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DVERTing domestic violence: the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team.

The year 1984 marked a turning point for the way many police agencies responded to domestic violence incidents. The Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment indicated that arresting offenders reduced recidivism more than separating couples or providing mediation.(1) In response, many police departments developed mandatory arrest policies.

Yet, subsequent studies produced different results. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, for example, the police department's study of more than 1,600 cases revealed that of four law enforcement responses-restoring order, providing crisis intervention, issuing emergency protection orders, or arresting offenders - custodial arrest emerged as only slightly more effective in reducing recidivism rates. While the original experiment and subsequent replication studies may not have pinpointed the most effective singular approach to domestic violence cases, they did illustrate the difficulty that a single community agency faces when attempting to determine the appropriate intervention for a complex issue like domestic violence.

Indeed, the Colorado Springs Police Department discovered that no easy answers exist where domestic violence is concerned. But committed to developing innovative strategies to combat domestic violence, the department developed a program to pool the resources of community organizations, intervene in the most volatile cases, and reach out to victims in rural areas. This program, the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT), accomplishes all of these objectives and more.

An Evolutionary Process

DVERT did not materialize overnight. Rather, it grew slowly from firmly established and well-nurtured roots. First, the department established a protocol to guide police officers during domestic violence calls. In conjunction with the development of these police response standards, the district attorney s office created a companion set of guidelines for prosecutors. The local domestic violence counseling and shelter program also joined these collaborative efforts. The new procedures improved the community's response by requiring mandatory arrest of perpetrators when probable cause existed, implementing emergency protective orders to keep victims safe, using a special form to enhance information gathering by the district attorney, and advising victims of their legal rights and available services. In addition, the district attorney agreed to prosecute domestic violence offenders with or without the cooperation of the victims.

Next, the department appointed a domestic violence coordinator. This full-time, sworn position allows the department to improve current policies, procedures, and protocols and to respond better to the needs of victims. For example, after evaluating state domestic violence and stalking laws, the coordinator worked to establish a regional domestic violence offender tracking system. And, in keeping with the department's community policing philosophy, this position requires maintaining community-based efforts to refine and enhance the collective responses to domestic violence.

Finally, the Pikes Peak Domestic Violence Coalition Protocol Committee, whose members include law enforcement, social services, and clinical personnel, developed and distributed a questionnaire to evaluate the effectiveness of the community's domestic violence protocols, as well as to identify significant issues and obstacles to their implementation. Staff from Colorado University's Colorado Springs Center for Justice Studies analyzed the results. While they applauded the collaborative efforts of law enforcement, criminal justice, and other public and private agencies to arrest and prosecute domestic violence offenders, the findings also identified the need for changes in existing practices, along with "...increased communication, training, and further study and evaluation." Specifically, the survey results pointed to the need to

* Improve and expand criminal justice programs and procedures to prosecute, convict, and sentence domestic violence offenders

* Better develop, preserve, and present the legally relevant facts in domestic violence cases. Specifically, the evaluators noted that better communication among advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement, and social service agencies would foster the kind of information exchange needed to successfully prosecute domestic violence offenders

* Involve other community agencies, groups, and organizations in creating and improving programs that prevent and control domestic violence, assist victims, and punish offenders

* Collect and analyze a large array of objective evidence to measure accurately the effectiveness of current practices and to provide a baseline for gauging the success of any programs implemented in the future.

Armed with the results of the survey and faced with a staggering 15,000 to 20,000 domestic violence-related calls for service annually, the department created the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team. In addition to numerous local law enforcement and social services agencies, the team encompassed the district attorney's office and the University of Colorado's Center for Justice Studies.

A Two-Track Approach

The program follows a two-track approach. Taking a proactive stance, staff members carefully review all referrals to DVERT for cases of imminent danger. They check criminal and prosecution histories, restraining orders, victim advocate records, human services documentation, and any other records that would indicate that the situation warrants immediate intervention. If the team determines that a referral meets sufficient lethality criteria, it accepts the case.

Several things happen next. First, the team's staffing unit recommends immediate interventions by the various DVERT member agencies. Next, the names and addresses of victims and offenders are marked as DVERT "clients" in the department's computer-aided dispatch system. In this way, whenever officers respond to an address or check wanted and warrant records, they know they are dealing with potentially dangerous individuals.

