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The Stitch Rule

Long treated by police as unpreventable, domestic violence is receiving renewed attention in the wake of some high-profile cases. But will new tactics work?

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Davette Hayes survived a machete attack by an ex-boyfriend. Now she wants victims of domestic violence to know that they don't have to suffer in silence. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Davette Hayes survived a machete attack by an ex-boyfriend. Now she wants victims of domestic violence to know that they don't have to suffer in silence.

They found her in a Wal-Mart parking lot, her dress torn, with bruises on her neck. It's just before dusk May 6, during what was previously an uneventful shift, when the call comes across the police radio. Henrico County police officer Karen Furgurson turns down the country music whispering out of the stereo speakers and picks up the receiver. She makes a quick mobile-to-mobile phone call to another cop patrolling the area to coordinate a response.

Furgurson, a diminutive, red-haired mother of three, graduated from the police academy in March 2010. She's been working as "road cop"— police parlance for uniformed patrol officer — just long enough to no longer be considered a rookie. Winding through a west Henrico neighborhood, she checks the details of the incident while they appear on the screen of her laptop, which is mounted to the dash of her cruiser. The call has come through tentatively as a "domestic," and she'll take the lead.

Major crime is down in Henrico — aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft, burglary and the like — and has been declining during the last 20 years. Violent crime and homicides in Richmond region, long tagged as one of the most violent cities in the country, have been declining significantly in the last decade. New approaches in community policing and computerized data mining have enabled police to track and target high-crime areas and tactically distribute resources more effectively.

But domestic violence continues to flummox police departments locally — and across the state. Traditionally police have largely taken a hands-off approach when it comes to 911 calls for domestic incidents, writing them off as unpreventable crimes of passion. In the last few years, however, many police departments such as Henrico's had an epiphany: Perhaps there is a tactical approach to handling domestics?

The approach requires officers to become part law-enforcement officers, part social workers. The real effort starts on the front end, with patrol officers such as Furgurson.

During her May 6 shift, a 911 call comes from a nearby Wal-Mart. The caller is a young woman, a mother of two. The woman tells the dispatcher that she fled her nearby apartment after an argument with her husband turned violent.

When Furgurson arrives she pulls her white police sedan into the parking lot behind a second squad car. Two other patrol officers are here, but they've waited, along with the alleged victim, who sits in a police cruiser, for Furgurson to begin the interview. After discussing the call with them briefly, she ambles over to the passenger side of the car and introduces herself to the olive-skinned woman slunk into the front seat.

Through tears, the woman gives her account of the past few hours. She's a graduate student at a local university. Her dress, black with gold trim, is ripped at the shoulder. On her neck is a series of jagged purple streaks that disappear behind her thick, shoulder-length hair.

She spent the afternoon ensconced in her bedroom, trying to choose the "most appropriate" dress to wear to a school-related reception later that evening. She settled on a black dress with the modestly immodest neckline. But her husband wasn't pleased with the choice. With Furgurson taking notes, the woman alleges that in the ensuing argument, her husband attempted to force her to change into something less revealing. When she refused, he allegedly prevented her from leaving, restraining her with his hands.

After she finishes answering questions, the officers move away from the crowded entrance toward the back of the lot. Furgurson dips into the car trunk for a camera to get photo evidence of the still-fresh bruises on the woman's neck. Thirty minutes later, Furgurson and two other patrolmen are at the front steps of the apartment she shares with her husband and two children.

The woman's husband allows Furgurson and the others to enter, apologizing for the clutter while he leads them past the two kids eating noodles on the family couch and into a dim kitchen. Established protocol for Henrico police responding to a domestic dispute is to separate the parties involved, away from any children who might have witnessed an alleged incident. So while a third officer distracts the couple's twins with questions about school, the husband, a graying Egyptian expatriate with a pair of round glasses perched on the tip of his nose, gives his version of the story.

