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Domestic Violence System Suffers Black Eye Critics Cite Low Conviction Rate, Dubious Spending Of New Unit

First of two parts

Eight months ago, police, prosecutors and social workers in Spokane County armed themselves for an all-out blitz against domestic violence.

Fueled by a $1.6 million federal grant, the city and county created a special prosecution team and court targeting people who abuse family members or intimate partners.

The result so far has been a record number of cases taken to court - but the same rate of batterers getting convicted.

Two years before the team was formed, 16 percent of domestic violence cases ended in convictions. With the team, the success rate hasn’t changed, records show.

While proponents say they’re aggressively tackling one of the county’s biggest problems, the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Team has received a black eye from its critics, including the former head of the program and current team members.

Prosecutors assigned to the unit complain they are forced to dismiss more than 65 percent of the charges they file against suspected batterers, often because police or deputies don’t write adequate incident reports.

Even in cases resulting in convictions, many victims walk away feeling ignored and unprotected.

Bethann Stevens of Spokane finally decided to prosecute her ex husband, wanting to get him into batterer treatment. But without her consent, the new team plea-bargained the case. The treatment option vanished.

Several team members, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, also accused administrators of wasting money on office decor and computers.

They say more of the grant should be spent on training, hiring detectives and retaining veteran prosecutors.

“That team is a prosecutor’s purgatory,” said Jonathan Love, a former county prosecutor hired to head the new program. “They get burned out quickly and never come back.”

Love helped form a successful domestic violence team in King County in 1993. Last January he set out to duplicate those efforts here. Seven months later, frustrated and angry, he quit.

If nothing changes, Love predicts, “people in Spokane will find themselves wondering why some really violent domestic crimes have happened after the criminal justice system failed to catch the problems early on.”

Supporters, led by Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser and Police Chief Terry Mangan, say the team was derailed by start-up problems but has since gained momentum.

Mangan blames Love for the slow start, saying the prosecutor spent too much time in court and too little on managing the unit.

Modeled after similar efforts in cities like Seattle and San Diego, Spokane’s team unites three police detectives, nine city and county prosecutors and five victim advocates. They work in a second-floor office suite at the Monroe Court Building near the county courthouse.

The 18-month Justice Department grant was announced in December 1996. Its main purpose was combining city and county prosecutors into one team. That took place in May.

The team’s goal is to take more domestic violence cases to court so repeat offenders face more time in jail, or forcing first-time offenders into yearlong treatment programs.

The grant encourages intensive use of victim advocates to help battered men or women break free from abusive relationships.

Until last year, authorities handled the vast majority of domestic violence cases like garden-variety misdemeanors - despite the fact that most of the people who get battered and bruised were afraid to cooperate.

The result: Seven out of 10 charges wound up being dismissed or reduced to a zero-jail-time offense.

Prosecutors, police and advocates used to work in separate offices, making it difficult to target chronic abusers before someone is seriously injured or killed.

“We would see lots of cases of someone who went through prosecution, got a slap on the wrist, then showed up three years later with some serious criminal behavior,” said Jennifer Pearson Stapleton, director of the Spokane Domestic Violence Consortium.

Stapleton said she hasn’t seen enough information to judge the first year of the domestic violence team. “But I’m sure we’re better off, just because there’s more communication between the groups involved.”

‘Always covered for him’

Kolene Beetham, a 36-year-old Spokane mother, says she discovered how helpful the new unit was after she was attacked by her ex-husband, an Airway Heights corrections officer.

The attack occurred last December in the couple’s home.

After a shouting match, Damon Beetham struck her in the face, dragged her by the hair across the room, then threatened her with a poker. The couple’s two teenage boys witnessed the attack and called sheriff’s deputies.

Kolene Beetham said this wasn’t the first time her husband was confronted by deputies after attacking her. After those incidents, however, she refused to cooperate in prosecuting her husband.

“I always covered for him. It was always the same mindset: It’s going to get better.”

This time, she agreed to testify. She credits an assistant city prosecutor, Rob Porter, with providing support, assuring her she was doing the right thing. He called every night the week before the trial, making sure she was prepared for the ordeal of testifying.

Damon Beetham was convicted of fourth-degree assault, spent 18 days in jail, was ordered into a yearlong treatment program and placed on probation for two years.

That kind of success story is expected to happen more often during 1998, predicts Sweetser, who sits on the seven-member policy board that manages the domestic violence team.

Most cases dismissed

Despite such promises, prosecutors are dismissing almost as many cases as they did two years ago.

Most cases are dismissed either because a victim refuses to testify or because police reports are insufficient to establish guilt at a trial, say Love and other prosecutors.

