FROM CROCS TO COMBATING FAMILY VIOLENCE
Today is National Croc Day! Also, National Mole Day. According to one website that lists these “holidays,” it’s also National iPod Day, T.V. Talk Show Host Day, and Slap Your Annoying Coworker Day. If you click to learn more, the website gives you suggestions for activities: (1) Watch a Three Stooges marathon, (2) Perfect your slapping technique, and (3) Train others to give a good slap. I can’t believe I feel obligated to type this, but: don’t do any of it! If you’re at work, the first one is surely time theft, the second is assault, and the third is, maybe, solicitation.
I bring this up partly to vent about how ridiculous most “National [insert anything here] Days” are, but also to contrast with this seriousness of this month; an awareness month that, admittedly, I’ve not been all that aware of, considering it’s almost Halloween. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and is apropos of one topic Council will discuss tonight.
First, I want to highlight and bring awareness to the fact that our Billings safety situation is improving. This summer, Police Chief Rich St. John briefed City Council on the most recent data, showing Billings has seen two years of significant decline in violent and property crime. All thanks to our CPTED program……ok, probably not the direct result of CPTED, but we continue to assert that thoughtful improvements to the built environment will prevent crime. It’s much more likely that Billings’s safety improved because voters chose to invest in safety mill levies in 2020 and 2021, adding resources to the Billings Police Department (BPD). The chart below shows the data from Billings’s Police Chief, Rich St. John’s, semi-annual report to City Council on August 21st. Most notably, Billings saw a double-digit decrease in both violent and property crime over the same time period in 2021. On top of that, BPD’s 2022 Annual Report indicates drug offenses have continued a downward trend since 2018, with 2022 numbers a mere half of the offenses tallied in 2018. Thanks are due to our dedicated Police Department and the investments Billings voters chose to make in 2020 and 2021!
Granted, it’s premature to put up the bunting, but it’s essential that we celebrate success when we experience it. Highlight the good. Acknowledge there’s always more to be done. And then get back to work. Which brings us to tonight’s meeting.
Toward the end of tonight’s meeting, Councilwoman Owen will propose a Council Initiative intended to allocate more resources within the Billings Police Department (BPD) to domestic/family violence. As a quick note, the terms “domestic” and “family” violence are often used interchangeably but there is a definitional difference between the two, based on the nature of the relationship between offender and victim/survivor. Domestic violence refers to violence against an intimate partner—spouse or cohabitating partner—while family violence is broader and committed against another family member.
One of Billings’s Domestic Violence Investigators, Officer Katie Nash, provided a very informative update on domestic violence in Billings to City Council during the July 17th work session meeting. Considering it’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it’s worth 30 minutes of your time.
The initiative, if successfully passed by a majority of councilmembers, tasks staff with developing “recommendations to Council on the creation of a permanent dedicated Family Violence Investigative Unit in the Billings Police Department,” with a few minimum criteria summarized below.
- Comprised of diverse positions throughout the Department
- Minimum scope includes domestic violence, crimes against children, and sexual assault, with consideration for human trafficking, elder abuse, and offenses against the family
- Has real-time response capability to investigate crime scenes
- Includes robust family violence training
- Able to analyze data, in order to detect crime patterns
- Does not increase staffing/personnel unless there is a missing skill set
WHY CREATE A SPECIALIZED INVESTIGATION UNIT?
The Council Initiative simply asks staff to investigate and come up with recommendations for a specialized investigations unit. It’s unclear at this time exactly what proposed changes might look like, but a quick examination of a couple key factors sheds some light on why a change could be beneficial. Assigning specializations within the Investigations Division was one of the recommendations in the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) report published two years ago, offering recommendations for the Billings Police and Fire Departments. To the credit of our Police and Fire Departments, MANY of the CPSM recommendations were implemented.
According to the BPD 2022 Annual Report, Partner or Family Member Assault (domestic violence) comprises a majority (51%) of non-aggravated assault offenses. In total, those 793 instances of domestic violence surpass the total number of all categories of aggravated assault offenses, at 772. Additionally, the 772 cases of aggravated assault include some domestic violence cases. The point is, a lot of violent crime in Billings is domestic violence. However, the BPD only has two officers tasked specifically for Domestic Violence Investigations, while 13 detectives are listed under two Investigations Sergeants. It’s worth noting that the current organizational chart is partly the result of recommendations made in the aforementioned CPSM report. Prior to implementing the CPSM recommendations, there was only one Domestic Violence Investigator and that position fell under the Professional Standards Division rather than Investigations. Now the domestic violence investigator role has two officers and more appropriate oversight, resources, and goals within the Investigations Division.
The CPSM report also recommended, “assigning detectives to specialized units such as crimes against persons, property crimes, or family crimes.” (Key Recommendation #20, pg. 6) The report notes that Billings detectives perform as generalists, assigned a diverse array of crimes to investigate. Though, in speaking with one of our officers, there is an existing informal specialization among BPD detectives.
While there is no harm in asking the question of what a Family Violence Investigation Unit could look like, there is concern regarding implementation considering already full workloads with detectives. Would a reallocation/re-tasking of detectives and other personnel result in less effective investigations for other crimes—theft, burglary, homicide? In theory, perhaps. But it’s worth looking into if it can meaningfully move the need on violent crime in Billings.
One final consideration is the synergy that could be realized between a Family Violence Investigation Unit and a family justice center, which has been discussed in Billings recently. In the video above—you watched it, right?!—Officer Nash explains how difficult domestic violence work can be due to a survivor’s reliance on abusive partners for finances or shelter. A family justice center could provide resources to survivors while the Family Violence Unit investigates, potentially allowing more cases to be prosecuted and abusers held accountable. We encourage Council to pass this initiative from Councilwoman Owen, to investigate what a specialized Family Violence Investigations Unit could look like, continuing to address the public safety needs of our community.
GET CAUGHT UP ON THE CANDIDATE FORUM!!
Did you miss the City Council Candidate Forum last week? Fear not! You can get all caught up by watching the recording, courtesy of Community 7.