Story By: Carolyn Krause
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — Tennessee is one of the most violent states, ranking between fifth and first in the nation. Besides drugs, domestic violence is a major contributor to the high number of violent crimes per state resident, said Dave Clark, district attorney general for the 7th Judicial District and Anderson County’s chief law enforcement officer and criminal justice system leader.
Clark recently spoke about domestic abuse and violence to the Friday Lecture class of the Oak Ridge Institute for Continued Learning at Roane State Community College’s Oak Ridge Branch Campus. He stated that “domestic violence includes spousal or domestic partner abuse, elder abuse and physical or sexual abuse of children.” Domestic abuse is found in every neighborhood and is not limited to a particular race, socioeconomic class or geographical area, he added.
District attorneys across the state attribute the state’s high violent crime rate to drugs and domestic abuse,” said Clark, who is president of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.
He suggested that an underlying factor is that, because of overcrowded prisons in the state, some prisoners are released too early, only to re-offend because they were not exposed to effective reentry and aftercare parole programs designed to help them stay off drugs, get jobs and become productive, responsible citizens. The district attorneys, he added, are concerned about a “public safety problem” in a state that has the fifth highest crime rate, but a disproportionately low incarceration rate (27th in the nation).
It was thought that the best way to break the cycle of domestic violence is to take perpetrators to court and charge them with the crime of domestic abuse. But Clark found when he assumed his DA position 14 years ago that only 10% of victims were willing to have the abuser prosecuted.
“In 90 percent of the cases, the victims begged us not to prosecute. ‘If you force me to testify, I will lie and say I was not injured,’ one victim told me,” Clark said. “Another told me, ‘It was really my fault. I set him off.’”
“Fear of and economic dependence on the perpetrator are among the reasons for a victim’s lack of cooperation, he suggested.
Today, some 50 percent of victims in Anderson County have agreed to have the perpetrators prosecuted.
“It’s better in Scott County, which has an 85% prosecution rate and a shelter for victims of domestic violence, something Anderson County doesn’t have,” Clark said.
Like Scott County, Anderson County is one of nine of the 95 counties in the state that now has a Family Justice Center. Melissa Miller is director of the new FJC in Anderson County.
After police are called to respond to a domestic violence call, the victim — usually a woman —is asked if she wishes to prosecute her tormentor. If she refuses, she is asked to sign a waiver of prosecution stating she understands that domestic violence escalates over time.
“To prosecute, we need evidence,” Clark said, noting that police officers are now trained to get a written statement from the victim concerning the nature of the offense against her. But the county lacks the resources to buy $70 department cameras for the officers to enable them to document a victim’s injuries, such as cuts and bruises.
If a victim agrees to prosecute a perpetrator who has struck her or threatened to strike her with his fist or open hand, he is charged with a misdemeanor punishable by a mandatory cooling-off period (less than 24 hours in jail) and a fine of $225. The money goes to Nashville to support programs for domestic victims.
If the perpetrator uses a deadly weapon against the victim or otherwise inflicts serious bodily injury, he or she is charged with aggravated domestic assault, a mid-level felony, Clark said. The convicted felon is usually sentenced to three to six years in prison.
A few years ago, he added, the state of Tennessee reclassified one form of domestic abuse — choking and strangulation — from a misdemeanor to an aggravated domestic assault.
Clark said he used to think that the way to break the cycle of violence was to make perpetrators take anger management classes. Later, he realized that the main cause of domestic abuse and violence is the perpetrator’s need to exercise power and control over a partner or relative in the home. (See sidebar.)
“People aren’t just mad — they have control issues,” he said. “Many were exposed to domestic violence in their youth. That was their learned behavior on how to handle family relationships.”
Clark said his office appreciates the work of other agencies in dealing with victims of domestic violence. The Oak Ridge staff at the YWCA assists law enforcement by educating victims about the dangers they face by staying with their abusers. YWCA staff also help victims and children leave their homes and relocate to motel rooms and apartments, temporarily breaking the cycle of violence. Rural Legal Services helps victims get orders of protection from abusers. The new Family Justice Center will marshal these and other services to help victims.
Noting that a Maryville city police officer was killed two years ago by a perpetrator of domestic violence, Clark said, “Other than driving at emergency speeds, responding to a domestic violence call is the most dangerous thing an officer does. A response to domestic violence requires two officers. Domestic violence is a drain on the resources of law enforcement. Repeated domestic violence calls cause officers to be late to respond to an auto accident or another emergency call.”
Clark acknowledged that the county historically has done a poor job of keeping useful statistics. He is hopeful that the move to a new computer system will improve recordkeeping so that it will be clear how many homicides, rapes and thefts are domestic and how many are not.
The DA said he believes that law enforcement can stop the escalation of domestic violence if the justice system uses protection orders, locks up a convicted abuser for a time and provides the perpetrator with proper counseling and treatment.