The Charleston Police Department is seeking to set up a family violence squad to combat often hidden crimes that scar families, turn children into tomorrow’s criminals and contribute to the state’s dubious distinction as the nation’s No. 1 place for women killed by men.
The 433-officer police department is applying for a nearly $150,000 federal grant to hire, train and equip a full-time investigator to handle criminal domestic dispute cases as the first step toward what Chief Greg Mullen envisions as establishing a special family violence squad.
Mullen said the plan is to focus exclusively on family violence so police can investigate better, prepare for more effective prosecutions, be more supportive of victims and possibly head off more violence.
In the last three years the city experienced 1,430 cases of criminal domestic violence, a number that is far too much for a single investigator to handle, Mullen said. However, he sees a new full-time investigator also as an instructor to help other investigators and patrol officers respond more effectively.
Mullen said the department anticipates that with a focused investigator, police will not only be more effective in building good cases for prosecution, but they will be able to offer victims risk assessments to help them understand their danger and seek out assistance and a safe place if necessary.
The long-range hope is that the victims would be protected, the perpetrators would be jailed or change behavior and children would be saved from growing up in a world of family violence, Mullen said. The idea is to ensure “we’re doing everything possible to intervene in these before it becomes tragic.”
Mullen said most research shows that children who grow up in families where violence is the norm, have a high incidence of repeating what they saw when they grow up. By getting involved now in a more focused way, police might be able to head off a future generation of criminals, he said.
Focusing on and stemming criminal domestic violence could help prevent future robberies, rapes and murders, he said. “If you look at what’s underlying deterioration of society norms... it all comes down to the family.”
If the grant does not come through, the department will still push ahead to try to focus more on criminal domestic violence and ultimately set up a family violence squad to deal with the whole range of domestic violence, Mullen said. If the grant comes through and the effort is successful, the department plans to apply for an additional grant to expand the effort, Mullen said. “We’re committed to this.”
Currently criminal domestic violence cases are handled through the department’s seven-member Special Victims Unit, which includes two victim advocates and also investigates sexual assault, missing persons and child abuse and neglect.
Dr. Dean Kilpatrick, director of the National Crime Victims Center at MUSC, applauded the effort by Charleston Police.
“I think it’s something that has been overdue, generally,” said Kilpatrick. “Because I think we have recognized more and more as time passes that these cases are more difficult to investigate.”
Kilpatrick said having a dedicated officer is becoming a best practice because that individual, as a specialist, can understand the dynamics of domestic violence cases and properly train first-responding officers in the “do’s and don’ts” including how to obtain cooperation from victims.
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has one investigator assigned to all of its domestic violence cases, although the position is not funded by a grant and the deputy also investigates other types of crimes.
“Those cases are complex. It makes it a lot easier if you have one investigator assigned. It would benefit the agency and the victim,” said Maj. Eric Watson.