Minneapolis police are embarking on a new kind of law enforcement where they will pinpoint domestic abuse hot spots around the city and then use the data to deploy officers to prevent future abuse and potentially other crimes.
The pilot program starting this spring will put the city at the forefront of a significant rethinking in how police respond to domestic abuse complaints, which can be an early warning sign for other dangerous crimes.
"If there's domestic violence in the home, and family violence in the home, it's not going to be just contained in the four walls of that house," said Cmdr. Bruce Folkens, who heads the Police Department's Special Crimes Investigation Division.
Police will soon conduct in-home visits where domestic abuse claims have spiked in hopes of preventing other criminal behavior and boosting prosecution of domestic assault cases. A $124,000 federal grant will help improve law enforcement training and educate victims about the services.
Working in pairs with anti-domestic-abuse advocates, police will conduct follow-up checks at the homes of victims of domestic violence, even in cases where there is no police report or criminal charge.
Folkens said there is a dangerous gap when someone calls 911 and no police report is made, either because the victim won't answer the door or no one is home. "Let's go back and see if we can re-engage those callers … and really help intervene and provide services to that family," he said.
The hope is that the initiative also will head off more serious crimes, such as aggravated assault and robbery, he says. "If people are accustomed to that level of violence inside the house, they're going to be accustomed to that level of violence outside the house," Folkens said.
Police are already identifying hot spots around the city.
Officers have responded to about 1,300 emergency calls in the area of 36th and Fremont avenues N., near Folwell Park, over the past seven years — more than 700 of which were domestic-related, Folkens said. Domestic and family violence complaints also accounted for more than half of the 1,035 calls for service that originated from a hot spot at 26th and Penn avenues N., he said.
Between 2007 and 2013, records show that Minneapolis police responded to an average of 17,732 domestic-related 911 calls, or about 48 calls each day. Those numbers have remained stubbornly steady.
Folkens pointed to research showing that children who witness family violence are often as traumatized as those who are abused and that they are significantly more likely to become violent themselves.
The new approach will be a big change for a police force that historically has had too few officers trained to handle domestic cases. The system has at times allowed victims to go unnoticed. Sometimes, no police report was filed at the insistence of the victims, who are embarrassed or intimidated. In other cases, the suspect was gone by the time officers responded.
Authorities, however, have become more aggressive in recent years about prosecuting those who flee.
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said that nearly 70 percent of the 797 domestic violence cases that reached her office last year ended in convictions, continuing a five-year trend of high conviction rates. Of the 943 domestic cases that were referred to the Hennepin County attorney's office, 623 were charged, a spokesman said.
Segal says her office has partnered with the police and community organizations, including the Domestic Abuse Project, Casa de Esperanza and Asian Women United of Minnesota "in order to improve our ability to prosecute cases."
Officers who respond to domestic 911 calls are now being trained to collect evidence to help authorities build cases against offenders, asking the victim such questions as whether she has ever been threatened with a weapon, choked or received death threats — all signs of serial domestic abuse.
The initiative comes during a time of increased debate and attention on the issue nationally.
During her visit to Minneapolis last October, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who has emerged as leader in the fight to end gun violence, called crimes involving firearms a "women's issue." Her visit came less than a year after a bipartisan group of legislators passed a measure making it illegal for convicted stalkers and domestic abusers to own guns.
At least 23 people, most of them women, died in Minnesota last year as a result of domestic violence, according to the annual Femicide Report from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Six victims were killed in Minneapolis or St. Paul, the report said.
"We all know that domestic violence doesn't discriminate against anybody," said Rosario de la Torre, family advocacy program manager at Casa de Esperanza, which provides services for Latino abuse victims.
Police say they are committed to the idea that going after domestic abusers will reduce crime in the area. "We're going to try and see if we can have a positive effect, not only on the domestic violence but … on violent crime areas, too," Folkens said. "We want you to be safe in your home and we want you to be safe on your corner, and we believe there's a connection to the two."