The scourge of abuse affecting children, women and elderly people tragically tends to spread more quickly than police can identify and punish abusers. And in Berkeley County, the situation has been getting worse.
That’s why the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office’s plan to hire two detectives to specialize in those areas — one will focus on domestic violence cases and one will focus on child and elder abuse — is so significant.
The positions, and the necessary training and equipment, will be paid for with two $98,112 grants administered by the S.C. Department of Public Safety.
In 2016, Berkeley and Richland counties tied for the most domestic violence homicides in the state, each with four killings. And South Carolina is the fifth-deadliest state for women killed by men, as of 2015.
Experts say that handling cases of domestic, child and elder abuse requires different skills and knowledge than handling other crimes. Law enforcement officers sometimes aren’t trained to take complaints seriously if they don’t find bruises and blood, and victims might back off if the process takes too long to address. Often, they fear that abusers will retaliate against them or their families.
Keeping victims safe from further abuse can involve giving them mobile phones, personal attack alarms and security locks. Victims’ houses are sometimes marked so officers can get there as quickly as possible when called.
Officers also need to be knowledgeable about professional support available: counseling, housing, child protection, support through judicial proceedings and even transportation. They can’t just write a report and move on to the next case.
Hiring and training two new detectives can’t happen too soon for Berkeley County. Sheriff Duane Lewis said that his deputies respond to reports of domestic violence more than any other type of call. Investigations of abuse and neglect increased by 42 percent from 2012 to 2016. There were 351 cases in 2016, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT report.
And abuse victims — the old and frail, the fearful and vulnerable, mere children — cannot be expected to protect themselves.
Berkeley County’s grant support will be good for three years. After that, the sheriff says, he will have to find local funding to keep the detectives on the job. Even before that, officials should carefully track how the program is working, and fine tune it or augment it if it needs strengthening.
It might become apparent that two detectives aren’t enough to handle such a devastating caseload. If they had been in place in 2016, they would have had a near-impossible job dealing with 351 cases. And the county’s booming population only makes the situation more complicated.
South Carolina’s fifth-place ranking as a deadly place for women is shameful. And every year that it fails to significantly improve only adds to that shame.
Berkeley County has a serious problem to overcome. Providing deputies trained and dedicated in targeting domestic, child and elder abuse is only one step in the right direction. But it is a sound one.