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July 13, 2020

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Fighting the battle against domestic violence in Clark County

Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors, advocates struggle to help victims find safety, justice, path to new life

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Michelle Bart of the National Women's Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation, left, talks with Victor Garcia, director of Service Lines, as they look over a donation of clothes for survivors of domestic violence at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center's emergency room.
Michelle Bart of the National Women's Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation, left, talks with Victor Garcia, director of Service Lines, as they look over a donation of clothes for survivors of domestic violence at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center's emergency room. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The fatal shooting of Tiffany Hill by her estranged husband outside a Hazel Dell elementary school shocked the community and prompted calls for change to how perpetrators of domestic violence are monitored. But domestic and intimate partner violence-related homicides have occurred here with normalcy for years.

Now, new legislation, which bears Hill’s name, will give authorities and victims a useful new tool as they continue to fight a crime that results in multiple local deaths every year.

There were four domestic violence-related homicides in Clark County in 2018, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ annual crime report. A year earlier, the county’s law enforcement agencies reported three domestic violence homicides; in 2016, there were two.

In 1999, when Clark County had roughly 145,000 fewer people, there were three domestic violence homicides.

Nationally, the number of domestic violence victims rose to 2,237 in 2017, a 19 percent increase from the 1,875 killed in 2014, James Alan Fox, a criminologist and professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, told The New York Times. The majority of victims in 2017 were women, a total of 1,527.

Despite the increase nationally, Clark County’s numbers have remained relatively static.

“It’s pretty consistent. We’ll have spikes due to a case that involves multiple victims, which is going to be a larger number for the year, but then sometimes we’ll go several years without having a (domestic violence) homicide in the city,” said Tanya Wollstein, a detective with the Vancouver Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit.

However, since Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies have seen reports of domestic violence climb. Still, state lawmakers and local law enforcement, prosecutors and advocates have made strides in how domestic violence cases are handled through collaborative efforts.

Inslee earlier this month signed into law the Tiffany Hill Act, which will give domestic violence victims access to technology that will help them monitor the location of their abuser. It takes effect June 11. Senate Bill 5149, sponsored by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, passed unanimously in Olympia earlier this year.

Wilson and Wollstein, who worked on Hill’s case, have both said they believe the law would have saved her life.

“In general, domestic violence is a constant issue and needs more attention, awareness and education,” Wollstein said.

About 40 percent of the police department’s call volume is domestic violence-related, Wollstein said. About three-fourths of serious assaults and two-thirds of misdemeanor assaults that the Clark County Sheriff’s Office handles are attributed to domestic violence crimes, Sgt. Brent Waddell said.

Domestic violence calls prompt a two-officer response, which is needed to separate the couple so they can be interviewed individually.

Officers identify the primary aggressor. Both people may have injuries. Both may have committed a crime to some extent, even in self-defense. Under state law, the person who takes an initial argument to a physical, criminal level holds the most responsibility.

That determination is based on statements and evidence from the scene, historical documentation of domestic violence involving the parties and whether a no-contact order was violated. Each event is “situationally dependent,” Wollstein said, but there are commonalities among most instances of domestic violence.

Relationships don’t turn violent immediately, Wollstein said. Instead, the abuse starts with manipulation — making the victim in the partnership lose trust in their own thoughts and feelings, she said. The popular term for this abuse is gaslighting. Over time, victims become more accepting of other forms of abuse, and it gets more difficult to separate them from the situation.

In homicide-suicides, an abuser threatening suicide is one of the most intimidating forms of manipulation, said Nichole Peppers, a program manager at YWCA Clark County.

To what extent Tiffany Hill had been gaslighted is unclear, but Rene Sundby, president of the Sarah J. Anderson PTA, told lawmakers in January that Keland Hill had been abusing her for a decade. In North Carolina, he was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, for strangulation, but the case was dismissed.

Once Tiffany Hill decided to leave her husband, his violence ramped up. Keland Hill stalked her and made unwanted contacts, despite a court order barring him from doing so. Peppers said there are victims who do everything in their power to escape abuse but are still killed.

Gun-related domestic killings up nationally

Keland Hill tried to buy a gun while he was harassing his wife. A background check thwarted his attempt. He was still able to get his hands on a firearm, and authorities have yet to explain how he did it.

