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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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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.

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