Last year, the team took a record 3,635 domestic violence cases to Spokane County District Court. But prosecutors dismissed about 69 percent of those cases, records show.

The team fared better in Superior Court, where felony domestic violence cases are heard. There, prosecutors filed about 450 domestic violence charges and dismissed 14 percent.

A side effect of too many dismissals is the team’s tendency to take any case with a willing witness to trial, said Tracy Collins, a former Spokane County prosecutor who handled domestic violence cases from 1992 to 1994.

“Because they get so many victims who don’t want to testify or so many bad police reports, DV prosecutors are ecstatic if they find a case with a witness who will testify for them,” said Collins, now a Spokane defense attorney.

Collins agrees with critics who say police reports turned over to the prosecution team lack enough detail or information to be much help.

“They were not well done when I was a prosecutor three years ago. The reports I’ve seen this year (as a defense attorney) haven’t improved,” he said.

‘Reports were lazy’

Love, now a Justice Department lawyer in Texas, said one of his first efforts as team leader last year was trying to change how deputies and police officers investigated domestic violence incidents and wrote reports.

He said the reports were usually written too quickly, and lacked statements from the victim and other crucial evidence.

“The reports were lazy,” Love said. “I have to assume it was because they didn’t care to change how they did things.”

He developed a manual and checklist for officers to use when responding to a domestic violence crime. Those suggested changes haven’t been adopted.

Spokane police officers, such as patrolman Craig Meidl, say they’re trying to collect more information.

“I used to do the bare minimum,” Meidl said. “Now, partly to protect against liability, I’m doing more than that.”

He added: “A lot of officers still do very little, but to some extent, that’s because they know from past experience so many DV cases get dropped anyway.”

Police Chief Mangan says Love is right about the importance of thorough police reports.

“In fact, we recognize that all our police report writing needs to be better,” Mangan said. “We’re now developing a system of working across the board to improve that report writing.”

Goldman said he’s been concerned about better reports for domestic violence cases since Love brought the issue forward.

“We’re getting better,” Goldman said. He noted the county just organized a second training session for patrol deputies on improving domestic violence report writing.

As for the grant money, Love and several current team members say too much was spent on computers and office furnishings, and not enough on training and hiring detectives.

They say the $212,000 spent on computers, three laptops and network software could have been cut in half.

The three laptops - for the unit’s detectives - cost $9,000 in all.

“That is a lot of money just so they can have computers outside the office,” one disgruntled team member said.

Mangan said the computers will help the unit keep track of repeat offenders moving from one county to another.

“Terms of the grant demand a balance between staff needs and other areas, such as having adequate technology,” Mangan said.

Team members also criticize the hiring of an office coordinator who doesn’t prosecute cases but is paid $43,000 a year.

When the team’s policy board hired Diane Blumel, a former Pend Oreille County deputy prosecutor, she had no job description and was the only person interviewed for the job, Sweetser said.

The hiring miffed prosecutors, since her position was not part of the original grant proposal and was listed as a part-time position. She earns more than eight of the nine prosecutors in the unit, records show.

Blumel defends herself by saying she often works “more than 50 hours a week.”

Her job includes completing various federal reports required to keep receiving grant money, plus coordinating activities of team members, she said.

Sweetser said he opposed hiring Blumel last summer because her job duties were vague. He said he was overridden by others on the policy board.

Need more detectives

Another pressing need, according to Love, is for more detectives.

Seattle and King County have two independent domestic violence units with a combined 12 detectives, five of them women.

Sweetser called the team’s staffing level a starting point. “Given other priorities for the city and county, we have to start there and add more people later,” he said.

Love and team members also say the unit will continue sputtering as long as it attracts only young, inexperienced prosecutors.

Veteran Deputy Prosecutor Stephanie Walter, who had spent three years handling domestic violence cases, left the unit recently. She was replaced by a deputy with three months’ experience.

“Jim Sweetser had more than 20 very talented, experienced felony prosecutors who he could have picked from,” complained one team member.

Sweetser acknowledged that he views the domestic violence unit as a proving ground for young prosecutors. But he said each person assigned there is skilled and capable.

While there isn’t a surge of convictions yet, Sweetser said the benefits of a coordinated approach to the problem are often subtle.

“When we help a victim break a pattern of abuse and find resources to change her life, that’s a big and significant step - for her and for her children.

“That’s an impact that isn’t always right there on the surface, unless you know it’s happening.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Color Photos; Graphic: High-volume domestic violence

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story by Tom Sowa Photography by Sandra Bancroft-Billings