In Flagler, the Red Flag Law and therapy dogs are beginning to impact the response to domestic violence and other crimes

Domestic violence – family violence, spousal abuse – is often the most difficult type of crime for law enforcement and prosecutors, because perpetrators and victims are by definition a couple. Pursuing cases is difficult when a victim doesn’t want to and when an abuser can skillfully change or twist a victim’s mind. So it’s not the kind of problem that goes away. Flagler’s latest numbers show how: the trend is down, but with one exception, not dramatically.

After taking office in 2016, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly made tackling domestic violence one of his top initiatives, hosting “summits” that engaged many civilian sectors that intersect with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence – the domestic violence shelter, the clergy, the humanitarian society and others, as well as law enforcement and the justice system.

After a Covid break, Staly hosted the latest summit today at the Hilton Garden Inn, where much of the discussion focused on the changes that have taken place since 2016, and specifically since 2018: how the so-called Red flag law is now playing a role in the most serious cases of domestic violence, and how therapy dogs can tell the difference between a witness who is cooperating, or opening up, and not.

There were also numbers.

“We have made a lot of progress over the past four years with spousal domestic violence events down 19% since we established our first task force, and aggravated assaults involving spouses down 50% since 2017,” Staly said.

“There has been a small increase during the pandemic, but so far this year the numbers are down again in comparison. But let’s keep in mind that this is reported domestic violence, because we also know that a lot of domestic violence happens behind closed doors and goes unreported until, unfortunately, something very violent occur. Our reports and arrests went down a bit during a pandemic, but they’re going up now. The discrepancy between the decline in incidents and the increase in reporting and arrests may be related to the addition of charges for pretrial violations.

Cmdt. Jennifer Nawrocki has been the person in charge of the initiative since the end of the sheriff, with a detective and a crime analyst assigned to the task. She summarized the numbers and trends: 619 domestic violence offenses reported in total in 2018 compared to 581 last year, 134 spousal offenses compared to 109 in the same period and 25 aggravated assault between souses in 2018, up from 12 in 2021. So far this year, domestic violence arrests are up from four years ago, 175 from 161, but down from 181 last year.

Staly spoke about the state’s red flag law twice. Floridians, like the rest of America, are quickly becoming familiar with red flag laws – laws that give the government the power to seize an individual’s weapons, including firearms, under certain circumstances, such as in the most violent situations of domestic violence. But they might not know that Florida passed such a law following the 2018 Parkland massacre, and that so-called law enforcement-initiated risk protection orders are now, if not routine, at least common in local courts: a law enforcement agency can seize weapons, but then they must initiate the risk protection order process and justify it to the court.

Sheriff Staly at today’s summit. (© FlaglerLive)

It’s not necessarily a given that a judge will concede, and there isn’t enough data yet to know how risk protection orders are performing. But Staly stressed the importance of these tools and the governor’s signing on to legislation that expands their applicability. Staly linked the urgency to do so to a startling number: 83,000 domestic violence injunctions are issued in Florida each year.

While risk protection orders remain less visible for now, an emerging strategy in domestic violence efforts is more so, and one was in the room: Dottie the therapy dog.

Nawrocki spoke of the agency’s three dogs, which began showing up at the department in 2019. “We use them in many different areas across the department — victims of domestic violence, abused children,” Nawrocki said. “We use them for children and different sexual abuse situations where they sit with them while they are interviewed by a forensic investigator. They are very calming to have around the office and many of us when we have a serious stressful day it’s actually nice to sit with the dogs for a minute sometimes more than colleagues they are much more relaxing and enjoyable.”

Det. Annie Conrad introduced Dottie as she spoke about her own 17½ years in the department, most of it as a detective, and currently on major cases, meaning the most serious crimes. Conrad spoke of the frequent difficulties in piercing witnesses and getting them to open up in these difficult cases. Therapy dogs were key. “I myself witnessed a victim who had a very difficult time giving a statement, literally holding the Chihuahua, bursting into tears and letting it go. There are a lot of reasons behind it, a lot of scientific reasons even in terms of what animals do for us as emotional support,” Conrad said. “So I think we’re finally starting to see the benefits and all the things they actually accomplish.”

She could see her own dog, Dottie, essentially “working the room” in situations, sensing where tensions were and moving towards them to relax an individual, especially children. She was taken to courtrooms to wait with families whose children were to testify, and worked her magic there. “We have sentencing hearings where there are families in the courtroom and then sometimes all the way down the hall, and they come out and I’ve had people crumble on Dottie,” said Conrad said. I hugged them. It’s just amazing how it’s changing people and bridging that gap again that I just couldn’t grasp.

Conrad adopted Dottie following an incident in which her former owner chained her up and misunderstood her, and threatened an investigating animal control officer. Conrad convinced him to hand over the dog. The dog has been certified. “She’s given back ever since,” Conrad said. “She is incredible.” But she is also about to retire. His replacement, Teddy, is in training. He is five and a half months old. He’s already had his appearances at the state’s attorney’s office and engaged with numerous children.

In a related update, Amy Carotenuto from the flagler Humane Society explained how animal abuse and domestic violence often run parallel. “Why do people mistreat their animals? For the same reason they abused children,” she said. “It may just be the way they were brought up. They don’t know any better. Sometimes it’s culturally accepted. But our cases end up looking a lot like what those on the front lines see. »

The summit was of course intended to provide the latest overview of the various sectors of people involved (the initiative led to various committees). Among other things, the Sheriff’s Office Chaplain provided an update on faith-based initiatives, focusing on how clergy learn to “respond appropriately to situations of domestic violence” in their communities. “So we spent a lot of time educating the clergy. Now we turn to information sharing, dissemination, dissemination of information to religious communities. We invite them to post material in their church so that victims of domestic violence know where they can seek help.

Trish Giaccone, who runs the Family Life Center, the county’s only domestic violence emergency shelter, spoke about new legislative requirements that go beyond the batterer intervention programs that simply exist. “No, we need to have a consistent program in the community, making sure people who say they’re doing this job are actually doing it,” Giaccone said. “And it’s a step closer to holding perpetrators accountable.” There is also a shift underway from seeking changes in the behavior of victims to changes in the behavior of perpetrators, “engaging them in drug addiction courses and other entities that will benefit the family. . It’s really an effort to help families become as healthy as possible.

Assistant State's Attorney Jason Lewis.  (© FlaglerLive)
Assistant State’s Attorney Jason Lewis. (© FlaglerLive)

Because it’s not just about punishing, but often, and preferably, about fixing families – if the violence stops. “We always think in criminal justice that the goal was just to lock people up and throw away the key,” said Assistant District Attorney Jason Lewis, who prosecutes major crimes, on behalf of District Attorney RJ Larizza. “But the reality is that sometimes there are other solutions, and with the Family Life Center we try to offer these services to people who may not want us to pursue or who want to return to a situation where maybe with a service it could work. He said the hardest cases to move forward in his offices are domestic violence cases, because often victims end up dropping the charges or refusing to press them — on a spouse, a sibling, a partner. Or they are violations of pre-trial conditions, with perpetrators pressuring their victims to drop the charges. There is an occasional silver lining.

“I’m going to knock on wood because here at Flagler, we’ve been lucky recently, we haven’t had a lot of domestic battery-related murders,” Lewis said. “But I can tell you through the circuit, we’re there probably about 20-25% of our murders are country related.”

See the presentation of the summit:

DV PP Summit – June 2022 (1)

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