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October 21, 2014

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JUSTICE:

Police go preventive on violence in the home

Check-ins frequent, mandatory with highest-risk individuals

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Tiffany Brown

Metro Police Lt. Chris Carroll says he hopes a domestic violence program in which detectives check up on high-risk partners will “leave them with the thought of us” and prevent domestic crimes. On visits, detectives can’t talk about the incident that prompted the monitoring.

COMMON PRECURSORS TO DOMESTIC HOMICIDE

Partners who meet these criteria are more likely to land on Metro Police’s watch list:

• History of violence or threats of violence

• Unemployment

• Drug and/or alcohol issues

• Gun ownership

• Victim pregnant at time of assault

• Assault included choking

• Threats of violence to children or animals

Beyond the Sun

This is a very exclusive club. Hip-hop baron Suge Knight’s a member. So is Edward Halverson, the man police say beat his wife, the suspended judge, half-blind with a frying pan.

It’s a very limited guest list: So far, 49 men have been ushered in, but only after Metro Police approved their membership.

RSVP: You don’t have a choice.

Dues: They’re dear.

Ten months ago, Metro’s domestic violence unit decided it was time to identify the worst abusers in Clark County, the aggressors police have privately determined are most likely to kill their victims someday. They decided it was time to give this select crew — names chosen from a long list of potential candidates — special attention, VIP attention no one would request.

They gave it a name, the Victim Protection Tracking Unit, and then an initialism, VPTU. Then they diligently went to work, despite one caveat: If the program is a success, if they stop even one homicide from happening, they’ll never know.

This is an effort to police proactively, to prevent a homicide. But it’s also a delicate negotiation, one that could jeopardize cases in court if detectives don’t do it just right. The VPTU program was launched in January and, like the people on the list, police know it will never be perfect. Names are added to the list in a manner that’s half statistical science and half cop gut feeling. But there’s no predicting what a person will do.

Here’s how it works: A domestic violence case comes across a detective’s desk. The detective searches the case for about a dozen indicators that statistically have shown a greater likelihood the person arrested will commit domestic violence homicide. These indicators include the obvious: Does the person have a history of violence? Has he threatened violence? Are there drug or alcohol issues? Does he own a gun?

And the not so obvious: Did the person choke the victim? Was the victim pregnant? Is the suspect unemployed? Has he threatened to hurt animals or children?

The detective’s intuition is also considered. The vast majority of the 25,000 domestic violence cases Metro Police handled during the previous fiscal year were misdemeanor battery, Lt. Chris Carroll said. Extremely violent cases stand out and that alone can win someone a spot on the VPTU list.

Metro officers arrested Suge Knight for allegedly beating a woman with a knife in his hand in August. The violence, paired with the use of a deadly weapon, earned Knight a spot on the list, Carroll said.

Edward Halverson was arrested in September for allegedly attacking his wife, suspended judge Elizabeth Halverson. He was added to the list not just because of the violence, but because of his criminal record, even though it’s made up largely of nonviolent crimes.

Metro detectives make a man on the list very aware of the fact. Within 24 hours of his arrest, they’ll visit him in jail or, if he’s posted bail, at home. They’ll take his picture and scrape some DNA out of his mouth. If there’s a restraining order, they’re going to lay it out clearly. Then they’re going to give him a questionnaire: Where do you live, where do you work, whom do you hang out with and where can we find you?

If he ends up going directly from jail to prison, he’s off the list. This has happened to 10 men so far.

The rest can expect a second visit from detectives within 48 hours, even if they’re released. At this point, police enter their names into a statewide database of felons. If they have another encounter with law enforcement and their name is run though a cop’s computer, their VPTU status will be revealed and a domestic violence detective will be called to the scene right away.

Even if they don’t run afoul of the law, VPTU offenders are visited again after one week, this time for a friendly reminder they’re in Metro’s sights.

These three visits — 24 hours, 48 hours and one week — are the bare minimum. Because police are not trying to restrict an offender’s movements or make him comply with any special laws, they don’t need probable cause to put anybody on the VPTU list. This isn’t like being arrested, police say. It’s like being under surveillance.

And are any offenders under complete surveillance? Carroll says only, “Maybe, maybe not.”

The program can get tricky for police. While domestic violence detectives are doing VPTU check-ins, the crime that put an offender on the list is being investigated. All of these domestic violence offenders have been arrested and given Miranda warnings — if they don’t want to talk about what happened, police can’t ask.

This means detectives making any visit connected to VPTU work cannot talk to the offender about the crime itself. If they do, it could jeopardize the case — an attorney could argue any information gathered during a VPTU visit is not admissible. These challenges have already presented themselves, Carroll said, but unsuccessfully.

The police department has not been forced to make any changes to the program yet, but things could change. The Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, for one, wants to know more. The ACLU understands the importance of protecting victims of domestic violence, Nevada Executive Director Gary Peck said, but commenting on the program is difficult without more details. Of particular concern, he said, is tagging VPTU men on the felony offender database, since it’s unclear just what that means for the offender, and for how long.

“We’d like to know more,” he said, “And we’ll be reaching out to Metro.”

So far, the VPTU list is exclusively men. The majority have cooperated with detectives. They may not like it, the lieutenant says, but they’ll go along to get along. After a time, if the offender has complied with detectives to their satisfaction, he’ll be taken off the VPTU list. Carroll won’t reveal just how long this might take.

“These crimes take place behind closed doors. Preventing them is very difficult,” he said. “We know that eventually, we are not going to be there. When we leave, all we can do is leave them with the thought of us.”

As of Wednesday, 14 men are being actively monitored in the VPTU program. Knight made bail before detectives could get to him in jail. By the time they got to his Vegas residence, Knight was in California, where he has remained. From a victim protection prospective, police say, this is a good thing.

Detectives will know when he comes back to Clark County, for court or otherwise, Carroll said.

Halverson has remained behind bars since his arrest. If he gets out, he’ll be monitored. If he’s convicted and imprisoned, he’s off the list.

These cases are only notable because we know the names. Take a random person off the list — a guy whose name Carroll can’t disclose. He’s young and he’s been arrested for drug possession, for child abuse, for battery with significant bodily harm and for domestic violence — three times. There are photos Carroll won’t show of injuries this guy has inflicted on others. And then there are the injuries he hasn’t, the injuries everyone is expecting.

“The worst thing we can do in a domestic violence case is nothing,” Carroll said. “We’ll certainly know our failures eventually.”

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