Every month for the past several months, more than 500 legal protection orders have been sought in Spokane County, up from an average of about 300.
The sharp uptick has both increased the workload for those who process the orders and sparked a new initiative designed to speed up and improve police response to the high rate of domestic violence in Spokane County.
About a year ago, the Spokane County Clerk’s Office launched a program to more quickly send details of court-approved protection orders to the Spokane Police Department Records Division, which sends the information to regional law enforcement agencies.
“It’s now in relative real time,” said Timothy Fitzgerald, Spokane County clerk. “Before, it would have been hours.”
Law enforcement officers need to know about legal orders for victim safety if they’re responding to new incidents the same day or serving documents to individuals, he said.
“The county sees that increase in cases,” Fitzgerald said. “Twelve months ago, we could see a trend and the fact that information wasn’t getting to police records as fast as it should. When a squad car goes out on a scene, they’re counting on police records on what a legal protection order states.
“The order states things like who is supposed to be in the home and who’s not supposed to be there. Is there a history of violence? Are there firearms in the house? There are a lot of factors.”
He said the clerk’s office in late 2018 implemented an overall new computer case management system to enter court action into the state legal system. The update replaced a 40-year-old case management system, Fitzgerald said.
“We saw an opportunity to automate the way we send orders over to police records,” he said.
“Instead of hand-carrying paper protection orders to police records once a day at the end of the day, what we did is we built this team and system, so we electronically send information as soon as we get it. That way when a victim is walking out of the courthouse, they’re already going to have protection.”
Spokane County Commissioners provided temporary funding for the protection order program, and it covers the cost of two employees who enter the information for law enforcement records. Fitzgerald said he will seek permanent funding for the program.
When a protection order is served to someone, information also is included on whether the person has made threats against law enforcement or might have a weapon, said Sgt. Jordan Ferguson of the Spokane Police Department. He works in the domestic violence unit.
Ferguson said the process to get information to police faster has already helped victims.
“Yesterday (Wednesday), for a prime example, there was a call from a female victim that she was hiding in the basement,” he said. “She had obtained the order yesterday morning, and she was calling in at about one o’clock saying he was back at the house.
“The officers were able to respond and get him served because police records had received the order.”
A shorter time frame is key, Ferguson added.
“There’s that little window where the victim may finally get that order and now law enforcement needs to get him served so he can obey the provisions in the order,” Ferguson said.
“With the old system, that might have sat on a desk in a court until the end of the day, so she’d be hiding in her basement and call for help, and law enforcement’s response would be, ‘We don’t have an order.’ ”
Terri Bearden and Sheri Hickman are the two domestic violence protection order processors in the clerk’s office. They also help victims to understand the court process and what forms are needed.
“Both Sheri and I have been victims of violence, so we feel we’re advocates,” Bearden said. “Technically, here we’re playing with the papers, but it’s so much more than that.”
Bearden and Hickman pick up order documents as they’re approved during twice weekly domestic violence court sessions. They enter the details and also provide certified copies of protection orders to those awarded the decision.
“Most often, we sit out in the hallway with them at a table and go over what they need to do, and if they have to return for a hearing,” Bearden said.
“Very sadly, the number of orders has been on the increase. We’ve processed over 500 orders each month in the last few months, sending reports to police, so it’s not a small number. Back in March, we were looking at 300 a month or so.”
“And it’s continuing to go up,” Hickman added.
Sometimes, protection orders get denied, too, Bearden said, because the court determines the individuals just aren’t getting along but that the conflict hasn’t risen to violence.
Many domestic violence cases seem to be intertwined either with homelessness, drugs or alcoholism, or involve continued violence among adults who saw abuse in childhood, she said. “But why it’s increasing here in Spokane, I don’t know.”
The various protection orders are detailed and complex, Fitzgerald said, and they fall into different categories that each offer temporary or permanent protection orders.
Criminal cases involve no-contact orders. Civil cases cover a broad spectrum for protection requests, including for domestic violence, anti-harassment, stalking, vulnerable adult, extreme risk and sexual assault. The courts also handle restraining orders for family law domestic cases.
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