Local police battle domestic violence calls; services scarce for victims

Isak Griffiths, executive director of Courage Connection and Chris Anglin, founder of Safefield Consultants with the website for his firmDarrell Hoemann
Isak Griffiths, executive director of Courage Connection and Chris Anglin, founder of Safefield Consultants with the website for his firm on Friday, May 22, 2015.

On April 17, Jeremy Irons of Urbana was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated domestic battery and intimidation. He had smashed his girlfriend’s head against the interior of her car until she passed out and then later choked her and threatened her by saying he might go to get a gun.

 On the same day as Irons, Clifford Johnson, a 40-year-old homeless man, was sentenced to six years in prison for breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s home, waiting until she arrived and then choking her.

Five days later, on April 22, John Clay was sentenced to three years in prison for domestic battery for choking his then-girlfriend, shooting a BB gun at a car she was in with children, hitting her in the arm and shattering the rear window of the car.

These are just three examples of domestic violence that happen every day in Champaign and Urbana.

In fact, in a typical week, the Champaign Police Department receives at least 36 calls for domestic incidents. The Urbana Police Department receives 19, according to a review of police data.

Over the course of a year, these calls add up to more than 2,800, often drawing police to the same homes and putting those officers in danger.

“It’s our No. 1 call for service,” said Champaign Deputy Chief Joe Gallo. “We have to deal with it on a daily basis.”

Consider the numbers culled from an analysis of police and county jail data:

— The rate of domestic crimes in Champaign County is the 4th highest in the state of Illinois, more than double the state average.

— Over the past three years, the Champaign Police Department received a total of 5,843 calls involving domestic incidents. The Urbana Police Department received 3,038 calls.

— In the same time period, the Champaign Police Department had 878 domestic-related arrests. Urbana had 714.

— Since 2010, 4,324 of 37,651, or about 11.5 percent, of bookings at the Champaign County Jail have been for a domestic crime.

— From 2012 to 2014, the Champaign Police Department had 41arrests for violations of orders of protection, which prohibit an abuser from coming near a victim. Urbana had 34.

Some experts consider these numbers an underestimate.

Domestic violence, like sexual assault and other crimes involving power and close relationships, has historically been underreported, according to Chris Anglin, a former probation officer who worked with domestic violence victims in Peoria County and who is the founder of local domestic violence organization Safefield Consultants.

“Domestic violence is such an awkward component of our society to measure that we can’t get good numbers on it,” Anglin said. “We know it happens a lot. We get an idea, but we don’t have real numbers. We don’t have components of the population that will report honestly.”

The effects of domestic violence are felt everywhere throughout the community — in the classroom, the workplace and even the local economy. Hundreds of women and children are left homeless, forced to steal food and clothing to help their families get by, Anglin said.

“I can guarantee you that everybody has been impacted by domestic violence,” Anglin said. “(If domestic violence were reduced), all of the things that impact our communities negatively would be reduced and addressed in a positive way.”

Big difference between numbers of calls and arrests

The data show a wide disparity between the number of calls for domestic incidents and arrests for domestic violence.

University police chief Jeff Christensen said it can depend on how the call is dispatched.

“A call for service for a domestic incident may be how the call for service goes out. It could also go out as a battery,” he said. “When the officers get there, they determine what the call is. With domestic violence, if there is an aggressor, it usually does end up with an arrest.”

Other calls are for less severe incidents, but they can still be problems, said Lt. Dave Shaffer of the Champaign Police Department.

“It could be that someone witnessed an argument that may be dispatched as a domestic disturbance. It’s not what it is. Just yelling,” he said. “We end up clearing the scene. Everyone goes their separate ways, not rising to level of a domestic violence incident.”

The breakdown of the results of these calls differs from Champaign to Urbana. In 2014, for example, Champaign police did not file a report or make an arrest in slightly more than half of 1,882 calls for service for domestic incidents.

During the same time period, however, Urbana responded to 998 calls and did not file a report or make an arrest in about one of 10 calls.

Both Shaffer and Lt. Bryant Seraphin, of the Urbana police, declined to comment on the difference between the departments.

Repeat offenders

While there is a very clear and visible disparity between calls and arrests, it is difficult to gather information about prosecution because of plea deals, dropped charges and uncooperative victims.

But Shaffer and Seraphin said repeat offenders are common. In the three cases cited in this story, each of the men was a repeat offender.

Judge Tom Difanis went so far as to call Irons “the ultimate definition of what a domestic batterer is.”

