In Kingston, New York, NNSC’s new approach has significantly reduced the deadliest forms of intimate-partner violence.
By Michael Friedrich
A NEW STRATEGY IS CHANGING the way Kingston, New York, addresses the harms of intimate-partner violence. “We had been putting the burden on the victim to remove themselves from an abusive relationship,” says Elizabeth Culmone-Mills, Senior Assistant District Attorney for the Special Victims Bureau in the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office, regarding the way law enforcement approached such violence in the past. Culmone-Mills explained that today the Kingston team focuses squarely on holding abusers accountable. “We’ve always had a coordinated effort, but this helps shift our mind-set to the offender’s behavior.”
Today, Kingston is laser-focused on offenders. A task force composed of law enforcement, community members, victim advocates, and service providers gives them a written notification explaining that the community does not accept their behavior, offers them help and treatment, and outlines their legal consequences for continuing. Victim advocates offer treatment and safety measures to survivors. The Kingston response was coordinated before, but it was never quite this strategic.
The new approach is called the Intimate Partner Violence Intervention, or IPVI. Developed by David Kennedy, a criminologist who directs the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC) at John Jay College, it’s modeled on a strategy that for 20 years has worked to reduce gang violence in cities across the country. Gang violence and intimate partner violence—and the people who commit them—may seem too different to compare. But in the two years since Kingston’s implementation began, the city is beginning to see promising reductions in this crime.
NEEDING A NEW APPROACH
Intimate-partner violence is a major problem in America. It accounts for between 40 and 50 percent of all female homicides and 15 percent of all violent crimes. The best efforts at stopping it have been largely ineffective. Batterer treatment programs show very low success rates. Mandatory arrest policies tend to put victims at greater risk when their abuser is released. Even in cases where victims take legal action, they end up facing a system they often distrust, and a system that demands they do things they often don’t want to do: leave their relationship, relocate their children, take out restraining orders, and testify against their partners.
“What we have been doing around intimate-partner violence simply hasn’t worked,” says Kennedy. “We still place the burden on victims. Criminal-justice responses don’t control the most dangerous guys and they require victims to put themselves at further risk.” Meanwhile, the most dangerous people learn from experience that they won’t be held accountable and continue with a sense of impunity.
Kennedy will be the first to tell you he’s no expert on domestic violence. In the mid-1990s, he devised Operation Ceasefire, a strategy to control gang-related homicides. Working as a researcher in Boston, he and a pair of colleagues found that the majority of gun violence was concentrated among a small number of high-risk offenders who were not only shooting each other, but also committing a range of other crimes.
Operation Ceasefire asked that a team of law enforcement, community members, and service providers deliver in-person notifications to gang members, telling them that the community wanted to help them and the shooting had to stop. If they kept shooting, law enforcement cracked down on all the crimes they were committing. Then the team told other gang members about the crackdown. This sent a powerful message. Studies have shown that the approach led to a dramatic 63 percent reduction in gun homicide, which came to be known as the Boston Miracle. It has since had similar impacts in cities like Oakland, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; and High Point, North Carolina.
In the late ’90s, Kennedy wondered whether something similar might be possible in the intimate-partner sphere. His research found that common stories about domestic violence—particularly the story that anyone might commit it and anyone might be victimized—did not hold up at all. For one thing, the most grave and injurious intimate-partner victimization was heavily concentrated among poor women of color. But it was in his research on offenders that Kennedy saw a strategic in-road. The most dangerous abusers were chronic offenders, much like shooters. “Their domestic offending was part of a pattern,” says Kennedy. This meant that law enforcement could create sanctions, even ones that were not directly about intimate-partner violence.
The first city to pilot a new strategy was High Point, which had already reoriented its approach to violent crime around Operation Ceasefire. Beginning in 2009, Kennedy worked with the city’s law enforcement, community, and partnered with other city services to identify all known intimate- partner-violence offenders in the city and craft a four-tiered structure that would respond to each of them. Based on new crimes, police immediately arrested a handful of dangerous abusers with long criminal histories and held them up as an example. Other offenders were placed into a hierarchy and each received different types of in-person and written notifications, with their legal exposure documented and an offer of supportive services.
Recognizing the real possibility that this untested approach could make things more dangerous for survivors, High Point worked closely with national victim support specialists and created a corresponding structure of services—like counseling and safety planning—to ensure their well-being.