According to a study last year looking at gender and homicide, which used FBI data, gun-related domestic killings increased by 26 percent from 2010 to 2017. The findings were first reported by HuffPost. Clark County’s numbers for gun-related domestic homicides are too small to identify trends.

The presence of a gun in domestic violence situations can increase the risk of homicide for women by as much as 500 percent, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Additionally, a study published last year by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that a higher rate of gun ownership is tied to a higher rate of domestic violence homicide, but the connection does not exist for other gun homicides.

More on domestic violence efforts in Clark County

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Of the 56 domestic violence homicides statewide in 2018, 24 involved a firearm, according to annual crime reports. In 2017, 23 of 49 cases involved firearms, according to the reports.

Several domestic violence homicide cases in the county over the past several years involved guns.

Stephanie “Sam” Westby stands accused of first-degree domestic violence murder in the 2019 death of her husband, 51-year-old Joseph Westby. Investigators say there was no record of police calls to the couple’s Camas residence.

The Westbys’ children told investigators there were rifles in the home, because Joseph Westby hunted with his son. Sam Westby allegedly shot her husband with a pistol, so there was another weapon in the home, according to investigative reports.

In a murder-suicide case that didn’t get a lot of attention, Sanella Polutan, 39, was shot and killed by her husband, Ahmed Polutan, 43, at their Orchards-area home in January 2017.

Investigative reports say Ahmed Polutan liked to hunt and was a “possessor of firearms.” He wanted to be a professional fighter and would only take part-time jobs so he had time to pursue his passion, the records say.

Robert W. Clark was sentenced in November 2018 to 10 years in prison for the attempted murder of his wife at The Heathman Lodge in Vancouver. His wife escaped the hours-long attack when she was able to grab her handgun from her purse and fire it near Clark’s head. Investigative reports say that she said she was an “avid gun person” and always carried a firearm in her purse.

Research has shown that a victim having a gun is neither prohibitive nor protective, according to Wollstein.

“It statistically doesn’t help or hurt a victim. People need to know how to handle a gun, how to access that gun safely and efficiently, but also, you need to ask yourself when you’d be willing to use the gun and under what circumstances,” Wollstein said.

Collaborative efforts

Survivors may find themselves in the offices of the Domestic Violence Prosecution Center. It serves as a central space where detectives, city and county prosecutors, and advocates collaborate.

The Vancouver Police Department has made strides in how it handles domestic violence cases due, in part, to an International Association of Chiefs of Police grant received in January 2018, Wollstein said.

The grant allowed the police department to revise its domestic violence policy, establish a sexual assault policy, create a sex assault investigator position and appoint officers who have or will receive special training on sexual assaults. About one in five women and one in 12 men have experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The police department also has reworked the documents it uses at the onset of an investigation, which record details such as the victim’s state of mind and injuries, relationship status and needed medical treatment.

“All these things will help us give a better, more consistent and trauma-informed response with better reporting that just makes it easier on the victim and more informative for our detectives,” Wollstein said.

The police department also facilitates partnerships among organizations offering services to victims and survivors. It connected Vancouver-based National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation and PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center to start the Rape Victim Dignity Clothing program. The program ensures that sexual assault victims, both men and women, have something to wear after leaving behind their clothes as evidence. The clothing is also available to domestic violence survivors, and more recently, homeless people who visit the hospital due to the novel coronavirus.

The sheriff’s office has a detective responsible for all follow-up on domestic violence crimes who is attached to the Major Crimes Unit and works out of that office, said Sgt. Todd Barsness. It is constantly trying to update training in a number of areas, including domestic violence and sexual assault, according to the sergeant.

“Recently, we completed a checklist for patrol response to sexual assault investigations that will assist deputies in making sure that critical evidence and statements are retained,” Barsness said in an email. “Although this seems like a simple thing, it actually is a large step in assisting our patrol deputies who will be the initial face of these investigations until a more formal investigation can be initiated.”