The sum of the dispute was that the dress was not as conservative as he would have liked. They are a family of Muslims, he informs. When they first arrived in the United States in 2005, his wife had worn a hijab, a head wrap traditionally worn by Islam's female adherents, whenever she was in public. But no longer. "She knows that this is not appropriate for us," he says. "She's disrespecting our culture." So he says he insisted that she change her clothes. She didn't. And it's at that point where his account diverges from his wife's.

Furgurson asks the man if did as she accused: choke her after she refused to change dresses. He denies it. But the officers have enough evidence to take action. Minutes later, the young woman's husband is placed in handcuffs and arrested on suspicion of domestic assault.

Each domestic case presents a different mystery that needs unraveling, Furgurson says later. Was there a predominant aggressor? Were children present? Is there evidence that conflicts with the alleged victim's version of events? The questions are part of a continuum, based on state and local laws, that allows officers to assess a domestic violence incident. And they're critical to getting the answers that can lead to an arrest and successful prosecution, and possibly prevent repeated, more violent incidents — even murder.

Historically, domestic violence has been the family secret, largely tolerated and accepted. Cultural forces such as the women's rights movement in the 1960s began to bring more awareness to the problem. But progress was slow. Only in the last 25 years did federal, state and local laws begin cropping up to better protect victims of domestic violence and abuse. Slowly, police departments across the country devoted more resources to domestic cases, developing new strategies to ensure that those laws were enforced and victims were not "re-victimized," Henrico police Sgt. Shawn Maxwell says.

A 20-year veteran policeman, Maxwell heads the department's Special Victim's Unit, a group charged with investigating and interceding in chronic domestic violence cases, which includes cases of child and elder abuse.

Henrico County police officer Karen Furgurson says, on average, a patrol officer will respond to three domestic violence calls during a 12-hour shift. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Henrico County police officer Karen Furgurson says, on average, a patrol officer will respond to three domestic violence calls during a 12-hour shift.

"When I started here 20 years ago, we didn't have the domestic violence laws on the books that are there now," Maxwell says. "You'd go to a domestic and if you had two people fighting, you just told them to stop because if we had to come back, we were taking everybody to jail. And we would."

Now the goal is to intervene in a situation and restore order before it can escalate to someone getting seriously hurt, he says.

Specialized training in how to handle and investigate domestic violence incidents is part of the curriculum in nearly every police academy in the nation. Police departments, including Richmond's, have established special units to investigate chronic cases of domestic violence.

Henrico's domestic unit consists of a handful of investigators who specialize in cases involving domestic abuse in its many forms, and a civilian worker who pores through incident reports to track repeat calls for service. Once identified, they work to connect abuse victims, and abusers in some cases, with the local nonprofits and other groups that provide services such as shelter, financial assistance and mental health counseling.

"The paradigm has shifted," says Joan Neff, University of Richmond associate professor of criminal justice. "What you see now are coordinated efforts between domestic violence advocates, courts and police to work on the problem."

Yet despite that apparent shift, there's not much evidence to suggest that those efforts are working. The raw numbers provide only a murky glimpse of the problem's extent. Even while major crime decreases across the state, domestic violence is on the upswing. According to a 2010 report by the state department of Criminal Justice Services, there were 19,112 victims of assaults involving "intimate partners" in Virginia in 2009. Since 2005, and into the recession, that number has increased by 11 percent.

In Richmond the number of arrests related to domestic violence — which includes arrests for elder and sexual abuse, as well as intimate-partner violence — has ballooned. The number of domestic violence related arrests increased from 798 in 2005 to 1,275 in 2009, a 60-percent rate increase in just four years.

In Henrico County that number actually decreased over the same time by 20 percent. But are the numbers fluctuating because police have stepped up enforcement, or because they're being called upon to intervene in more domestic disputes involving, perhaps, the same participants? And if they are, how do police measure success, especially when domestic crimes are perceived by the wider public, as some victims' advocates put it, a private problem rather than a problem plaguing the community?

