Yakima has a domestic violence epidemic and a new coalition hopes to fix it

This is the first story in an investigative series looking at the domestic violence problem in the City of Yakima.

YAKIMA, Wash. — A new coalition is making strides toward addressing the epidemic of domestic violence in the City of Yakima — which accounted for 35% of all arrests in the city last year.

The Yakima Police Department alone responds to over 1,000 domestic violence calls every year, but the Yakima YWCA provides services to 10 times as many victims, who do not contact police for fear that their abusers might retaliate against them.

“There’s a perception — and rightfully so — that Yakima has a gang problem and we do,” Yakima Police Det. Michael Durbin said. “But it’s minuscule in comparison to the domestic violence problem.”

Durbin said statistically speaking, it takes seven acts of violence before a victim will make a police report. He said that means it’s likely there are thousands more victims who haven’t told anyone about the abuse.

“It’s your coworkers, it’s your sisters, it’s your cousins; it’s all the women that surround you,” Durbin said. “They’re living in the shadows and they’re just struggling every single day.”

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Durbin, who has been investigating domestic violence incidents for over a decade, has been asking for further emphasis on those cases for years. 

“I’ve seen that we can do better — that every entity can do better,” Durbin said. “The police can do a better job. The prosecutors can do better,  the courts and the victim advocates.”

Earlier this spring, representatives from other agencies also working to combat intimate partner violence came to a similar conclusion and decided to form the Yakima Domestic Violence Coalition.

“We really set out to make meaningful change in how we were addressing domestic violence,” Yakima Police Lt. Chad Janis said. “The simple truth is what we were doing all of those years prior was just simply not reducing recidivism and lethality.”

Yakima domestic violence coalition adopts focused deterrence program to reduce recidivism

The coalition includes the Yakima Police Department, the city’s legal department, the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, Yakima School District, Yakima YWCA, Comprehensive Healthcare, ESD 105, the Yakima County probation office and the state’s felony probation department. 

Janis said the coalition has adopted a focused deterrence program, where they identify domestic violence perpetrators who are likely to reoffend and victims who need help, and then work from every angle to try and prevent further abuse from occurring.

According to Janis, a similar program in Chula Vista, Calif. was able to reduce domestic violence in the city by 20% to 25%. Other programs in Spokane and High Point, North Carolina have also seen success with a focused deterrence approach to domestic violence.

One of the first steps the coalition took was to start tracking domestic violence incidents more thoroughly and arrange them in a way that would allow the community to more easily understand the scope and severity of the issue.

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In July,  YPD launched the Intimate Partner Violence Dashboard, which tracks incidents by location, gender, weapons, month and other factors. In the past three months, police have responded to 788 domestic violence incidents, resulting in 267 arrests.

A heat map shows incidents of domestic violence are not situated in any one location, but span the entire city from East Yakima all the way to West Valley and are not limited to any demographic.

“We encounter people who are very affluent and we encounter people that have very limited resources,” Durbin said. “It’s a matter of the heart, it’s not a matter of economics. Power and control crosses all barriers.”

The incidents themselves range in severity, from a verbal altercation to theft to violation of a no contact order to simple assault, and in a couple of cases, even murder.

In January, 30-year-old Rocio Ramos-Martinez was brutally attacked less than a block away from the Yakima YWCA by the father of her child, 37-year-old Luberto Fernandez Rodriguez. Ramos-Martinez died several days later and Rodriguez was charged with aggravated first-degree murder.

Nearly two months ago, 51-year-old Yolanda Cervera Tapia was found strangled to death in her home. Her ex-boyfriend, 50-year-old David Rosales-Rosales was charged with second-degree murder in connection with her killing.

 

“I talk to women and I tell them, ‘This could end up being the death of you if something doesn’t change,'” Durbin said. “A common response is, ‘He would never do that to me.’ And over the years,  as I’ve seen women murdered, they never thought it would be them either.”

Durbin said for a long time, there was no coordinated response to domestic violence in the City of Yakima, which meant a lot of cases were not receiving the attention they needed.

“It could be a case that law enforcement was working diligently, but we didn’t have that connection with the advocates,” Durbin said. “Or maybe the prosecutor’s office was unaware of how serious we viewed it and maybe the courts didn’t see or know of all the history that we’ve had with a certain offender.”

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Now, coalition members have a daily Zoom meeting where they discuss new cases from the previous night, any outstanding issues with offenders and which victims might be in need of services. From there, they determine what each group — police, courts, mental health, advocacy, etc. — needs to do to help that day. 

“We look at the cases and staff them to see which cases need to be rushed through for arrest warrants, which victims need immediate assistance and support,” Durbin said. “We look at past history that they may have in the criminal justice system, both the offenders and the victims, and try to kind of triage those cases, so we can serve the victims and the survivors to the best of our ability.”

