Cedar Rapids officers asking questions to save lives in domestic abuse

Police, victim advocates see abuse in all areas of city

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Back in November 2015, Raelynn Finn was five months pregnant when her boyfriend — the father of two of her children — punched her in the face, records show.

The assault by Markell Bivins, 25, left visible injuries and he was ordered to not have contact with her anymore. But domestic abuse charges against him were dropped, the court documents show.

Nonetheless, a month after they were dropped, he was at Finn’s northwest Cedar Rapids apartment with a knife.

In that September 2016 incident, two police officers responded there to a domestic abuse call. It quickly turned violent.

Officer Jeremiah White tried to restrain Bivins, who was holding a knife, inside the apartment off Edgewood Road NW. But Bivins still was able to tackle Finn onto a couch and began stabbing her. White ordered him to stop. Bivens kept going. White fired his service weapon, according to investigative records and struck Bivins in the heart, killing him.

Finn later told The Gazette she thought the officers made the right call to shoot Bivins.

“He basically said I was breaking up his family. If he couldn’t have me, no one could,” Finn said that September. “He told me his plan that night was neither of us were going to make it out of the apartment alive.”

Police know that domestic abuse can turn lethal. They and social service agencies are hoping a new assessment tool increasing being used here will help those who have been attacked get the help they need — well before the relationship turns deadly.

Source: Cedar Rapids Police Department

DOMESTIC ABUSE REPORTS WIDESPREAD

The Cedar Rapids Police Department received or responded to 6,536 calls categorized as domestic disturbance or violence between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016.

The data on a year and a half’s worth of calls for service shows domestic disturbances are reported at any hour of the day, any day of the year and in any quadrant of Cedar Rapids.

Sgt. Cristy Hamblin, who teaches domestic abuse response training for officers at the Cedar Rapids regional academy, said it is no surprise to officers and service providers that no geographical or time patterns exist for domestic abuse calls.

“The public tends to think crime occurs to the poor, the uneducated,” Hamblin said. “In reality, domestic abuse doesn’t have any barriers, whether it’s gender, race or economic barriers.”

Though calls classified as domestic disturbance or violence that Cedar Rapids police received or responded to were much higher, officers took down 489 reports of domestic abuse in 2015, according to Hamblin’s data. Of those, police made 326 arrests, meaning there was a 66 percent arrest rate in 2015 after reports were taken.

The classification of calls as domestic disturbance or violence is a “catchall,” Hamblin said, and could include calls about a relative or roommate who had an altercation. But in order for an incident to be labeled domestic abuse, there has to have been some form of an intimate relationship.

A NEW WAY TO RESPOND TO DOMESTIC ABUSE

“By asking her why doesn’t she just leave, we’re still putting the burden on the victim,” Hamblin said. “We need to change that thought process to ‘Why doesn’t he just quit hitting her?’”

Since August, Cedar Valley Friends of the Family, which helps the homeless and victims of domestic or sexual abuse, has been training law enforcement and service providers in Linn County on the “Lethality Assessment Program.”

The program, created by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, is a series of 11 questions police might ask when responding to a domestic abuse call.

“The idea is to get the victim to be willing to call in to us as early as possible,” said Jonathan Chambers, a manager at Cedar Valley. “In 90 percent of cases when a victim actually calls in, they are more likely to get services and get out of the abusive relationship. If we can get law enforcement and domestic violence agencies as a coordinated unit, it’s more likely that we can help the same victims. We have only 10 percent of victims that come forward. That’s not good at all.”

Cedar Rapids officers have been asking the lethality questions during some domestic abuse calls since February.

The questions seek details such as whether a partner is controlling or jealous, or if he or she has choked the other.

“In 78 percent of cases where they’re choked, they’re likely to be killed,” Chambers said. “It is very personal, meaning they are not afraid to inflict harm without a weapon.”

If the victim’s answers to the questions are enough to alarm an officer, the officer will call a service provider while still on the scene.

If the victim does not want to speak to the social services agency, the agency or officer still will work with the victim on a safety plan, which could include having a bag packed and ready at a neighbor’s house.

Since Feb. 7, Hamblin said, the Cedar Rapids department has taken 22 reports of domestic violence. During four of the responses, officers asked the lethality assessment questions, and three people were referred to one of the service providers.

Chambers said it can be difficult to persuade the target of domestic violence she doesn’t somehow deserve the abuse.

“When you have this attachment to this person, you believe without a doubt that they love you, so you’re going to stay, whether it’s healthy or not,” Chambers said.

“ ... We always give our number out and say, ‘You might not want to do this with us today. You might not want to do this tomorrow, but maybe next week, you decide you just can’t handle it anymore. Call our hotline. We’ll get you out of the situation.’”

Hamblin agreed.

“If we can save one life,” she said, “it’s worth it.”

11 QUESTIONS OFFICERS ARE ASKING

1. Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?

2. Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?

3. Do you think he/she might try to kill you?

4. Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?

5. Has he/she ever tried to choke you?

6. Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?

7. Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?

8. Is he/she unemployed?

9. Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?

10. Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?

11. Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave threatening messages?

CALL FOR HELP

Cedar Valley Friends of the Family: (319) 352-0037

Waypoint: (319) 365-1458

Amani Community Services: (319) 804-0741

Deaf Iowans Against Abuse: (319) 531-7719

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com.

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Domestic violence calls, January 2015 - June 2016

Source: Cedar Rapids Police Department. These dots represent 6,544 calls for service to CRPD categorized as domestic violence. Not all calls were founded or led to arrests.

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