There haven't been many studies of whether these new policies are effective, Neff says. "What's happening is police are putting a very big Band-Aid on the problem," she says, "but what you have is a really deep cut."

All these questions have been pushed back into the public spotlight in the wake of two high-profile murders in Henrico County. It happens every so often: A person is murdered in horrific fashion by someone close to them — a spouse, or more likely, an ex-romantic partner. Ryan Chhuon, a 24-year-old retirement center employee, was gunned down in March. Antonio Farris, the disgruntled ex-boyfriend of a co-worker he was helping move into a new home, has been charged with Chhuon's murder. The shooting touched off a two-hour standoff with police, who say Farris held the woman and her two children hostage. He eventually was captured and awaits trial.

Susana Cisneros' body was discovered in the early morning of March 9. Worried members of her immediate family had begun searching for the 24-year-old around 1 a.m., hours after she'd left her Henrico apartment to meet with Gregory Nelson Jr.

In addition to being Cisneros' former boss, Nelson, a married Chesterfield man, also was the father of her child. Cisneros was found stabbed to death around 3 a.m. at the back of a Hardee's fast-food restaurant on West Broad Street, just across the street from the Chipotle where she and Nelson once worked together. According to family members, she was scheduled to deliver her baby in two weeks.

In the ensuing days police launched a multistate manhunt for Nelson as a person of interest in the killing. An apparent lack of communication between Henrico and Chesterfield police allowed Nelson to flee to Florida. Coincidentally, Chesterfield police stopped Nelson for speeding in the early morning hours of March 9, about an hour before Cisneros' body was found. Despite having a "significant amount of blood" on his clothes and a bloody knife — he told the officers that he stabbed a man in Richmond who tried to rob him, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported — Nelson was released. He was captured in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 17. Nelson is being held on charges of first-degree murder and the premeditated murder of a fetus.

These cases, while brutal in nature, aren't necessarily rare occurrences. In 1999 the Virginia General Assembly authorized a mandate that requires the state's chief medical examiner to track "intimate partner" homicides. In 2008, 58 of the 396 killings in Virginia were perpetrated by a current or former spouse, boyfriend or romantic partner, according to the most recent data available. That's an increase of nearly 14 percent from the previous year.

Police say these cases are atypical, as difficult to foresee from the law-enforcement side of the equation as they are shocking to the public. Among members of Henrico's Special Victims Unit, there's a resignation to the idea that preventing such crimes may be nearly impossible.

"For the homicide cases we do see, there are no real predictors," says Erica Parker, an eight-year Henrico police officer and domestic violence investigator. "Traditionally, the ones that involve homicide are never the ones making the cry for help, or call for service, ahead of time."

Domestic violence isn't age specific. Richmond Police Department Detective Tish Edmonds tries to get that point across during a presentation on dating violence for young participants in the Police Athletic League. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Domestic violence isn't age specific. Richmond Police Department Detective Tish Edmonds tries to get that point across during a presentation on dating violence for young participants in the Police Athletic League.

If there's a piece of legislation that epitomizes the gap between existing domestic violence laws and law enforcement, Yeardley's Law may be it. That's the unofficial name of the bill signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell in April that effectively closes a glaring loophole. Its main thrust is granting people in dating relationships the ability to obtain an order of protection, one of law enforcement's primary weapons to combat domestic violence. As it stands now, state law allows only those living in the same household or bonded by shared children to do so.

The law came in the wake of the highly publicized, May 2010 death of Yeardley Love, a University of Virginia student and popular lacrosse player, who allegedly was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend, a member of the men's lacrosse team. The new law, which goes into effect in July, brings Virginia in line with 40 other states that have expanded the criteria for obtaining protective orders.

"Unfortunately, it often takes a major incident, a homicide or something similar, to give light to the fact that laws in the state of Virginia can be improved," says Gena Boyle, spokeswoman for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, a local coalition of service providers and domestic violence victims advocates.

