Boulder police want to solve domestic violence. Advocates worry that isn’t the answer.

Photo by Zane Lee on Unsplash

Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020

Among Maris Herold’s goals when she took over the Boulder Police Department in April was using data to reduce crime. Tuesday, she revealed her first target: Domestic violence.

It’s perhaps a natural choice for the social worker-turned-cop. She saw a lot of child abuse and violence in the home during her former career, and she was never satisfied with how small a dent she seemed to be making in the overall issue.

Domestic violence is a large and growing problem in Boulder and across the country. There are hundreds of reported cases each year, and 2020 is already on pace to be worst than last year locally.

Presenting domestic violence as a problem that can be solved, rather than an intractable social ill, is a positive step, victims advocates say. And more data would be helpful for a crime that is vastly underreported. But there exists a concern that depending on the police for solutions is not the right approach.

“The idea that calling the police or going to a shelter” will fix domestic violence “is like saying an emergency room is a solution to heart disease,” said Anne Tapp, executive director of Safehouse Alliance for Progressive Nonviolence. “We need a new vision.”

Tapp’s vision includes total community buy-in: education for friends and neighbors to spot warning signs; transformative justice which holds offenders accountable without “overly relying” on the criminal justice system; early intervention that stops abusers from becoming abusive in the first place. A big need is safe places for survivors to go. Boulder’s housing crunch makes that difficult and costly.

Just since March, we’ve spent $80,000 in rental support for survivors,” Tapp said.

Most victims don’t call the police, according to Tapp. They are reluctant to put their significant other in jail and through a very public criminal justice process.

Police also have a public image issue around domestic violence. Two studies in the 1990s found that domestic violence was more prevalent among law enforcement. That data is old and likely needs updating, but more recent looks at police departments across the nation found that when cops do abuse their partners, they are unlikely to be fired or disciplined.

Data shared with city council Tuesday demonstrates that victims aren’t calling the cops, Tapp said. It shows only a modest increase in incidents over 2019; that doesn’t match what SPAN is experiencing.

Domestic Violence Incidents Reported to Boulder PD
2017: 330
2018: 348
2019: 262
2020*: 164
*Through July 1

Tapp said she will continue to work with Chief Herold and the police department on the program, which is still in development. She was reluctant to offer opinions without further detail, but hopes that any plan will involve more support for community-driven models.

“I don’t know that taking resources from other sources just to add onto the police budget makes sense to me at this point,” she said.

Cost was not discussed in Tuesday’s brief overview of crime-reduction efforts. The intent is to have civilian members of the police department, trained victim’s advocates, lead the initiative. A lethality assessment tool will be developed to demonstrate potential danger, with the goal of encouraging victims to leave a situation.

Herold is a big proponent of co-response with experts in domestic violence. But, she said in an interview with Boulder Beat earlier this summer, there needs to be a police presence in situations that can easily become emotionally charged.

“Without the police, I couldn’t do my job” as a social worker.

She also spoke to larger police reforms Tuesday, including shifts in use-of-force and firearm policies, development of a disciplinary matrix and progress on civilian oversight. Many of the things required under Colorado Senate Bill 217, Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity, were implemented years ago in Boulder.

“I feel confident we’re ahead of the curve on many of the national cries for new policies and reform,” Herold said Tuesday. The department has responded to “what people are demanding across the country — with the exception of the defund the police movement.”

Boulder’s police budget was $38.6 million in 2020. The draft spending plan for the upcoming year is typically released in late August. City council will hold a study session on the budget Sept. 8.

Read a thread of Tuesday night’s discussion.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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