FEATURED EDITORIAL

Battling batterers

8/28/2013

Domestic violence emerged as a major campaign issue at a recent debate among Toledo mayoral candidates. It’s about time.

Despite all the talk about gang violence, domestic violence was the No. 1 killer in Toledo last year. Addressing it effectively will require not only more resources, but also new ways of using those resources in law enforcement and the community.

That’s happening in northwest Ohio, although not fast enough. Lucas County has assigned a full-time assistant prosecutor to handle all felony domestic-violence and related cases in common pleas courts. Prosecutor Julia Bates also hired an additional advocate to work with victims of domestic violence as their cases proceed through court.

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Having one prosecutor focus on domestic violence is smart. It enables that person to gain expertise in handling often-difficult cases in which victims don’t cooperate, either because they’re afraid, are ashamed, or generally care about the person who battered her or him.

Meantime, Dave Toska, chief prosecutor for the City of Toledo, is launching a two-person domestic violence unit. Two assistant prosecutors will work full time on the toughest cases, including those that involve repeat and violent offenders. Having two of 11 prosecutors on staff working exclusively on domestic violence shows a real commitment that law enforcement lacked in the past.

Finally, Municipal Court judges still are considering a proposal by Judge Michelle Wagner to establish a dedicated domestic-violence docket. One judge would handle all domestic-violence cases, instead of the court assigning them among the seven judges.

Police departments need to make similar strides. Thirty years ago, officers routinely responded to domestic-violence calls by separating the couple and not even making a report. Today, all departments should file a report of any domestic dispute.

Under Chief Michael Navarre, Oregon police officers who gather evidence at a scene of domestic violence are trained to assume that the victim will not cooperate. They use digital cameras to photograph the victim the day of the beating — and the day after, when injuries are often most apparent.

They also photograph the scene, documenting any evidence of a struggle, such as broken or displaced furniture. Using a digital recorder, they get statements from the victim and witnesses.

All of these efforts, and more, are warranted. Last year, domestic violence accounted for 14 of Toledo’s 36 homicides — twice the number attributed to gang violence. Still, only one TPD detective is assigned to domestic violence, compared to 18 officers in the gang unit.

A comprehensive community approach to domestic violence will require more than police and court reforms. It’s a community problem.

Toledo must keep enough shelter space for battered women. The city has only one long-term shelter, Bethany House, with continuous waiting lists. It has lost thousands of dollars in federal grants, partly because the city focuses those resources on short-term shelters.

City officials must show more flexibility in awarding shelter grants. Helping victims of domestic abuse takes time, but it’s an investment the community must make to protect battered women.

It’s long overdue, but domestic violence is finally getting the attention it deserves as a major public-safety and community problem. That focus ought to bring equally overdue reforms in how local police, courts, and community agencies deal with this plague.