To understand how far Virginia, and by extension, its police departments have come in addressing domestic crime, it's worth looking at where it started.

Years ago, when anti-domestic violence laws were largely absent from the state code, it wasn't uncommon for police officers responding to domestic disputes to arrest both the victim and the abuser. But even more likely, they defaulted to another popular strategy, which entailed doing as little as possible. Arguments between couples were considered by police best resolved by the couples themselves. Police responded to a call and only took action if blood had been spilled. It was called the "stitch rule," says Neff, the University of Richmond professor: "Unless someone needed stitches, they weren't arresting anyone."

That changed with the rise of the women's rights movement, when advocates began organizing in protest of policies that either failed or simply exploited victims. Eventually, police began to take notice that they could be more effective at preventing domestic crime by responding earlier and working to protect victims. Still, it wasn't until a 1982 study that domestic abuse emerged from a private affair to a public one.

The so-called Minneapolis Experiment was the first of its kind. During the course of a year, the Minnesota police department, in conjunction with the National Police Foundation, conducted a field experiment to test the effectiveness of police responses to domestic violence calls. Researchers found that making an arrest of at least one party in a domestic dispute reduced by half the number of persons who reoffended within the span of six months.

The Minneapolis Police Department soon changed its no-arrest policy. Police around the country followed suit, as department higher-ups realized their officers could devote more time to other projects if domestic calls for service were reduced.

"It became obvious that dealing with chronic cases is a huge hassle," says Nancy K. D. Lemon from her office at the University of California at Berkley, where she lectures law school students in the history of domestic violence policy. "It's about scarcity of resources. If police are going to the same house over and over again, they have less time for other investigations. And because the nature of domestic situations is to escalate, they know that if they keep having to go back, then they'll be investigating an assault, and then they'll be investigating a homicide. It's in the interest of everyone involved, police included, to address these situations effectively and early."

Through the years, technological advances and data mining offered a clearer picture into how much time officers spent dealing with chronic domestic-abuse cases. As a result, patrol officers began demanding better training in how to handle potentially volatile domestic disputes, concerned, as they were, for their personal safety. In some cases, victims filed lawsuits against the police for failing to adequately intervene, and the courts began ruling in their favor.

Three decades later Virginia has codified a host of guidelines that dictate how police should respond to domestic incidents. When the federal Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton in September 1994, suddenly there was federal money available to assist police investigating violent acts against women.

The act forced municipalities to revamp the regressive laws that victims' advocates long complained about. To be eligible to receive funding, state and local officials were required to certify that they no longer charged domestic-violence victims for things such as protection orders or rape exams. More recently, Congress in 2005 amended the law to require jurisdictions to certify that they do not force rape victims to submit to polygraph tests as a condition for proceeding with investigations or prosecutions.

In Henrico, every officer receives extensive training on how to do just that. As recruits, officers undergo 40 hours of training, with one portion dedicated to learning the applicable state laws, and the other participating in live simulations of typical domestic violence incident at a police training facility dubbed the Stress House.

Still, there the laws and training can do only so much. Of the 193,714 calls for service received by Henrico police last year, only 5,843 resulted in police reports classified as "domestic." Despite the volume of domestic calls to police, only 3 percent lead to actual charges.

Three years after being attacked and nearly killed by her ex-boyfriend, Davette Hayes struggles to put her life back together. On the morning of New Year's Eve 2007, she arrived in the parking lot at Richmond Community Hospital, where she works in the payroll department. After reaching the entrance, Paul Bratton, the man with whom she'd just recently ended a three-year relationship, charged her with a machete and began swinging.

Hayes, now 56, sustained significant head and eye trauma, while her left hand was nearly severed at the wrist. She was in the hospital for 38 days while doctors tried to repair the nerve damage in her eye.