The coalition has also dedicated more resources and personnel within each group to primarily focus on domestic violence cases.

New lethality assessment app measures further danger for victims

Part of serving those victims includes determining how likely it is that an offender might escalate the violence and end up killing the victim. For several years, police have done a lethality assessment where they ask a series of questions to determine how much danger a victim is in.

Janis said that version of the assessment provided good information, but was repetitive and took longer to get through. Now, they’ve launched a lethality assessment app with a series of 14 questions officers can ask the victims and then input their answers electronically.

Police are looking for red flags, including previous threats to kill the victim, having weapons in the home, previous assaults or mental health concerns; the more red flags, the more likely it is that an offender may come back looking for further violence.

“That helps us to triage the cases and really focus on those most serious cases, right after they happen,” Durbin said.

Police connect victims directly with advocates, warn offenders of future consequences

Part of that triage includes providing information to both the victim and the suspect. Previously, officers would provide victims with a list of resources and contact information, which they could choose to follow up on or to ignore.

“Something that’s new is our officers are putting the victims of domestic violence into immediate phone contact with an on-call advocate,” Durbin said. 

The advocates are part of the Yakima YWCA’s 24-hour helpline and can talk victims through their options, including planning how to leave the relationship safely. 

Janis said police also now read warning letters to suspects, which is something the Chula Vista focussed deterrence program included. Officers have one letter that they read to both the suspect and victim at domestic violence calls that don’t rise to the level where someone gets arrested.

“That basically says it’s normal to argue, but it’s not normal when the police have to come to your house and break up your argument,” Janis said. “This problem with domestic violence generally doesn’t get better, it generally gets worse and if it gets worse, there’s a chance that somebody will get arrested if somebody commits a crime.”

Police have another letter to read to suspects who have been arrested for domestic violence and are waiting in jail for their court appearance.

“It says, ‘You got arrested for domestic violence and the Yakima Police Department has an enhanced domestic violence response,'” Janis said. “‘We want you to stop we need you to stop and if you don’t stop, we’re going to arrest you again.'”

Yakima School District pilots Handle With Care program

Janis said children who witness domestic violence are often traumatized and can exhibit that traumatization in various ways, including acting out at school. Since July, 145 children have witnessed some form of domestic violence that ended up with the police getting called. 

That’s why the Yakima Police Department has partnered with the Yakima School District to create the Handle With Care program, which informs schools when their students witness domestic violence.

Every time a child is at the scene of a domestic violence incident, a police officer puts a code into their system, which generates an email to the school district with just the child’s name. The email does not include other names or details associated with the incident.

“The person receiving it doesn’t know what happened,” Janis said. “They just know that within the previous 24 hours, this child was involved in a traumatic incident, which may result in them being absent from school.”

Janis said it also helps teachers to understand that if a child didn’t turn they’re homework in or they’re really tired or late to school, it’s because they witnessed something traumatic.

“The police can’t go into the school after they respond to a domestic violence call to make sure the kid has everything they need to get through their school day, but somebody else can and that’s the school district,” Janis said.

Prosecutors expedite ‘gone on arrival’ arrest warrants for domestic violence suspects

As part of the coalition, prosecutors are now prioritizing ‘gone on arrival’ arrest warrants for domestic violence suspects to get them off the streets and away from their victims.

“Oftentimes, what happens is a crime of domestic violence occurs and the offender leaves and we don’t find them,” Durbin said. “It used to take weeks or months for our prosecutor’s office to review that, make a charging decision and send out a summons.”

Durbin said expediting those arrest warrants and getting a suspect into jail sooner gives them time to cool off and gives their victim time to think over their options without any additional pressure.

“We’re trying to afford that survivor the opportunity — without this offender in their face — to make decisions that are best for them and their family, to seek protective orders, to seek safe housing, to put some steps in order to ensure their safety,” Durbin said. 

The coalition’s overarching goal is to reduce incidents of domestic violence, discourage suspects from reoffending, provide victims with the resources they need and, hopefully, prevent loss of life. 

Durbin said the problem is everywhere and that anyone who believes domestic violence has not touched their lives or the lives of the people around them should reconsider those assumptions.

“It’s ignorance to say that to say that it doesn’t affect you,” Durbin said. “You’re just not knowledgeable as to how large of a problem this is, but it’s right there in front of you.”

Durbin said while some people still may not care about the issue, they should because it affects everyone and in reducing domestic violence, it should limit crime in other areas.

“If we are serious about domestic violence, then we will see gang members taken off the streets, we’ll see drug dealers taken off the streets, just because they’re also committing domestic violence crimes,” Durbin said

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