At Irons’ trial, witnesses testified that in the time between the conviction and his last conviction in 2007, he choked his then-girlfriend, kicking her and her small child out of the house with only their pajamas.

At another date, he knocked his pregnant then-girlfriend on the ground, taking her phone and diamond ring. Another time, he threatened his mother with a gun in one incident and broke her car window in another. He violated an order of protection by calling another one of his children’s mothers more than 25 times from jail.

For Johnson, his April conviction was his fifth for domestic battery. He also had been convicted of aggravated battery, battery, possession of a weapon in a penal institution and aggravated assault. In this case, Johnson had also been charged with aggravated domestic battery and home invasion, but the charges were dropped as part of a plea deal.

Clay didn’t have any prior convictions, but he had been arrested and charged with domestic battery at least four times in the past. Each charge was dismissed because of uncooperative victims or plea deals.

Alternative approaches

Because of the difficulty of prosecution, both Champaign and Urbana practice “enhanced domestic violence protocol” on calls against repeat offenders.

Champaign started the policy in June 2013 with the help of Shaffer. At the time, he was working as a patrol officer in northwest Champaign when he noticed a trend that the most common type of call he went on was for domestic violence. Shaffer decided to look up data on the rest of the community, and it was a consistent trend throughout the city.

Shaffer also noticed the same addresses appearing again and again. Sometimes, an arrest would be made, but it would never be enough to make any lasting impact, he said.

In fact, he found 88 offenders who had three or more contacts with the police for domestic incidents, and he decided to focus on those offenders.

Shaffer contacted local service agencies, including Courage Connection, the local domestic violence agency, and Community Elements, a health treatment center, and asked if they would help him.

“We started bringing social service agencies into the mix,” he said.

Shaffer and other officers started giving out a domestic violence form when they went on any domestic calls for service, distributing packets with information from the agencies and contact information for social services.

Shaffer also went to the state’s attorney’s office to ask to get assistance in putting repeat offenders in jail.

“We can’t arrest our way out of every one of these problems,” Shaffer said. “There’s more that goes on after the criminal offense that affects families and getting those resources to people is really important, too.”

Instead, the officers started looking at how they could handle these calls in a way that would help provide enough evidence to turn arrests into convictions.

“We bring high quality cameras to the crime scene to take very detailed photographs of any injuries that are witnessed, record statements with permission of the? victim,” Shaffer said. “We do things like that that provide additional info to state’s attorney’s office that enhances prosecution.

“On every single call, it may not rise to that level, but on these specific cases, we try to make that happen.”

Shaffer said arrests are sometimes made despite the wishes of a victim that the batterer not be arrested.

“Well yeah, we are mandated to act on the best interest of the victim, and occasionally we run into that,” he said. “But if there’s probable cause and visible injury, we will make the arrest.”

Champaign Deputy Chief Joe Gallo praised the work of Shaffer, who has since been promoted to the investigations division.

Drop in arrests

From 2013 to 2014, the Champaign Police Department saw a 21 percent reduction in the number of arrests made for domestic violence, and Shaffer said he believes this change is the reason why.

Gallo acknowledged, however, that it is not clear that the drop in arrests will be sustained.

Still, Isak Griffiths, executive director of Courage Connection, said it is important that Champaign police are working to address the issue.

“That’s huge. Is there more work to be done? Yes. But that really needs to be celebrated,” Griffiths said. “The fact that domestic violence is a pattern of behavior — when they’re seeing the pattern, when they can identify the pattern — they’re trying to provide enough documentation to pursue arrests for people who are demonstrating that pattern.”

Griffiths said more people — both in the community and across the country — are beginning to pay attention to domestic violence.

“A year ago, domestic violence wasn’t really an hot-button issue,” Griffiths said. “Then we had (former Ravens running back) Ray Rice just before domestic violence awareness month, and suddenly, it’s on everyone’s radar.”

Stalled task force

Two years ago, local police departments, domestic violence services and medical officials formed a task force to address domestic violence in the Champaign-Urbana community. The task force stalled, and there has been no apparent surge to address the issue in the community.

Griffiths, who was hired at Courage Connection in June 2014, said she is currently working to repair some broken bridges between the agency and the community.

Griffiths also said one of her main concentrations right now is determining what the community needs to do next to deal with domestic violence.

“It’s not a conversation that’s going to end tomorrow,” she said. “So what’s going on? Nothing qualitative that I can report on other than the fact that Champaign and Urbana police departments in particular have expressed interest in working together.”

She added, “It’s going to take some time. But so far, everybody is really interested in being a part of the conversation, and that’s really exciting.”

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