(Editor’s Note: This is the first of four stories the Herald will publish on a weekly basis throughout the month of October in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.)
EVANSTON — Frequently, domestic violence occurs in the shadows. Victims may tell very few people, if anyone at all. Family, friends and neighbors may sense something is “off,” but may keep their concerns to themselves.
If and when a problem does spill into the open, law enforcement personnel are often the first to respond. Within that group of law enforcement personnel, dispatchers are regularly the very first to learn of and react to potentially volatile and explosive situations.
“Our first contact is picking up the phone and hearing not just what someone says but the tone of voice,” said Debbie Fotheringham, long-time dispatcher. Oftentimes that tone is one of fear.
“Fear sounds different for different people,” she said. “Sometimes fear whispers, sometimes fear screams, sometimes fear sounds completely normal and only becomes apparent when you start asking questions. Sometimes fear says nothing at all and you hear silence on the other end.”
Her voice cracking, Fotheringham said such calls are always difficult, some more so than others. “The ones that really tug at our heart strings the most are the children who call,” she said. “To hear the fear in those voices, fear of the very people who are supposed to love them the most … those calls are the hardest.”
She said calls with children can be especially difficult if the child doesn’t know a home address and she encourages all parents to make sure kids know their address in case of any emergency call.
From the perspective of law enforcement, there have been many changes in how domestic violence cases are handled in the past several decades. Uinta County Sheriff Doug Matthews and Evanston Police Chief Jon Kirby, both with lengthy careers dedicated to law enforcement, said the changes have been striking.
Kirby said he was impacted by several high-profile cases involving domestic violence early in his career, including the Cokeville hostage and bombing situation. Kirby said the Cokeville incident often isn’t thought of as involving domestic violence, but it was the perpetrators’ daughter who first went to authorities and the situation involved a husband killing his wife and himself.
“That case was my baptism into law enforcement,” Kirby said.
The Cokeville case and two other incidents in which men murdered their girlfriends, all of which occurred in the 1980s, left indelible impressions on him as a young police officer, said Kirby. At the time, domestic violence was just beginning to be discussed openly.
“About the mid-1980s was really the first time people started looking at domestic violence as more than just a family issue,” he said.
From a private family issue to a serious public health and legal concern, domestic violence is now taken very seriously by law enforcement.
“It’s very serious and we take it that way,” said Matthews.
Police officers now participate in mandatory training on domestic violence and victim support, both at the academy and on an ongoing basis as best practice recommendations are continually evolving. The laws related to domestic violence are continually changing as well.
There are some misconceptions people may still have related to how responding officers handle domestic violence situations.
“Sometimes the aggressor calls the police,” said Matthews, “thinking the first person calling won’t go to jail.” That’s an inaccurate assumption.
Matthews and Kirby both said officers are trained to look for the primary aggressor with any call. Both men said there is a difference between a victim engaging in some defensive behavior and an aggressor inflicting injury. The primary aggressor is the person facing arrest and charges, which reflects a change from an old policy that called for both people involved to be arrested.
Matthews said some people also believe a victim must press charges for there to be an arrest. That is also a misconception. If a crime has been committed, it will be the State of Wyoming pressing the charges rather than an individual.
“Sometimes when we get there, a victim doesn’t want us to arrest anyone or press charges,” said Matthews. “But I don’t think an arrest is always a bad thing. Sometimes it gets the ball rolling and gets people to make changes in their lives. I always ask people if they want to spend the rest of their lives living that way and they always say, ‘No.’”
Victims are also offered multiple resources and much more support by responding officers. The sheriff’s office, police department and county attorney’s office all have a victim advocate on staff and victims are put in contact with those advocates. Officers will also give victims a copy of the Victim Bill of Rights.
Legal changes include the creation of stalking laws and the ability to obtain protection orders. Kirby and Matthews said protection orders are easily enforceable and Matthews said violations result in automatic arrests, although Kirby cautioned that at times protection orders may give victims a false sense of security because some people do violate them.
Kirby said victim advocates are very helpful in not only helping victims obtain protection orders but also in developing safety plans in case of violations.
Matthews said domestic violence charges themselves are misdemeanors unless they involve the strangulation of a household member, which is an automatic felony charge. That change is a recent one within the past few years, said Matthews, and one he said was very needed. “Strangulation is a very traumatic experience,” he said.
Kirby said Evanston was one of the first cities in Wyoming to adopt a law prohibiting the destruction of a communication device while in the process of committing a crime. He said many times aggressors destroy telephones when victims try to make calls for help and the law allows officers to make an arrest in that instance as well. According to Kirby, Matthews, a former EPD officer, was instrumental in convincing the Evanston City Council to adopt that law.
Matthews said not all calls they receive are explosive situations; some are referred to as family problems that typically involve verbal arguments that have not reached the point of violence. Fotheringham said officers are sent to respond to those calls as well.
Police Sgt. Justin George said he greatly prefers to respond to those calls.
“We usually just try to get people to cool off and go take a drive or spend the night elsewhere or something,” he said. “We’d much rather get called during the verbal part than when things get physical.”
Matthews said alcohol and/or drug abuse are factors in the vast majority of domestic violence calls, so substance abuse counseling and treatment may also occur following an incident. Although it varies, local law enforcement officers respond to an average of 10-15 domestic violence or family problem calls each month.
Kirby emphasized that domestic violence can and does occur in families of all types.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re affluent or dirt poor or somewhere in between,” he said. “It affects everybody.”
Matthews, Kirby, George and Fotheringham all stressed the importance of reaching out for help and for people to make calls if they sense something is wrong.
“If you see something, say something,” said both Matthews and George.
Fotheringham said people should make an effort to know their neighbors and talk to their family members and make calls if there are concerns.
“If you don’t make the call,” she said, “who will?”