The investigative details are imperative for prosecutors, who handled 1,432 misdemeanor domestic violence cases and 333 felony cases last year, according to data provided by the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

The prosecutor office’s domestic violence unit is the only unit that partners with city attorneys. Under state law, cities are responsible for prosecuting all misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors within their limits. The center in Vancouver was created 20 years ago to pool resources and improve efficiency, because the city and county were handling cases with the same people, Vancouver City Prosecutor Kevin McClure said.

“A joint unit means that crime victims can be served by one advocate and ideally minimize the trauma of having to tell their story multiple times,” McClure said.

Resources for domestic violence victims, their families

Clark County Crisis Hotline (24 hours): 800-626-8137

Parent Trust of Washington (support group): 360-687-7126

Sexual Assault Hotline (24 hours): 360-695-0501

Safe Choice (domestic violence emergency housing, 24 hours): 360-695-0501

Child Protective Services: 866-764-2233

Vinelink (notification for prisoners being released from jail and prison): www.vinelink.com, 877-846-3492

Washington State Crime Victim Compensation Office: 360-397-2008

Victim Witness Unit, part of the compensation office (domestic violence advocates): 360-397-2008

Clark County Volunteer Lawyer Program: 360-695-5313

Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Domestic Violence Unit: 360-487-8530

Children’s Justice Center: 866-764-2233

Clark County YWCA protection order assistance: 360-695-0501

Clark County Superior Court Clerk’s Office: 360-397-2292

Clark County District Court Clerk’s Office: 360-397-2424

Washington state domestic violence hotline (24 hours): 800-562-6025

Danger/lethality assessment: www.dangerassessment.org/

Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik, who deputizes the city attorneys, said it’s common to have multiple misdemeanor cases with the same victim and offender.

Golik said the number of domestic violence filings that come through his office are a significant portion of the office’s entire caseload. They are all difficult cases and not as straightforward as drug or property crimes, he said.

“These cases are a lot more involved. Why there are so many is a complex issue. From what I’ve seen in my career, this is a crime that occurs across socioeconomic levels,” Golik said.

That heightened involvement requires the help of victim advocates, who establish relationships with survivors, keep them informed about the court process, prepare them for trial and walk them through how to obtain restitution. Their conversations are not confidential, unlike the community advocates from YWCA Clark County who visit the Domestic Violence Prosecution Center on a weekly basis.

Community shelter and resources

YWCA operates the only domestic violence shelter in the county.

The organization’s SafeChoice Domestic Violence Program offers an array of services for survivors that are designed to be easy to access, Peppers said.

The secured shelter — the location of which is kept confidential — has 10 bedrooms that can house as many survivors plus dependents, for up to a total of 34 people. It’s also pet-friendly.

Advocates staff the shelter around the clock. Much of the organization’s work on domestic violence is guided by employees and partners who support and advise survivors.

Peppers said advocates are available 24/7 through the domestic violence and sexual assault hotline. Survivors can speak with professionals about emotional support, accessing resources and shelter availability. Another key strategy is helping survivors develop a safety plan, including actions like asking neighbors and co-workers to watch for suspicious activity, changing house locks and garage door codes, and regularly changing the time you leave for work or school and how you get there.

Survivors can also complete domestic violence protection orders with English- or Spanish-speaking advocates.

The program is formulated to validate and acknowledge the experiences of survivors and empower them.

“Often, survivors have been denied making decisions on their own, because they’re being controlled in their relationships,” Peppers said. “Survivors are the best experts of their own lives. We want to recognize that sometimes the systems in place unintentionally tell them what to do, and that’s not what they need — yet another system telling them what to do.”

The hard reality, Peppers said, is there are limited domestic violence resources. There are always more requests for shelter rooms than are available. Staffing capacity, which is largely set by money obtained from grants, donors and fundraising efforts, is primarily focused on services at YWCA’s community office. Peppers said Clark County could benefit from having “mobile domestic violence advocates” who can engage underserved segments of the community.

Law enforcement, prosecutors and advocates all lamented that more should be done.

McClure, the city prosecutor, said he has been involved with domestic violence prosecution for more than two decades and feels that the community should be more outraged by the issue.

“No one should feel unsafe in their home. Domestic violence is totally unacceptable but the criminal justice system alone will never solve the problem. Educating the community and supporting the victims and survivors of this plague is a crucial part of ending domestic violence,” he said.

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