High-Profile Cases Put Spotlight On Domestic Abuse

Domestic violence training is an integral part of instruction at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden. (JOHN WOIKE)

Ken Edwards shakes his head in disbelief when he thinks about his first domestic violence training session as a rookie cop in New London in 1981.

The instructor encouraged the young officers to keep family violence a private matter and told them an arrest "is absolutely your last option," Edwards recalled. "Otherwise, see if you can get the guy to take a walk ... down to the corner bar."

That approach is all but extinct today.

The "Tracey Thurman Law" in 1986 made arrests mandatory if there's evidence of an offense. Law enforcement training now delves into the complexity of family violence, and the attitudes of the police, the public, prosecutors and judges have broadened.

Domestic violence, victim advocates say, is finally being seen for what it is: a crime.

As with drunken driving, sexual assault, child abuse and victims' rights, perceptions of domestic violence have changed dramatically, and so has the way law enforcement responds to it. No one gets to simply walk it off anymore.

"To go from that to where we are today in such a short period of time in policing is really unheard of. We don't change very easily," said Edwards, who retired from New London as a captain and now trains police on domestic violence issues as an inspector for Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane.

The police and the courts have better tools to fight the problem — longer, more demanding "batterers intervention programs"; court dockets that specialize in domestic violence cases; digital camera kits for documenting victims' injuries; computerized protection-order files.

All of this flowed from Thurman's battle against brutality and apathy in Torrington. The stand she took led to the state's Family Violence Response and Prevention Act of 1986.

But Edwards and others will tell you that, 23 years later, there's still a long way to go.

When someone asks if women are any safer today, some experts pause, their answers elusive and complicated.

Others are more direct.

"I would say no, women in abusive relationships are not safer," said Erika Tindill, a former prosecutor who directs the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The agency represents emergency shelters, crisis hot lines, and other programs across the state.

"Women have many more options available to them, and law enforcement is much more effective, but safety is still a major concern," Tindill said.

Several recent cases drove that point home.

In June, Alice Morrin of Vernon was slain by her husband, who then killed himself.

In July, Nancy Tyler of South Windsor was kidnapped, allegedly by her estranged husband, Richard Shenkman, and held hostage for hours. Tyler escaped before the house burned, allegedly set on fire by Shenkman.

Last month, a Waterbury man, Orlando Figueroa, was charged with trying to stab his 8-month-old daughter to death because, police said, he was angry at the child's mother.

Worsening Problem?

Despite mandatory arrests and greater public awareness of the problem, the number of domestic violence incidents has held steady over much of the past two decades, at roughly 19,000 to 21,000 annually.