Pensacola, Florida
Saturday November 18th 2017

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The Domestic Violence Problem

By Duwayne Escobedo

A Milton man killed his wife on the porch with a hatchet in an argument over money on Feb. 22.

A Pensacola woman stabbed her 18-year-old son to death and left her daughter severely injured in the street on Jan. 24.

Despite the best efforts of local social advocates and law enforcement agencies, domestic disputes continue at an alarming rate in the greater Pensacola area, sometimes escalating to horrific murders.

But that doesn’t stop FavorHouse from reaching out to educate and change behaviors of both offenders and victims. They work to prevent deadly and serious injuries resulting from domestic crimes.

Leading the State
It is a difficult task, especially since Escambia County has the highest rolling rates over a three-year period from 2013-2015 in Florida, the latest data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement UCR data shows. FDLE reported Escambia had 1,042.7 incidents per 100,000 population during that period.

The state of Florida’s rate for the same three-year period is almost half that number, 549.3 per 100,000 population. Over the past decade, the state has made significant progress in reducing domestic violence, but Escambia County has headed in the opposite direction. In 2005, the county’s domestic violence rate per 100,000 was 882.7, and the state’s rate was 671.9.

The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office held steady on domestic violence crimes from 2013-2015, dropping 2.3 percent over the period. Unfortunately, the Pensacola Police Department saw its domestic violence rate increase 13.2 percent, jumping from 760.71 per 100,000 in 2013 to 861.32 in 2015.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan told Inweekly his office saw some progress in its jurisdiction last year. The total domestic violence crimes decreased 7.9 percent, according to figures compiled by his agency. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has not yet published the 2016 crime report.

“The approach we have taken is easily summed up—aggressive,” said Morgan. “We are in lockstep with Sue Hand, FavorHouse and UWF’s Dr. (Kim) McCorkle and Dr. (Richard) Hough. We push evidence-based prosecution.”

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa County is up to four murders resulting from domestic disputes in 2017 after dealing with eight the year before, said the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office.

Battling the Trend
FavorHouse of Northwest Florida Executive Director Sue Hand said the societal ill seems to get worse, instead of better.

“We haven’t had this kind of outbreak in domestic homicides in several years,” Hand said. “Domestic violence is really kept at the back door rather than the forefront until some horrible, horrific things happen. Getting consistent public awareness is the greatest obstacle we have.”

Hand doesn’t need to look at FDLE crime reports to know domestic violence remains a problem in the two-county area. She can tell by the packed 12-room shelter the non-profit runs to protect victims of violence. FavorHouse served 447 unduplicated residents, resulting in 10,471 nights of shelter from July 2015 to June 2016.

Fred Sulzbach has been the Batterers Intervention Program director at FavorHouse for two decades. He works with the Offender Program for abusive men that is a 24-week curriculum where program participants examine how their beliefs, values, and attitudes influence their decision to use violence and then learn healthy alternatives. It is modeled after a successful similar program in Massachusetts.

“Trying to help victims is not addressing the problem, you’re just addressing the symptom,” Sulzbach said. “You have to deal with men who are victimizing women. They believe a certain amount of violence in the home is OK. Until they accept responsibility, you’re not going to fix the problem. Their belief system can be modified.”

However, he said referrals from the court system and others to the offender program used to require him to teach four groups in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Today, Sulzbach reports doing about 1.5 groups total.

“We should be inundated with work,” he said.

Another tool that research has shown to work is the Lethality Assessment Program, which was started in Maryland in early 2000. The LAP goal is to prevent domestic violence homicides, serious injury or re-assaults by encouraging victims to seek support and shelter from local domestic violence programs.

A report on LAP for first responders noted that research by The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing over 25 years had found: 1) only 4 percent of domestic violence murder victims nationwide had taken advantage of domestic violence program services; 2) in 50 percent of domestic violence-related homicides, officers had previously responded to a call on the scene; and 3) the re-assault of domestic violence victims in high danger was reduced by 60 percent if they sought shelter.

Kim McCorkle, an associate dean and professor at the University of West Florida who specializes in domestic violence, said the Pensacola Police Department at one time implemented the lethality report, which is an 11-question survey of the victim, to alert prosecutors to cases that were “high danger” ones. It also required officers to follow up in cases identified as potentially escalating. Questions of the victims included whether the batterer threatened to kill them, had weapons, used drugs, tried to choke them and had a job.

“This can prevent cases from becoming more serious,” McCorkle said. “It’s having some impact. That’s one of the things that I’m most excited about. This is not a law enforcement problem. They didn’t create domestic violence. But it helps them respond to it.”

McCorkle has advocated for local law enforcement agencies to train officers in lethality assessment to identify which cases are most likely to turn deadly.

Hard to Handle
Escambia County Chief Deputy Chip Simmons admitted domestic violence crimes are hard to handle. The sheriff’s office requires its nearly 425 sheriff’s deputies to get regular continuing education on the problem.

“It’s difficult to police something that happens inside the sanctuary of one’s house,” Simmons said. “We want to make sure we are one of the departments that is educated on this issue.”

He has support from third-term Sheriff Morgan, who has said: “I would put people under the jail if I could for those crimes.”

The community, social advocates, law enforcement and prosecutors have focused on strategically getting out the message about the warning signs of abusive relationships in the past.

Research has shown that risk factors for domestic violence include substance abuse, unemployment, education, cohabitation of unwed partners, pregnancy, income, ethnicity, history of violence in the home and a previous criminal record.

Greg Marcille, chief assistant state attorney, agrees that poverty has an effect. He also said local law enforcement agencies emphasize arrests in domestic violence cases. Offenders are referred to local intervention programs.

To improve its handling of domestic violence cases, Marcille reported the State Attorney’s Office is assigning three attorneys dedicated to those crimes.

“Often times an arrest is made if probable cause exists,” Marcille said. “Unfortunately, we do not always have the level of evidence we need for a successful result in trial.”

Hand welcomes any increased attention from law enforcement on domestic violence.

“We need to turn offenders’ lives around,” Hand said. “We can’t wait until they shoot somebody. Then, it’s too late. If we don’t save the mom, we’re not going to save the family.”