WSP police highlight domestic violence awareness month


West St. Paul Police officers are wearing purple and white pins through October to spread the word about Domestic Violence Awareness Month. (submitted photo)

Luke Reiter
news editor

If you notice a police officer wearing a purple pin on his or her uniform this month, feel free to ask about it, but know beforehand it represents something far more important than a football team.

In police departments like West St. Paul, officers are wearing purple and white pins and mounting special license plates through October as reminders of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It may seem a subtle statement given the devastation caused by domestic abuse incidents, but according to Police Chief Bud Shaver it represents a relatively recent paradigm shift in the way law enforcement approaches the issue.

“Back when I first started, we wouldn’t even get involved with it,” Shaver recalled.

For Shaver, the occurrence — and recurrence — of domestic violence was enough to convince him that this was a problem that demanded attention.

“You see too much of it, you just say, ‘Something has to change,’” Shaver said.

While some things have changed during Shaver’s career, the prevalence of domestic violence has not subsided. Even today, one in four women will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime. According to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, Minnesota District Courts handled 27,000 domestic violence cases in 2011, a statistic that’s even more harrowing when you consider the majority of domestic violence cases go unreported.

For Shaver, perhaps the most troubling numbers are these: from 2001 to 2012, the U.S. mourned the loss of 6,614 service members in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; in the same time period, an estimated 11,766 women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends nationally.

Despite the disparity in scale, however, Shaver said most people are completely unaware of the second number.

“What surprises me is that losing 12,000 women is acceptable,” Shaver said.

A silent killer

That lack of awareness, according to Sal Mondelli, CEO of 360 Communities, is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to combating domestic violence.

Mondelli explained that it’s a two-way problem. For victims, it can be difficult and downright dangerous to tell people about their situation. Meanwhile, those outside the relationship who may be in a position to help may be reluctant to say anything because it feels awkward.

But Mondelli said that silence not only leads to missed opportunities, it can also make the problem worse.

“That’s passive approval, and that really can’t be tolerated,” he said.

Based in Burnsville, 360 Communities is one of the largest social services agencies in Dakota County. The organization offers advice and assistance to domestic abuse victims and also operates the Lewis House shelters in Hastings and Eagan.

Since the Lewis House opened in 1979, an estimated 65,000 victims have used its services.

The organization also partners with the majority of law enforcement agencies in Dakota County, including West St. Paul police. In West St. Paul, an in-house 360 Communities victims’ advocate trains officers to watch for warning signs of domestic violence when responding to calls and also how to phrase questions when talking to potential victims. If a victim is unable or unwilling to talk, the officer can offer a card with contact information for the West St. Paul advocate.

“Having someone in the police department so there’s a relationship between the 360 staff and the police department is so crucial,” Shaver said.

Dangerous scenarios

Shaver explained his officers do the best they can with domestic calls, but there are some barriers that can be addressed better by advocates. For one thing, victims may be intimidated when talking to police, especially if the abuser is present.

And officers are often forced to balance compassion with other concerns, including their own safety.

An ever-present reminder: in 2009, North St. Paul Officer Richard Crittenden was killed and Maplewood Officer Julie Olson was wounded in an ambush-style attack while responding to a domestic disturbance call. The attacker, Devon Dockery, had a lengthy record of domestic abuse and terroristic threats. He was also killed in the struggle.

In a memo circulated through the West St. Paul Police Department Sept. 30, Shaver encouraged officers to consider their demeanor when dealing with potential domestic abuse situations.

“While we should perform our duties in a professional manner all year long, I ask that you pay particular attention to how you handle domestic instances,” Shaver wrote. “Peel back a layer or two of self-preservation that normally protects officers from the cruel things we see and deal with. Consider your empathy, your supportive demeanor, your listening skills; you might help change someone’s life in doing so.”

Speaking out

Besides the volume of cases, Mondelli said one of the most surprising facts about domestic violence is its universality across all demographics.

“It knows no social-economic boundary, and it has no neighborhood,” Mondelli said. “It can be your neighbor, or it can be somebody down the street.”

Victims of domestic violence can be found anywhere, but so can the opportunities to help, Mondelli said. He explained 360 Communities is always looking for volunteers to assist at its Lewis House shelters, typically to read and spend time with children in the shelter. (Male volunteers are especially needed, according to Mondelli, because most of the children in the shelter lack positive male role models.)

People can also volunteer to work as court advocates, guiding abuse victims through legal procedures such as obtaining orders of protection. Mondelli added volunteers are not required to have any particular work experience or legal expertise to become court advocates as 360 Communities provides all necessary training.

“We can teach them all of that,” Mondelli said. “You just need the heart to do it.”

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

If you need help:

24-hour hotline for Eagan Lewis House: 651-452-7288

24-hour hotline for Hastings Lewis House 651-437-1291

(In an emergency, always dial 911)

If you want to help:

Find out about volunteering for 360 Communities at 952-985-5300

For more information, visit www.360communities.org.

 

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