As the number of homicides in New York has reached historically low levels, the Police Department has intensified its efforts to combat a particularly stubborn and daunting source of murders: domestic violence.
Over the past several years, the department has bolstered the size of the staff at its domestic violence unit by about 40 percent, with 450 police officers now focused on families with histories of violence. The police are now making more domestic violence arrests, while murders linked to domestic violence appear to have declined slightly.
As part of their work, the officers assigned to the domestic violence unit make a total of 70,000 precautionary visits a year to the households with past episodes. Each precinct station house also maintains a “high propensity” list of a dozen or so households that get special attention because they are believed to be most at risk of further violence.
In their visits, the police devise safety plans with the victims and check for evidence of further abuse and, when a past abuser is barred from the home, signs of his return. “You look to see if she has any bruises; you’re looking around the house to see if the furniture is broken,” said Detective Dale Edwards, describing what she does during a home visit. “You inquire. You try to be tactical about it.”
The murder rate in New York has dropped significantly over the last dozen years, to an average of fewer than one a day in the first six months of 2013 from nearly two a day in 2000. The trend has been attributed in part to the Police Department’s focusing its resources on getting guns off the street and on neighborhood gangs. Now, with the efforts to reduce domestic violence homicides, the department believes it is seeing success in an area once thought to be intractable.
In 2011, there were 47 homicides involving “intimate partners” — a category that includes spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, current or otherwise. There were 39 such murders last year, and as of Wednesday, 21 this year. (Historically, about 80 percent of the victims of intimate-partner homicides in the city are women.)
“I think this proactive approach has played a significant role in the reduction of murders,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in an interview.
The push in New York mirrors similar efforts around the nation. In Massachusetts, for example, a program in Newburyport won accolades from the White House for its outreach program that tries to identify cases where domestic abusers seem most likely to escalate to murder, and prevent them from doing so.
In 2011, the Police Department grew alarmed at a sudden increase in domestic violence murders, prompting an internal review and, ultimately, many changes. Among them, under Mr. Kelly, domestic violence unit assignments became detective-track positions, a significant draw for young and ambitious officers and a signal that the department was making the work a priority.
More emphasis has also been placed on evidence collection. After a choking assault, for example, domestic violence officers are required to return to see a victim a day or two later to photograph bruises that may not have been visible when officers first responded.
In Sunnyside, Queens, Viridiana Victorio’s address was added to the local precinct house’s watch list after her boyfriend grabbed her neck and slapped her in 2011, one of thousands of misdemeanor domestic assault cases in that borough alone. But something about Ms. Victorio’s case raised a red flag for the police. Officers began visiting her apartment to offer support and to confirm that the boyfriend, Angel Pérez-Rios, was staying away, as a restraining order required.
Their 20th visit was a month ago, on June 25. Something minor — either the presence of a beer bottle or two glasses, according to the police — prompted the officers to ask whether Mr. Pérez-Rios had returned. Ms. Victorio and her children said no.
But Mr. Pérez-Rios had moved back in. The police say he stabbed her to death a week later. He is now charged with murder.
“The police commissioner wanted to know, had we done everything humanly possible to help this individual?” Chief Kathleen M. O’Reilly, who heads the department’s domestic violence unit, said. “I said that we categorically had done everything, barring moving in to her residence with her.”
The case underscores the challenge that confronts the police even after they have identified a domestic violence situation they think is likely to escalate to murder.
In 2012, the police responded on 263,207 occasions to reports of domestic violence.
The chief of the special victims bureau in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, Audrey Moore, said that as cases came in, there was often a question at the back of prosecutors’ minds: “Is this going to be the case, the case where he goes on to kill her?”
The police use a computer program to scan police complaint reports for worrisome words like “kill,” “suicide” and “alcohol” and to help officers prioritize the more combustible cases.
The Police Department has also begun to make greater use of the millions of domestic incident reports that it has filed away over the years. Now each time a domestic violence case is opened, all previous reports associated with that victim are automatically sent to the assigned officer.
But the department also depends on officers’ gut instincts and the fear levels of the victim in deciding whom to place on the high-propensity lists.
The next victim may not even be on the radar of the officers currently devoted to domestic violence work. Less than a quarter of the victims and perpetrators of domestic homicides had contact with the police in the year before the murder, according to city statistics.
A significant number of the killings seem to occur as the victim is preparing to leave a boyfriend or husband, investigators and prosecutors said.
Taking on the responsibility of preventing such homicides poses relatively new challenges for police departments nationwide. Until the 1980s and the early 1990s, officers tended to view the bulk of domestic violence cases as beyond the scope of their jobs.
“When I was a police officer and after that, there was this sort of notion that family matters would be left alone,” said Commissioner Kelly, who became a trainee in 1960. “It was something that was seen as unwieldy, complex, and I think officers years ago shied away from it.”
Those attitudes started to change in the late 1970s, partly as a result of lawsuits by women’s groups. Since the mid-1990s, the New York department has had specially trained domestic violence officers assigned to precincts.
When Mr. Kelly became police commissioner in 2002, there were 150 officers assigned exclusively to domestic violence casework. Now there are about 450, he said, with much of the increase happening since 2010.
Over the past decade, prosecutors across the city have changed their approach to domestic assault cases, relying more on physical evidence that allows them to pursue cases even when the victim has reconciled with her abuser and stopped cooperating.
Prosecutors have had success using recorded phone calls from Rikers Island, where incarcerated husbands and boyfriends often call their victims to persuade them to lie about the abuse. In Queens, prosecutors have begun to subpoena the phone records of both victims and defendants to demonstrate contact between the two, providing an explanation to a jury for a victim’s changed story.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s office recently started to use an ultraviolet light to find evidence of neck injuries that might not have resulted in visible bruising in choking or strangulation cases.
“We’re always looking if there was something that we missed, if there was something that would trigger a better response,” said Chief O’Reilly, who has run the domestic violence unit since 2011.
The home visits are “the cornerstone of our response to domestic violence,” she continued. They can continue for years, long after the conclusion of any criminal cases involving the couple.
Scott E. Kessler, the prosecutor who leads the domestic violence unit for the Queens district attorney, estimated that three-quarters of domestic violence defendants violate an order of protection within 72 hours, through phone calls or text messages or by returning to the residence.
Home visits by the police can make the abuser wary about moving back in, Mr. Kessler said. “The victim is telling the defendant, ‘The officers keep coming by to ask if you’re here, checking on you,’ ” he said. “That’s got to be a deterrent.