New Unit Seeks To Reduce Domestic Violence

The Hartford Courant

It's 5 a.m. and about two dozen city police and probation officers are gathered at the department's Jennings Road headquarters.

They're armed with oustanding warrants. The target: nearly 20 suspects wanted on multiple domestic violence-related charges.

The large-scale response in late September was the first organized by the city police department's new Domestic Violence Response Unit.

The unit, which consists of two detectives and a lieutenant, began its work in April. It was formed by Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts after an analysis of crime statistics showed that domestic violence accounted for almost a quarter of all aggravated assaults in the city in 2008 and a third of them in 2009. Those numbers prompted the department to look back further, revealing that domestic violence had increased in the city 216 percent over five years.

Roberts attributes much of the increase in domestic violence to the bad economy and the fact that many families are made up of young people unprepared for the pressures of relationships and parenthood.

Since its formation, the unit has been collecting and pursuing case files. Det. Iris Perez also works to build a rapport with battered women and, in a few cases, men. "I contact about 15 to 20 victims a day," Perez said. She said that many victims are hesitant to talk at first.

"They ask, 'Why are you calling me?' " Perez said. She tells them she's there to provide support and information about programs, the process and the law.

"They always want to know about restraining orders," she said, "where to apply and what happens if he comes around. They know that by calling me, they are going to get a real answer."

Busy Morning

After the morning briefing, officers divide into two groups. One will take the southern half of Hartford and the other the north. Both groups are backed up by armed SWAT teams.

By 5:45 a.m., Team North, led by Det. Phil Fuschino, is approaching a three-story apartment building outside 48 Capen St. It's still dark and quiet as team members head to a second-floor apartment. A light goes on and for a few moments the muffled yelling of a woman can be heard. A short time later officers emerge, empty-handed.

"He's not here," said Fuschino, the other detective on the domestic unit.

Fuschino, an eight-year veteran, said he volunteered because it was something the department hadn't done before, at least not as an official domestic violence unit.

"We always knew it was there because we dealt with it," he said. "I feel like I'm making a difference."

By 6 a.m. Team North is outside 14 Eastford St., where they are looking for Floyd Johnson, 48, a man they say has a violent past that includes robbery and violation of protective orders. Johnson isn't there, but a resident tells police he might be around the corner at 21 Rockville St.

As they approach the house on Rockville less than 15 minutes later, officers are cautioned that their arrival may have been announced. Officers spread out around the exterior of the house while the homeowner — after repeated knocking — answers the door. She says she doesn't know who is in her house. But movement through a window at the rear of the house prompts officers to enter. They find Johnson, arrest him, and charge him with two counts of violation of a restraining order, third-degree criminal attempted robbery, evading responsibility and two counts of violation of probation.

Handcuffed and leaning against the hood of a car, Johnson acknowledges that he knew there was a warrant for his arrest.

"You know what? I'm glad you caught me," he tells officers. "I was tired of running anyway."

The woman who answered the door, Lashonda Allen, 24, was charged with interfering with police.

For Perez, who led Team South, working with the Domestic Violence Response Unit is just an extension of what she did as a patrol officer.

"It's been my passion," she said. "I've always been able to interact and connect with victims and offenders."

Perez said she makes a connection in about 50 percent of the domestic violence cases she has responded to. She recalled a case a few months back in which no arrests were made, but the victim, as a result of her conversations with Perez, felt empowered to leave her abuser and the city to start a new life.

"She called me one day and said 'I have a job. Thanks for pushing me,' " Perez said. "That made my whole week."

A Runner

At 7 a.m., Fuschino's team arrives at 108 Kent St., looking for Shawn McClendon, 30, in a third-floor apartment.

McClendon tells the officer knocking on the front door that he'll be right out and then tries unsuccessfully to go out the back wearing only his underwear. A member of the SWAT team is waiting for him there.

McClendon is arrested on charges of second-degree threatening, two counts of second-degree breach of peace and two counts of criminal violation of a protective order.

From there they head to 24 Townley St., where, as luck would have it, Richard Brown, 36, is about to go through the front door.

After determining that Brown is the man they are looking for, officers handcuff him and sit him on the porch. A large man with a deep voice, Brown asks officers quietly if they would take him away from the front of the house.

"My daughter is going to school," he said.

Officers quickly escort him down the street, where Fuschino reminds Brown in a conversational tone, "You know you got a warrant. You got to take care of it. Know what I'm saying?"

Brown is charged with third-degree assault, disorderly conduct and second-degree unlawful restraint.

Lt. Mark Tedeschi, who heads the domestic violence unit, said their orders from the police chief were clear:

"Chief Roberts said, 'Let's take that number down.' We expect to see a reduction" in domestic violence cases, Tedeschi said, through "minimizing repeat customers" through a combination of prosecution, victim services, education and support programs for some offenders, he said.

"In the old days we were only able to provide an arrest," Tedeschi said. "This is more of a collaborative effort."

But that doesn't mean the unit won't press for prosecution when warranted, and their cases will be aided by photographic and other evidence collected by patrol units responding to domestic calls. Each patrol unit has an evidence collection kit, including a camera to document injuries that can be shown in court, especially if a victim is reluctant to cooperate or has a change of heart.


Perez is not surprised when victims don't cooperate. She said that only about 50 percent of the initial calls she makes to victims are returned. She said that many victims are financially dependent on abusers, and others are over-invested emotionally.

"When they love someone more than they love themselves, you aren't going to get anywhere," she said.

Perez said she can tell quickly if she's going to "get anywhere" by the victim's tone of voice and the answer when she asks if they need help. An answer of "no" is not a good sign.

But when a victim wavers, Perez tries to keep them on the phone to explain how the department is doing things differently.

"I've had a couple [of victims] who said, 'I never got a call back or had anyone check on me before,' " Perez said. "Then I explain that the department didn't have this before."

Last Suspect

At about 9:30 a.m.Team North arrives at 398 Garden St. to pick up John F. Henry, 41. They find him sleeping. He is charged with two counts of second-degree breach of peace, interfering with an emergency call, third-degree assault and second-degree threatening.

Henry turned out to be the last arrest of the day for Team North, which struck out at several more locations and ended their sweep in Bloomfield around noon. Team South, with one arrest, was almost shut out in its effort. A total of seven arrests were made on this late-September day, out of 18 oustanding warrants.

Department officials are encouraged by the work. According to recently released statistics, the unit has been able to bring the percentage of domestic-related aggravated assaults down from 32.4 percent at the end of 2009 to 29.7 percent this year.

"I hoped it would be better, but it shows a steady decline," Roberts said. "It's moving in the right direction, but we need more resources."

The department is also developing a mapping system for domestic abusers, to monitor them in much the same way as sexual offenders. There are also plans to outfit serious abusers with GPS monitors so that victims will have advanced warning when they are nearby.

Perez is hopeful that grant money will be approved allowing the department to hire a counselor to go along on home visits to provide families dealing with domestic violence with information on options and programs.

Fuschino would like to see the department's domestic violence unit mirror the Stamford Police Department's, which has six full-time officers.

"We need more personnel so we can be more aggressive," Fuschino said.

And, with nearly 200 warrants outstanding, there is another thing:

"I'd like to get some more warrant sweeps done."

But Roberts cautions that there's only so much police can do.

"It's not just a policing problem, it's a societal problem," he said.

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