Following the initial team response, ongoing intervention occurs as needed via counseling, advocacy, shelter, support, and legal services. At least once a week, a DVERT victim advocate contacts the victim to provide support, information, and resources. Victims who need immediate assistance receive cellular phones that give them direct access to 911. Others receive microcassette recorders to document telephone harassment and violations of restraining orders.

DVERT's second track is reactive. When patrol officers respond to a DVERT-identified address and determine that probable cause exists for a new domestic violence violation, they call the primary response team to the scene. This team includes a specially trained law enforcement officer or detective, a deputy district attorney, a department of human services caseworker, and a victim advocate from the Center for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. On the scene, the three-person primary team assists the patrol officer with the investigation of the possible offense and provides support services to the victim. When the victims include children, pets, or the elderly, or when the incident involves military personnel, experts in these areas respond as a secondary team.

DVERT specifically was designed to address the highest risk cases. Domestic violence cases that do not meet the level of potential lethality required for DVERT may sometimes require intermediate intervention and limited-duration monitoring. In these cases, a team of law enforcement officers, using problem-oriented policing (POP) principles, analyzes each case and develops a specific plan of action. Then, a law enforcement officer, a victim advocate, and, if necessary, a human services caseworker implement the plan, monitor the case, and provide assistance as needed. These POP cases, as they are called, generally require less attention than DVERT cases, although an escalation of violence might justify reassignment to DVERT. At the same time, a case could move from DVERT to POP if offenders make a consistent and concerted effort to change their behavior.

Reaching Out to Rural Victims

Typically, domestic violence victims in rural communities live far from public transportation, social service providers, health-care services, and criminal justice support. Studies reveal that in rural communities, residents are more likely to fill traditional social roles, which may make them more prone to domestic violence. In addition, they often are related to one another and usually know one another's business. As a result, they feel greater levels of shame. At the same time, they often distrust outsiders and dislike government interference. All of these factors can complicate the ability of domestic violence victims in rural areas to obtain help. Studies on rural domestic violence outreach programs also reveal that many battered women cannot or will not use these services, suggesting that the number of battered women in rural areas remains unknown, and worse, these women continued to be victimized.(2)

In addition, domestic violence victims and perpetrators generally tend to be highly mobile, often moving from one law enforcement jurisdiction to another. In doing so, they complicate law enforcement's ability to intervene. Expanding DVERT into rural areas of the state provides additional resources, training, and support for rural law enforcement officers investigating domestic Violence cases and enhances DVERT's network for tracking and holding DVERT offenders accountable. Moreover, because advocates come from within the community, victims are less likely to perceive them as outsiders.

Providing Legal Assistance

Whether they reside in urban, suburban, or rural areas, domestic violence victims have a critical need for legal advice and advocacy. Their lack of knowledge of their legal rights, especially regarding restraining orders, child-custody issues, and divorce proceedings, allows their abusers to control, intimidate, and manipulate them. Unfortunately, victims often lack the financial resources to obtain the legal advice they need. As part of the DVERT program, domestic violence victims receive free legal services.

Training DVERT Staff

A comprehensive, multidisciplinary training program represents an important component of DVERT. Law enforcement officers study the complex nature of domestic violence cases and victim response and review departmental arrest policies. They also learn how to identify primary aggressors, distinguish offensive wounds from defensive wounds, improve their evidence-gathering techniques, and conduct more thorough follow-up investigations.

Other training focuses on providing prosecutors, victim advocates, human services caseworkers, and humane society employees with information on domestic violence identification, intervention techniques, advocacy and safety issues, stalking laws, case documentation and enhancement, and vertical prosecution.(3)

Using Tools and Technology

DVERT uses a variety of tools to enhance its investigation and prosecution of cases. Polaroid and video cameras document the injuries victims sustain, as well as violations of restraining orders. Microcassette recorders hooked up to victims' telephones record harassment. Cellular phones, pagers, and police radios give victims round-the-clock access to the police, human services personnel, and victim advocates. With computers in their patrol cars, DVERT officers can quickly retrieve an offender's criminal history and react accordingly. Bullet-proof vests protect victim advocates who respond to DVERT calls, a testament to the inherent danger of domestic violence cases.

