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The Killing of Murder

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Solution 3.
Play marriage cop.

A success story that emerged last year in the NYPD’s domestic-violence division suggests that even some of the most stubborn categories of homicide might be vulnerable to the soft weapon of increased attention.

Homicides that occur within families, of course, often exemplify the type of murderous behavior that many observers consider immune to intervention—a man “snaps” and kills his wife, a mother “snaps” and kills her children. The conventional wisdom is that there’s only so much law enforcement can do to foresee these situations.

Deputy Chief Kathy Ryan, the commanding officer of the NYPD’s domestic-violence unit, had put three years of effort into reducing family-related homicides without seeing dramatic change in the numbers. But while domestic-violence murders hugged close to the 70 mark each year, she remained committed to increasing police visits to homes with histories of domestic violence. In 2001, trained officers made 33,400 such visits. Under Ryan, visits rose to more than 76,000 last year, and big results finally followed: Only 45 domestic-violence homicides were recorded in 2007.

Ryan says that the home visits accomplish many things. They give abusers a sense of being watched. They give the weaker party in a home a sense of having allies. They sometimes even catch an offender lording over a household that he’s barred from by a court order. Not surprisingly, the big decline in domestic-violence murders occurred in households that police already knew were problem homes. Such homicides are down about 64 percent since 2002, for a total of just 10, compared with a decline of about 27 percent in the much larger group of murders that come without warning.

The only tactic Ryan can identify as an explanation for the latter decline is as soft a government intervention as you could find. Along with Mayor Bloomberg’s office, the city’s Department of Health, and the borough D.A.’s offices, Ryan’s division has participated in a huge push in recent years to spread public awareness about domestic violence. Through lectures and handouts printed in various languages, victims and witnesses to domestic violence are learning that a network of agencies is ready to intervene before a troubled relationship gets worse. Such efforts, limp as they may sound, could be law enforcement’s future.

Still, in another corner of Ryan’s world, police are about to begin an experiment that feels more stern and futuristic. Sometime this winter, the first of a few dozen domestic-violence offenders in Queens and Brooklyn will strap on a small ankle bracelet that he’s agreed to wear in lieu of serving jail time. A Global Positioning System on the bracelet will indicate where the offender is at all times. If he wanders too close to a home, school, or workplace covered by a protection order, a radio car will automatically be dispatched to the site and a call will be placed to the individual in danger. The hope is not to catch domestic abuse in action, but to preempt it.


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