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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

October 2021 | Volume 14 | Issue 10

The Domestic Abuse Reduction Team (DART) started in 1996 as a collaboration between the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Police Department and New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Centers. An increase in domestic violence (DV) incidences in La Crosse spurred service providers and the police department to look at new interventions to interrupt the escalation of violence in domestic settings. “Ultimately,” says Lieutenant Tim O’Neill, “domestic abuse reduction and prevention is homicide prevention. These calls will get more lethal without intervention.”

Lt. O’Neill has been a member of DART for more than 10 years. In the early days of the program, the police department got funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund a full-time member of the police department to focus on DV. The police department conducted researchers to determine which data-based “triggers” would escalate a case to DART. They were able to schedule enough trained officers so that there was always an officer on shift to respond to calls. However, according to O’Neill, “The big change was to bring in an advocate to work full time with the police department.”

The La Crosse Police Department had an advocate for victims of DV and intimate partner violence (IPV) embedded in the department. Advocates would accompany officers to DV calls and—if and once the scene was determined to be safe—start building relationships with victims and address issues on-scene. This was a crucial evolution in the program because, says Lt. O’Neill, “[the police department is the] tip of the spear on domestic violence reduction, but until we brought along the advocate, there was no way to keep a foot in the door to give the victim a way out. The advocate was the lifeline for victims. They had an officer’s name and face that they could reach out to and they also had a victim advocate who knew the system but also had a first contact.” Creating a personal relationship with officers and advocates led to higher rates of service uptake and earlier disruption of DV escalation.

The program’s longevity is a testament to its success. Lt. O’Neill is quick to point out that you don’t measure success by a reduction in overall DV calls: “DV is like enforcing narcotics laws. Your numbers won’t change dramatically, but you can take the numbers of families with repetitive domestic violence who are still in the community but aren’t calling in for domestic violence anymore. Or very often,” he amends. Simply put, when the escalation of violence is interrupted with targeted intervention and services, partners and families need less intervention and altercations become less lethal.

The success of DART is also predicated on successful and expanding partnerships. Once departmental leadership is on board, Lt. O’Neill suggests reaching out to local partners and service providers who specialize in DV and IPV interventions and identifying a partner willing to embed advocates with the police department. The DART partners have expanded to include Gunderson Hospital and the Mayo Hospital, the District Attorney, and local judges. The team partners with the local universities and school districts as well. The Handle With Care initiative at a local school allows the DART team to alert the school district if a student or student’s family was involved in a DV or an IPV call the night before, enabling the school to continue care and help the student in the aftermath. The local Humane Society has even become a partner: DV shelters won’t accept animals, and the Humane Society, under normal circumstances, won’t board pets. However, because of engagement with DART, the local Humane Society will board pets for DART families free of charge. Removing obstacles for victims to access treatment helps interrupt escalation.

Lt. O’Neill is adamant that successful DV interventions do not require a large department or a large budget. “When I go to summits and conferences,” he says, “I always get the question, ‘You are a large agency. I have seven guys. How do I do this?’ In Operation Safehome, an officer goes past a house within seven days of arrest. It doesn’t take extra funds to do so. Every cop in the world has down time. We’re busy, but we’re not too busy to do that. You don’t need to dedicate 100 percent of someone’s time and you don’t need to be a 100 person–strong department.” He also mentions that not every officer needs to be a full-time DV specialist but that the training needs to be taken to heart department-wide. “Getting buy-in from officers themselves was a process. Getting them into a car with an advocate and getting them to realize that there’s more behind a badge or an advocacy title was challenging but not insurmountable. And it was necessary.”

Sarah Estill
Social Science Analyst
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

Photos courtesy of the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Police Department and New Horizons Shelter & Outreach Centers.

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