The results have been stunning. An evaluation of IPVI in High Point showed strong reductions in intimate-partner homicides, victim injuries, and recidivism among offenders who received notifications. For example, where the city saw 18 intimate-partner homicides between 2002 and 2008, after the implementation of IPVI, it saw just three between 2009 and 2016.
“Getting people to shift their thinking about intimate-partner violence as a crime, to shift their thinking about the tools they have available for focusing on individuals, and actually deterring them from committing future acts is extraordinary,” says Rachel Teicher, the director of the IPVI portfolio at NNSC, who now oversees the implementation in High Point and Kingston. “And it works.”
FOLLOWING A NEW SCRIPT
New York State’s Department of Criminal Justice Services identified Kingston in 2016 as a city with a progressive approach to intimate-partner violence—they already had an interagency team, a designated domestic-violence detective, and a special domestic-violence court in place—and named it as a test site for IPVI.
In January 2017, a dispatch from Kingston visited John Jay College to learn about the approach directly from Kennedy and members of the High Point team. Culmone-Mills was especially struck by something she heard from Shay Harger, director of victim services at Family Services of the Piedmont, the lead victim- support organization in High Point. “She said to us, ‘The victims don’t want to leave their relationships. They just want the abuse to stop.’ For me, that’s when it clicked.”
Kingston was fully implementing IPVI by March 2018, with day-to-day guidance from Teicher at NNSC. Following the High Point model, the city uses a four-tiered system. Certain offenders—those on the brink of facing serious legal consequences if they reoffend—receive their notification in a group “call-in” setting, which Kennedy pioneered back in the Boston days. For the call-in, the Kingston team mandates that offenders listen to a message from an array of Kingston officials and citizens including: the mayor, the district attorney, the police chief, a social service provider, a local pastor, and a relative of an intimate-partner-violence victim. “Each of these people speaks, and we let the offenders know intimate-partner violence is not acceptable in our community,” says Culmone-Mills.
Less chronic offenders get a letter or a one-on-one talk with similar information. For victims, Family of Woodstock has outlined a four-tiered service structure that accounts for their level of risk, notifies them in person or by letter about the services available to them, and helps plan for their safety.
SEEING A POSITIVE CHANGE
After two years of implementation, Kingston’s IPVI is showing promising initial outcomes. Kennedy is cautious about making sanguine pronouncements, and there are challenges in measuring success. For example, what counts as recidivism from one study to another often differs, making it hard to establish a standard. Furthermore, it can be hard to compare jurisdictions, since many do not track intimate-partner violence separate from domestic violence more broadly.
But recidivism for intimate-partner violence in Kingston stands at 23 percent over the two-year implementation period, a number that compares favorably to ordinary rates for that crime, which tend to hover at 50 to 60 percent—and even to rates in jurisdictions that have tried other interventions. The city has also seen a 38 percent decrease in the number of domestic incident reports, which suggests deterrence is working, according to Teicher. “It’s really encouraging to think about what this looks like in a city as they become more comfortable with it and it becomes part of how they do things,” she says. IPVI appears to have more intangible results, as well, like building trust with victims, who are often alienated from the legal system. “When a victim hears that we are offering help to their boyfriend or the father of their child, that we are, as a community, sending a message to them that intimate-partner violence is not acceptable,” says Culmone-Mills. “The sense I get, more often than not, is of appreciation—like, thank you for seeing him in a different way, and not just trying to put him in jail.”
The approach has also strengthened collaboration between the agencies involved in the task force, says Culmone-Mills. They now share a singular goal of stopping offenders, supporting victims, and sharing information to meet those ends. Even the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and their move to remote work, has not diminished their relationship. Buoyed by these outcomes, District Attorney David Clegg is making an effort to take IPVI county-wide.
The approach is also gaining national traction. NNSC now advises an IPVI implementation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And under a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, Teicher is working with local representatives in Madison County, Illinois; Duchess County, New York; and one precinct in Detroit, Michigan to mount interventions.
Many are ready to adopt a new approach that works. Still, Kennedy readily admits that IPVI isn’t a fix-all. It doesn’t, of course, address the misogyny and toxic masculinity that perpetuate violence against women. Nor does it overhaul the features of the criminal legal system that have long done damage to victims and offenders alike, especially in communities of color. This can be its own challenge in a community new to IPVI. Coming into a city and offering “this clever, tactical thing” can seem at best impractical and at worst disrespectful, says Kennedy. But after more than 20 years of doing this kind of work, he has learned to be patient. “It means sticking with folks while they get used to the idea that maybe something better can be done.”
Illustration (top): Victoria Stewart-Meyers, Gaslight II, ©2020