Domestic violence forced my mother from her home at age 16. Her father’s alcoholism and abuse left her completely alone in the world. Given that one in five homicides stems from domestic violence, her courage at a young age may have saved her life.
Domestic violence is often a generational crime with impacts rippling across many lives over decades. Too often, violence goes unchecked and perpetuates a new generation who think violence in the home is normal. I am grateful that my mother taught me a very different lesson – that each of us has a responsibility to stand up to bullies and protect those who suffer abuse.
There were few resources available to my mother and grandmother in the 1950s. Many forms of abuse were dismissed as too minor to warrant legal intervention. We now know that violence escalates and early intervention programs save lives. Sadly, some of the archaic attitudes still persist today, even in the legal community.
While there are many reforms still needed that can improve how we as a community address domestic violence, the city attorney’s office should start with these four:
First, and most critically, domestic violence cases referred to the city attorney must be acted upon swiftly – within two court days. Prosecutors have three options when acting: file charges, refer back to police with direction for further investigation or decline to file charges.
Timely action is uniquely critical in domestic violence cases. Every minute that passes sends a message to those involved. Delays signal to abusers, victims and children who witness violence that the issue is not serious. Abuse is more likely to continue, victims are less likely to report future violence and children begin to interpret violence as normal behavior.
In cases involving Child Protective Services, an additional tragedy can occur as a result of delays in prosecution. CPS often bases action on the status of a domestic violence case; meaning, charges filed months later can result in a child either left in temporary foster care longer than necessary or left in a violent home when they should be removed.
By acting on cases swiftly, the city attorney can and should interrupt the cycle of violence at the moment it matters most.
Second, we need the strongest possible relationship between deputy city attorneys and the Family Justice Center, the city’s public safety resource meant to assist domestic violence victims. Over the past 11 years, budget constraints and differing visions have diminished the level of integration between the center and the city attorney’s office. As a result, prosecutors miss opportunities to speak with victims and witnesses of domestic violence.
Third, the city attorney and the San Diego Police Department should develop additional training programs with new and young officers. SDPD currently struggles to retain experienced officers and a wave of additional retirements is coming soon. Nowhere is experience more critical than when investigating domestic violence and sex crimes. Victims require an extra degree of sensitivity and subtle signs are often difficult for new officers to detect.
Additionally, domestic violence is one of the most common calls received by field officers. Every new officer needs proper training on what to look for and how to collect evidence needed to make a case.
High-quality police work matters more in domestic violence cases than many other crimes. The ability to take and memorialize the victim’s statements with proper sensitivity, tact and detail are critical to success at trial.
Lastly, we need to work with the courts to re-establish a designated domestic violence court.
All of the above concerns – timeliness, involvement of the Family Justice Center, unique aspects of police work and evidence – also apply to how the courts handle these cases. Consolidating these cases with a judge who can dedicate time and develop expertise in domestic violence issues would result in more swift and consistent justice.
Robert Hickey is a deputy district attorney, and a candidate for city attorney. Hickey has practiced law for over 21 years, both as a criminal prosecutor and civil litigator. Hickey’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.