| Jan 08, 2014
Deadly Affection: January 2014 - A look back
January 5, 2014
by Sarah Mervosh
The Dallas Morning News
When Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings first began publicly denouncing domestic violence a year ago, he asked police to focus on serving arrest warrants to the most chronic, dangerous abusers.
In two months, police reduced the 877 outstanding warrants by about half — even as new ones arrived. But by year’s end, the backlog remained. About 500 warrants are waiting to be served.
That’s just one example of the difficulties in effectively fighting domestic violence, even when the city’s mayor is leading the charge. For all Rawlings accomplished in 2013, the vast and complex problem continued to destroy families throughout the city and North Texas.
Still, the mayor and others promised not to give up.
“There’s too much momentum, and this is too important,” Rawlings said last week. “This shouldn’t fade away.”
The measurable impact of last year’s work was a mixed bag: There were 23 murders in Dallas, which is about in the middle of the two previous years’ totals. Overall domestic offenses remained level at around 13,000. Local shelters, though, saw an increase in clients, and more victims were willing to take their abusers to court, which experts say is encouraging.
“This is a big issue. It isn’t something that is going to change overnight,” said Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place shelter in Dallas. “We just have to look at the wins we have.”
Experts say there are many reasons eradicating domestic violence is so hard: An effective approach must intervene when abuse occurs and also create social change so the cycle doesn’t continue. Success is also dependent on a coordinated commitment from all the key players, from police to prosecutors to advocates.
Ultimately, though, it is the abusers who have to change their behavior, Flink said.
“As a community, we’re going to try to make it hard to get away with it and we’re going to give the victim the support when it happens,” she said. “But in the end, we’re talking about people being different than they are right now.”
Advocates hope that a series of changes rolling out in the next few weeks — from the police station to the courthouse — will help make a lasting difference.
“What we’re going to see is more coordination, more collaboration, more education,” said Jan Langbein, executive director of Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas. “I’m excited about 2014.”
Dallas police have added five family violence detectives, beefing up the unit to 34. Police also will begin making home visits to the highest-risk victims, which they hope will help prevent some deaths.
“There are a lot of things we’ve fixed in the last year and a half, and my biggest goal is to make sure they work the way they’re supposed to,” said Lt. Miguel Sarmiento, who oversees the family violence unit.
Dallas police said they are working on reducing the outstanding warrants. More officers are on the job, but there are still more than 300 new warrants each month to keep up with, police said.
Flink, of The Family Place, said police should consider a dedicated domestic violence warrant squad to expedite the average of 70 days it takes to serve them. Police said they could consider that, but staffing limitations pose a challenge.
At the criminal courthouse, state District Judge Rick Magnis has pledged to personally supervise felons who get probation as part of a plea bargain. Starting in mid-January, offenders will have to report to him in person each week, and may be subject to ankle or alcohol monitoring to ensure they don’t abuse again.
“It’s going to be a zero-tolerance program,” Magnis said.
Authorities also are trying to get the most egregious cases through the system faster. In February, advocates, police and prosecutors will start screening Dallas County domestic cases for the 15 most deadly. Those will then be fast-tracked to be prosecuted within six months, Magnis said.
“The more we figure out how to make the system better, the better the results are going to be for victims,” Flink said.
At Dallas City Hall, Rawlings is relying heavily on the domestic violence task force, headed by City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates. Her committee is planning an awareness event for the spring, though it will likely be different than last year’s rally.
Rawlings said he would personally like to increase his fundraising for shelters, while maintaining his talks to young men and regular meetings with players from the criminal justice system.
“This [movement] has got a life of its own, and I am part of the life of it,” he said. “I’ve got to do my part.”
While many of these upcoming changes are the result of work done because of the mayor’s campaign, pressure to improve the city’s response to domestic violence has been building for at least a year and a half.
Domestic violence murders doubled to 31 in 2012. One of the victims was Deanna Cook, who police say was killed by her ex-husband while on the phone with 911. The circumstances of her death sparked changes within the 911 call center, including new police procedures for handling domestic disturbance calls.
That same year, police started doing lethality assessments with victims to determine who was most in danger of being killed.
Then, 2013 began with a string of domestic violence slayings. Karen Cox Smith, one of the first victims of the year, was gunned down Jan. 8 in a UT Southwestern parking lot by her estranged husband. Police had planned to arrest him the next day.
Her death got to Rawlings, who said he couldn’t stand to think of her being killed in the same garage he had been in while visiting his sick mother at the hospital. He launched his Dallas Men Against Abuse campaign and in March he hosted a rally where about 5,000 men committed to nonviolence.
Meanwhile, change rippled throughout the criminal justice system.
Dallas County state district judges started prohibiting alcohol and deadly weapon possession as a condition of bond for family violence felonies. They also agreed to freely exchange cases so victims don’t have to wait on a particular judge’s schedule to go to trial.
Looking back at 2013, Rawlings said he’s happy with the progress made, particularly in putting domestic violence on the community’s radar. But he said the work isn’t done.
“I like what we accomplished last year on the awareness level,” he said. “I probably give us lower grades on how much substantive work we did. … That’s what we’re moving to in this next act.”
Notable domestic crimes in 2013
January: Karen Cox Smith was gunned down in a UT Southwestern parking lot, the night before police planned to arrest her abusive estranged husband. Ferdinand Smith was sentenced to 50 years in prison for her death.
February: Former Hunt County Constable Anthony Dewayne Lewis killed his former girlfriend in Rockwall and then led police on a three-county chase along Interstate 30. He is serving a 60-year prison sentence.
April: A man who police say fatally shot his pregnant girlfriend and killed her unborn child led police on a lengthy, high-speed chase throughout Dallas. Tyrone Christopher Allen is awaiting trial.
June: Lydia Soto of Plano fatally shot her 4-year-old son and then herself in what experts say is the rare act of a mother killing her family. Police say she was unhappy with her identity as a single mother.
July: A mother of two was killed by her ex-husband just hours after she called Grand Prairie police twice, complaining that he was harassing her. The man also killed her boyfriend and then himself. The incident was one of several domestic slayings in Grand Prairie this year.
August: A grenade-wielding veteran went on a shooting spree in Dallas and DeSoto, killing his estranged wife, an ex-girlfriend and their two daughters. Erbie Lee Bowser, a former Dallas Mavericks ManiAACs performer, also injured four others. He is awaiting trial.
Read the full article at Dallasnews.com.