Healing happens slowly, says Davette Hayes. Three and a half years ago, her ex-boyfriend attacked her with a machete. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Healing happens slowly, says Davette Hayes. Three and a half years ago, her ex-boyfriend attacked her with a machete.

The relationship had been on the rocks since Bratton injured his back and found himself out of a job working construction. Hayes had been supporting them both while he convalesced, and she grew frustrated as the months ticked by.

Reached by phone, Hayes now says the attack wasn't the culmination of a pattern of abuse, physical or otherwise. Prior to the breakup, she says she never had reason to contact police or file a complaint against him. But looking back, she says there were signs. There was the time he joked lightly about she might be forcing him into "catching a charge." The second: When Bratton wanted satisfaction and, upon not getting it, shoved her into the bathroom. She sustained a compression fracture of the wrist as a result.

The third and most ominous sign came just days after their breakup. Bratton ended the relationship in 2007, on Christmas morning, following an argument. Hayes says that he let slip to certain family members that he wanted to shoot her. She was visiting friends in Henrico County when word of the threat got back to her. She contacted police, who informed that she could file for a restraining order. But it required filing charges with a local magistrate, and a drive into Richmond. She opted not to. The next morning Bratton confronted her outside of the hospital.

A former convict with an established criminal record, Bratton was sentenced to life in prison for the attack. Police caught up with him shortly after the incident, sitting in the parking lot of a convenience store. He told police that he'd just consumed anti-freeze in attempt to kill himself.

Looking back, Hayes says she regrets not speaking up, which isn't to say that she assigns blame to herself or anyone other than Bratton for the attack.

"I didn't investigate whether there was something I could have done to prevent it, or whether there was something the police could have done," she says. "It's not going to change anything. Once a person makes up their mind to do this, a piece of paper isn't going to stop them. They are going to find a way."

Hayes is hardly alone.

No matter how extensive the level of services, some people cannot or will not see the potential danger in their situation, says Parker, the investigator with Henrico police's Special Victims Unit.

"We see it all the time," Parker says — "victims who just can't or won't extricate themselves and won't take our help. Maybe it's because they didn't want to cooperate with us the first time. Maybe it's because they just don't want police involved in their lives. Maybe it's because they're scared. Sometimes they're ready to work with us. And sometimes they're not. Ultimately, it's their choice."

Angela Verdery, a spokeswoman for Safe Harbor, a Henrico nonprofit that provides shelter and counseling for victims of domestic violence, says often those people who are more susceptible to domestic violence live in communities where the police simply aren't trusted.

"Those women may be part of communities that are distrustful of police. Or they may be in a situation where they could find themselves in greater trouble if they went to the police," she says. "That's why it's so important for them to have other options."

At the Henrico apartment, the black dress that sparked a domestic dispute has disappeared. The tears are gone, and the marks on the woman's neck are buried beneath a pink jogging suit. After her husband is escorted away in handcuffs, she puts her two children to bed.

Henrico police officer Richard Mallory has returned to brief the woman on her husband's arrest. He was taken to the Henrico County jail, where a magistrate found sufficient evidence to charge him with domestic assault. He also was served with an emergency protective order. Good for three days, it prohibits her husband from making contact with his wife or their children. When it expires, she can apply to have it extended for a longer term.

But the woman remains worried. This isn't the first time that confrontations between the two have gotten physical, she says, just the first time she's reported it to police. Her husband retains his Egyptian citizenship and has previously threatened to return there and take the kids with him. She'd prefer to stay in the United States.

Days later she declines to discuss the incident, or whether she petitioned to extend the protective order. She asked for privacy on the night of the incident as well.

Mallory can't say whether she's likely to follow-through. "Here's the thing about domestics," he says, "A lot of times you find out later that the couple got back together as soon as the person you put the protective order on got out of jail."

In a follow-up chat with the woman, Mallory says the woman wanted to talk about the kids. "Their daughter has a dance recital tomorrow," he says. "She was worried about what to say about why the father isn't going to be there." S

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