Philadelphia Faces Rising Toll of Domestic Violence


Responding to a sharp increase in homicides stemming from domestic violence, the Philadelphia Police Department announced plans this week to change how officers handle domestic abuse cases.

While Philadelphia’s overall homicide rate has dropped about 9 percent and all violent crime in the city is down compared with this time last year, there have been 35 domestic homicides since January — a 67 percent increase from 2008. The police say two additional killings are still being investigated and are likely to be added to the tally.

“It’s something we have to confront because domestic violence homicide is a crime where you know who the perpetrator is and there are often warning signs that the crime is coming,” said Patricia Giorgio-Fox, the deputy policy commissioner.

She added that 21 of the 35 domestic homicide victims had made a total of 178 calls to the police, and some of the callers had restraining orders against the individuals suspected or convicted of killing them.

The new police protocol will involve better data so that officers know when they answer a call if there have been previous reports of domestic violence from the address and whether a restraining order has been obtained.

The increase in domestic violence in Philadelphia is mirrored nationally, and experts say it is linked, in part, to the recession. In fact, data indicate that domestic violence had been falling in the 15 years before the recession took hold last year.

In May, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation released a study indicating that 75 percent of the nation’s domestic violence shelters have reported an increase in women seeking help since September 2008. The report also found that 73 percent of these shelters attributed this rise to financial issues.

Moreover, the increase has come as services for domestic violence victims have been cut.

“Domestic violence is up, and while the poor economy that helps drive the violence is still not rebounded, states are drastically slashing funding for domestic violence services,” said Sheryl Cates, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a federally financed emergency hot line.

This year, California cut at least $2 million from the state budget that goes toward financing 94 domestic violence shelters and centers. California accounts for 13 percent of emergency calls, the highest of any state, according to the national hot line.

Legal aid financing in West Virginia has been cut this year by 62 percent, reducing services to help protect victims of violence, according to the National Organization for Women.

In Illinois, the legislature reduced financing for domestic violence programs by 75 percent, and scores of domestic violence shelters, sexual assault and other social service programs have been forced to cut staff, reduce hours and trim other services, the organization said.

In Philadelphia, the new efforts come on the heels of several highly publicized cases involving repeat offenders, including Willie L. Scott, who the police say shot and killed his former girlfriend in February in front of the couple’s 4-year-old daughter. The police had responded to at least 10 calls for help from the house since the start of 2008.

Federal data from the National Crime Victimization Survey indicates that domestic violence remained relatively flat from 2007 to 2008, but no numbers are available for this year.

In 2008, about 552,000 crimes were committed against women by their partners, compared with about 588,000 in 2007. The rate of such violence against women fell by about 53 percent between 1993 and 2008, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In recent years, states have experimented with different methods of dealing with repeat offenders.

At least a dozen states have begun using GPS technology to try to keep offenders away from their current or former partners, according to the federal Electronic Monitoring Resource Center in Denver. Those states allow judges to order people to wear monitors that send a warning to the police and the victim when the individual enters an “intrusion zone” — a circle drawn around the victim’s home or workplace or her child’s school or day care center.

Commissioner Giorgio-Fox said the new regulations would take effect early next year. The policy will require police districts to keep their own detailed databases on domestic calls, indicating the nature of the call, whether a restraining order is connected to the address and whether the incident involves a repeat offender.

Dispatchers will be required to provide that data when an officer responds to a call. The department will also begin working more closely with city agencies and nonprofit organizations that offer counseling and shelters for domestic violence victims so that people with more training than the responding officers can arrive in emergency cases and try to persuade the victim to leave the premises, she said.

“All too often, officers arrive, hear from both sides and then we have little ability to convince the victim to leave,” Commissioner Giorgio-Fox said. “The next time we get the call, it’s often too late. So our officers need to be able to judge these situations better and earlier.”

Barclay Walsh contributed research. From the New York Times online edition.

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