Domestic abusers: Dangerous for women — and lethal for cops
April 12, 2018
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Linda Pope faced a flood of red and blue lights as she arrived at the hospital on the night her husband was killed.
Cincinnati Police Officer Daniel Pope had been shot in the head while trying to serve a domestic violence warrant on a 20-year-old man who fled the scene and shot himself. Now, as Linda sat in the hospital exam room being told her husband didn’t survive, it felt like the walls were closing in.
Pope lost her husband just five days before their seven-year wedding anniversary on Dec. 6, 1997. To her, he is 35 years old forever.
“You never forget. You never stop hurting. The pain becomes a little bit less sharp, and it dulls over time. But you never stop loving them. You never stop missing them. You never stop wondering what would have been, what could have been,” she says.
Pope learned a tragic lesson that is still playing out 20 years later: Domestic abusers aren’t just dangerous for women — they are also deadly for cops.
In 2017, more officers were shot responding to domestic violence than any other type of firearm-related fatality, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. From 1988 to 2016, 136 officers were killed while responding to domestic disturbances such as family arguments, FBI data show. By comparison, 80 were killed during a drug-related arrest in the same period.
And in just the first few months of this year, six officers have died in domestic violence-related shootings. One of them is Officer Justin Billa.
The first time Erin Billa met Justin, they were 5 years old. In her middle school scrapbook, she circled his name, with the word “cutie” written next to it. She never dreamed that nearly 20 years later, they’d get married. She never imagined that she would lose him.
It was almost 10 p.m. on Feb. 20. Fonda Poellnitz, 58, was dead, and her ex-husband Robert Hollie was a wanted man in the domestic violence shooting. When Officer Billa reported to Hollie’s home in Mobile, Ala., shots rang out. Billa was rushed to the hospital and a SWAT team moved in, finding Hollie had killed himself.
Billa, 27, later died at the hospital. He’d been an officer for just two years.
“I literally felt like my heart was broken in a million pieces,” Erin Billa says. The man who came home with flowers and gave her the 1-year-old son who looks just like him was never coming back. “I love you, too,” were his last words to her.
On March 28, they would have celebrated their third wedding anniversary.
A dangerous pattern
The pattern of repeated abuse makes domestic violence calls particularly dangerous for officers. A 2008 study by the National Institute of Justice determined that victims of domestic violence are more likely to call the police after repeated assaults have already taken place — which puts police officers in an even more volatile situation when they do respond.
“If someone breaks into your home, you’re going to immediately call police. You’re not going to let someone break in 10 times. But with domestic violence, it’s unique in that way, that the call could represent something that’s been percolating over time,” says David Chipman, senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a former agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for 25 years.
Rates of domestic violence in the United States declined by more than 60% from 1994 to 2010, but the scourge of abuse still touches millions of Americans. About one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding up to 29 million female victims and 15.6 million male victims.
Over the past several decades, certain police policies toward domestic violence have changed from considering abuse a family dispute to a serious criminal offense that requires a response, including specialized domestic-violence units inside departments and comprehensive service centers for victims.
“Back in the ’80s and ’70s, nobody ever looked at this as a crime. They looked at it as more of a nuisance. As officers started getting injured and in many cases killed — and victims being killed, also — we started analyzing and assessing and identifying better methods” for responding to domestic violence, says Frank Fernandez, director of public safety in Coral Gables, Fla., and chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Firearms Committee.
Displaying empathy helps officers de-escalate a potentially explosive domestic violence situation, Fernandez says.
Tactics such as arriving on the scene with at least one other officer, standing on either side of the front door instead of approaching it directly, using verbal communication skills to develop a dialogue with the parties involved and having domestic-violence detectives follow up with repeat offenders are now more widely used.
When police report to a home where there have been previous abuse calls, they should be aware of that history of violence — including whether the alleged abuser might have a weapon — so they can prepare for the potentially lethal threat, Fernandez says.
One department’s approach
One local police department has spent the past six years pioneering a strategy that can help identify these kinds of abusers.
High Point, N.C., had a problem. From 2004 to 2008, one-third of the city’s murders were related to intimate partner violence, well above both the state and national averages, according to former police chief Jim Fealy. So in 2009, the police department, in partnership with the National Network for Safe Communities, began to take action.
Its approach tracks alleged abusers and intervenes accordingly depending upon the severity of the violence. High Point breaks down offenders into four categories, from those who have never been charged with domestic violence to the most lethal repeat offenders.
Those who are deemed most dangerous are immediately targeted for prosecution, while the lowest-level offenders receive a letter from the police, informing them they are being monitored.
From 2012, when the strategy was implemented, to 2014, there was just one intimate partner violence homicide in the city, compared with 17 from 2004 to 2011. Calls to police in High Point to report intimate partner violence declined by 20%, as did arrests, and the percentage of victims who were injured also dropped from 2012 to 2014.
While these numbers show promising trends, the rate of offenders who re-assaulted their partners within one year remained close to what it was before the program was put in place, according to a recent evaluation of High Point’s initiative by researchers from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. This may be because of poor record-keeping before the strategy began, which could have caused an underestimate of intimate partner violence cases, the researchers write.
The High Point strategy of early intervention that notifies abusers, monitors them and emphasizes follow-up and deterrence is part of “an evolution” in policing of domestic violence, Fernandez says.
Even as departments such as High Point begin testing new tactics and technologies, the dangers of police work haunt families. Erin Billa says her heart dropped every time a call from the city of Mobile came through on her work phone.
“It didn’t matter if it was a random day that we were arguing, we always said we loved each other before we left. Always,” she says.
Officers are often taught that their lives come second, says Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has written extensively about policing. That mentality combined with insufficient training make it difficult for them to make a judgment about the best approach to a complex domestic violence situation.
Training should include more practice of real-life domestic violence scenarios, she says, and it should continue during an officer’s career after the police academy, but resources are tight and many departments can’t afford to provide additional, in-house training to their officers.
Standards for police training vary widely by state. And, she says, training in the U.S. is “very poor” and “an embarrassment” when compared to other democratic countries such as Norway or Finland, where police training lasts for three academic years.
In the U.S., the length of basic-training programs averages about 21 weeks, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Linda Pope says she fears that no amount of training can save an officer in an ambush. Police must always be vigilant.
“Domestic violence is absolutely the deadliest situation that police officers are found in,” Pope says. “The cycle of abuse is something that happens every day in our world, and they need to be just ever so diligent, never become complacent and just make sure that they go home to their families every night.”
Natalie Schreyer is a reporter at the Fuller Project for International Reporting. The Fuller Project is a non-profit news organization dedicated to covering issues most impacting women and girls globally. It is funded through grants and private donations.