’s maybe going to be a protection order, and you can’t have contact, and what are their friends and family going to think?”

After he listened to the call, Nichtern called the woman and said he was proud of her for standing her ground.

The woman was appreciative of his call, relaying that she had been feeling guilty and bad about the fact that the man had been arrested, Nichtern said. His call helped her realize she wasn’t the reason the man was in jail – he was the reason he was in jail.

“We just want them to know that we will still be there for them, and we’ll come back as many times as it will take to get the situation ended,” he said.

Officer Kerri Johnson, one of the 146 sworn officers of the Fargo Police Department who respond to calls day and night.

Repeatedly going back to the same residence for domestic disputes between the same people is trying, she said.

“When you get called back to the same residence over and over again on different days, it’s sad,” she said.

Officers responding to and/or investigating an incident of domestic violence make an arrest whenever probable cause and legal authority exist to make any arrest for a violation of any domestic violence-related law, including a violation of any applicable order of protection or other judicial order, according to the Fargo Police Department’s domestic violence policy.

Once a victim knows an arrest will take place, they often change their stories, Johnson said.

“Someone might say they were slapped hard the night of the dispute, and then the next day, they’ll change their mind and say they were barely touched,” she said. “We still have to do a report, even if each person says they don’t want it reported.”

Johnson once noticed the changing voice of a victim who had been choked, but they didn’t want it on the report.

“People will still try to deny that they were hurt, even if it’s obvious,” she said.

It’s also common for people involved in a domestic dispute to have conflicting stories, which is challenging to report, Johnson said. Fargo police always sends two officers to a domestic dispute. Each officer interviews a different person, and then the officers compare stories, she said.

“It can be frustrating when the stories don’t match up,” she said. “Not everyone wants to be a victim.”

Officers look for clues like overturned furniture, holes in walls, empty alcohol containers and speaking with children, if any are present, to help determine what happened and who might be the perpetrator, Nichtern said.

“We spend more time talking to the victim trying to get more a history of what’s going on and have them describe any other circumstances this has happened,” he said.

After an investigation is complete, Nichtern does home visits to check in on victims.

“We’ve actually changed the way we respond to domestics quite a bit over the last year or so. This isn’t to say that we weren’t doing a good job before, but I think the mentality was, OK, get there, break up the fight, move on to the next one,” he said. “And now we’re trying to spend more time there to try to get a little bit more involved in both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s lives.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525