DENVER -- Two Colorado lawmakers said the legislature should consider implementing statewide standards for law enforcement on tracking domestic violence calls in the wake of a Denver7 investigation.
Denver7 spent months requesting and analyzing records from more than a dozen law enforcement agencies -- large and small -- across Colorado, seeking to calculate arrest rates on calls of domestic violence and domestic unrest.
The state’s domestic violence law mandates an arrest when probable cause demonstrates a crime has been committed. The key phrase, “probable cause,” gives officers discretion to walk away from a domestic call without arresting anyone if there is no physical evidence or eyewitness statements to corroborate allegations of abuse.
The results of Denver7’s records requests made it clear that agencies keep records in many different ways and some departments do not prioritize tracking their arrest rates in domestic violence cases, even as violent incidents cost as many as 40 lives across the state over the past two years.
Littleton’s arrest rate raises confusion, alarm
Denver7 Investigates began requesting statewide domestic arrest data in the wake of its investigation into the Littleton Police Department’s handling of a domestic violence murder-suicide. That investigation showed police failed to arrest David Fallon on five calls before he killed his girlfriend, Christa Benton. In that case, the final 911 call for help came 12 hours before the murder-suicide.
Data provided by Littleton showed its officers wrote 1,219 reports on domestic incidents between 2014 and June 2016, and made arrests in just 331 of those incidents, suggesting an arrest rate between 27 and 28 percent.
But Littleton argued limitations in its record-keeping systems make it difficult to quantify a true arrest rate. First, the department argued some domestic violence arrests may not be included because the arrest reports did not have “domestic” in the title.
And Police Chief Doug Stephens argued his department’s “proactive” approach is unfairly dragging down its arrest rate on paper. The chief said he requires all of his officers to write reports about every domestic incident, even those deemed to be “verbal only” without any criminal allegations, so that the department’s victim advocate can reach out to the people involved and offer resources.
He said that’s an unusual step that many departments don’t take that contributes to a higher number of non-arrest calls on paper.
“I can tell you I'm confident after talking with our city attorneys, with our judges, with the district attorney [George] Brauchler, that our officers are arresting at the same rate on domestic violence as other agencies in the metropolitan area,” Stephens said.
Several other agencies confirmed they do not always generate reports on verbal domestic disputes simply to generate victim outreach.
“To me, it's important. Why are we not making arrests? I want to know why that's happening. So that needs to be detailed in those reports,” Chief Stephens said.
Adding to the confusion about Littleton’s arrest rate, Denver7 Investigates found additional arrests not included in Littleton’s data because the suspects were not arrested on the scene of the initial call (typically because they left the scene before police arrived.) The city said it was unable to quantify how many more arrests may not be included in its data, but the acting city attorney told Denver7 in a letter the arrest data the city provided is “essentially complete.”
Same question, few straightforward answers
Denver7 requested domestic call data similar to that provided by Littleton for comparison purposes. Some agencies provided detailed databases with call numbers and dates, and sometimes more details including addresses and arrestee names, including:
Lakewood Police released a detailed database indicating an arrest rate of around 41 percent, with two pages of disclaimers detailing why the information may not be fully complete, noting that its information is dependent on officers checking an optional box in its records system indicating an incident is domestic violence related.
Denver police also said their data was drawn from incidents specifically designated by officers in the field as being domestic violence-related. Dispatch records showed officers responded to many more calls dispatched as possible domestics than those ultimately flagged by police in the data.
Englewood police said its records system tracks only domestic-related assaults and “any other type of domestic-related offense would require extensive searching/programming which could be quite costly.”
Some agencies said their record-keeping systems did not allow them to access the number of domestic calls without arrests, including the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office.
“You uncovered a procedure that was not being properly done.”
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said Denver7’s request for domestic arrest percentage data exposed a problem.
“When we ran the numbers, we knew they were wrong. They were too low,” the sheriff’s public information officer Mark Techmeyer told Denver7.
The department discovered deputies were not routinely checking those boxes on incidents indicating the calls involved domestic violence. That turned what should have been a simple data pull into a complicated IT process to determine an arrest rate of roughly 50 percent.
“It's not the type of crime that you normally look and say, ‘What's our DV rate this month?’ Certainly we haven't been doing that,” Techmeyer said.
“Is this important enough that the sheriff's office should track it?” asked chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski.
“I think we will certainly sit down and have that strong conversation. It's not that difficult to do when we are checking the boxes and doing what we need to do,” Techmeyer said.
Jefferson County officials said they re-trained deputies on the importance of checking the box in their record-keeping system when they respond to a domestic violence call.
Lawmakers and advocates call for statewide standard
Colorado law does not require agencies to keep track of their domestic violence arrest rate. Agencies do routinely report crime statistics to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, but the domestic violence statistics are limited to the number of victims of specific crimes.
The Colorado Coalition for Domestic Violence’s executive director said wide differences in arrest rates and available data uncovered by Denver7 Investigates show the need for a statewide standard on record-keeping.
“If you don't have data, it's very hard to know whether you're effective or not and to know how and what kinds of changes would be helpful to improve your response to domestic violence," Amy Miller said. "They should be continually reassessing for risk … if you don't know what the risks are, you cannot manage those risks."
“I think our coalition would like to see the legislature step in and require some consistent response and tracking of data when it comes to domestic violence cases in the state of Colorado,” Miller said.
Two outgoing state lawmakers echoed that call in interviews with Denver7.
Rep. Beth McCann, a Democrat who represents Denver and is running to become the city’s district attorney, said numbers should be more consistent than they are.
“There are some things we can do legally in the legislature. For example, making sure that recordkeeping is consistent and standard throughout the state. We also need to be emphasizing the need for resources and the need for law enforcement to have the resources they need for victims,” McCann said.
McCann said Denver7’s ongoing investigations into law enforcement mistakes and missed warning signs in domestic violence cases should be a wake-up call to the state.
“It makes me angry because we have been talking about domestic violence for years and years and years. And a lot of agencies do take domestic violence seriously and do make arrests," McCann said.
Sen. Linda Newell represents Littleton and said she was troubled to see what Denver7’s investigations uncovered about that city’s handling of domestic violence cases.
“The only way to save lives or prevent injury or death is for us to see those trends and challenges and do something about it,” Newell said. “Is it time to assess and analyze what different agencies are doing differently?” she said.
Newell said she is hopeful that public pressure will create change when it comes to how law enforcement responds to domestic violence.
“I'm hoping and I'm really praying that this kind of reporting and the story, the thread of the story in so many places, that people will wake up and say yes I do need to do something about it in my own role,” Newell said. “I am really hoping that change is on its way. It may take time, it may take money, it may take effort and fortitude, but it certainly is time. It is time.”