Rotating Officers

In order to expose as many patrol officers as possible to the DVERT program, each uniformed officer spends 100 days with the team. In doing so, they not only provide valuable assistance to the permanent DVERT staff, but they also establish relationships with community organizations that will help them solve other problems they encounter on the street. In fact, they can carry the principles of community- and problem-oriented policing with them to respond to the needs of all community residents.

Overcoming Challenges

As with any new program, DVERT has had its share of obstacles and challenges. From the start, a myriad of questions arose: What goals should the program have? How should they be achieved? How would the limited staff handle the sheer volume of cases with even more limited resources?

First, the group had to determine the criteria that would mark a case high risk requiring DVERT attention. While a number of individuals and organizations have developed variations of lethality scales, which attempt to quantify the degree of a case's lethality, no standardized tool exists. Thus, to help predict the potential for a case to turn deadly, the team combined the most commonly accepted indicators - such as a history of domestic violence, multiple law enforcement interventions, stalking behavior, threats to kill, access to weapons, marital problems (e.g., divorce or separation), and personal setbacks (e.g., job loss) - with the expertise of specially trained professionals from DVERT's staffing unit.

Confidentiality represented another thorny issue. Whenever possible, the group modified the confidentiality agreements of participating agencies to allow the release of information to DVERT. However, state statute prevents some agencies from releasing certain types of information. For example, the police department can share National Crime Information Center data only with other law enforcement agencies. Still, because information sharing represents the heart of DVERT's ability to act effectively, the team continues to seek ways to overcome confidentiality concerns.

The sheer number and complexity of DVERT's cases presented an enormous challenge. Collaboration proved to be the key to solving this dilemma and many others; yet, it, too, presented a challenge. The common goal for all involved became putting aside territorial issues and concentrating on doing the right thing for the families affected by violence.

Measuring Results

As with any new program, measuring its effectiveness requires hard data. Although these results are not yet in, DVERT seems to have reduced recidivism for domestic violence offenders. In fact, of the 196 cases opened thus far, fewer than 20 repeat arrests have resulted. One offender who had been arrested 24 times in the past has not reoffended.

The participating agencies measure success in more qualitative ways. For example, by developing a clearer understanding of the underlying dynamics of domestic violence, prosecutors build better cases. When defendants realize the quality of the case against them, many plead guilty to reduced charges. Still, domestic violence offenders face greater legal consequences, higher bonds, enhanced sentences, supervised probation, and more monitoring. As the county court administrator put it, "We are closing the cracks these perpetrators used to slip through before."

For victim advocates, the chance to respond at a victim's home gives them a new perspective on what domestic violence victims face on a daily basis. This increased sensitivity makes helping victims take steps toward healthier lives that much more rewarding.

Moreover, as the partners share information and work together, a synergy occurs that carries over into other, non-DVERT cases. Indeed, the partners form bonds that dissolve jurisdictional boundaries and battle lines. Before one DVERT meeting, a victim advocate declared: "I'm starting to talk like a cop." "I'm starting to talk like an advocate," replied an officer.


Once viewed as a private matter between a husband and wife, domestic violence calls now demand serious attention from law enforcement. Yet, the dynamics of domestic violence make these cases some of the most complex cases officers will ever have to face. Research has shown that arresting offenders represents merely one part of the puzzle. Only a combination of interventions can effectively help both offenders and victims piece their lives back together. Equally important, agency personnel who respond to domestic violence cases need the tools and training to fulfill their missions.

As it does for many other crime concerns, collaboration among community agencies may prove the best way to address these issues. Through the combined efforts of the district attorney's office, social services personnel, victim advocates, the University of Colorado, and a host of law enforcement agencies, the Colorado Springs Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team brings about a coordinated, seamless approach to the systemic problem of domestic violence.


1 Lawrence Sherman, "Domestic Violence," study guide, (U.S. Department of Justice: National Institute of Justice, n.d.).

2 N. Websdale, "Rural Women Abuse," in Violence Against Women 1, 4, 1995.

3 The term "vertical prosecution" applies to the practice of having prosecutors handle one case from start to finish in order to better serve the interests of victims, offenders, and the community.

Chief Lorne C. Kramer commands the Colorado Springs, Colorado, Police Department.

Detective Howard Black serves as the Colorado Springs Police Department's domestic violence coordinator.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Author:Black, Howard
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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