Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. History and Development


The San Diego Domestic Violence Council (DV Council) began as a formal task force in 1989, and was officially recognized by City and County Officials at that time. Prior to this, many of the members had been meeting informally for several years. An important event for San Diego's efforts came in 1986 when California passed legislation defining domestic violence as a felony (state penal code 273.5). This legal change lay the groundwork for a change in San Diego's response to domestic violence, and was essential to transforming the entire judicial process. Before this law was enacted, domestic violence was charged as a misdemeanor assault, the same as it would be between unrelated individuals. This meant that unless the crime was committed in the presence of a police officer, a citizen's arrest was required for the misdemeanor offense, which placed the burden on the victim in these cases.

At the time the law was passed, no agency policy or protocol existed for dealing with domestic violence cases in either the police department, the City Attorney's Office, or the District Attorney's Office. Thus, very few arrests were made and the small numbers of cases reaching prosecution most often resulted in acquittal. Victim advocates, police officers, prosecutors, probation officers, and batterer intervention service providers were all frustrated by this outcome.

Early in 1987 the first "victimless" case was prosecuted by the San Diego City Attorney's Office. Because the offender was a local judge, it was difficult to get another local judge to preside over the trial, and, therefore, the case was moved outside of San Diego County with a retired judge presiding. The jury deadlocked at 11 not guilty, and one guilty, and the judge dismissed the case. This trial helped to spur activity in an already frustrated domestic violence community in San Diego. Victim advocates and the City Attorney's Office began meeting and invited other interested community members to talk about these problems. This group continued to meet informally until 1989 when the DV Council held its first official meeting. The Council invited the County Board of Supervisors, the Mayor, the District and City Attorneys, and several other local policy makers to attend the kick-off meeting and sanction the task force. Nearly 200 agency representatives and individuals attended the DV Council's first official meeting.

During the council's informal days, the members developed a protocol for prosecuting domestic violence cases. This protocol stimulated the development in 1988 of the vertical prosecution domestic violence unit in the City Attorney's Office, through which a single prosecutor handled a domestic violence case throughout the process. The protocol stated that if the prosecutors believed that there was sufficient evidence to win a case without the victim's cooperation, they would issue on the case regardless of whether or not the victim was willing to testify. Through their interactions with victim advocates, the prosecutors came to understand the cycle of violence. This understanding coupled with the fact that 80 percent of victims are unwilling to testify or change their testimony by the trial date were key factors in establishing this policy. After adopting this policy, the City Attorney's Office set out to become experts in investigating and trying victimless cases.

In 1990, the District Attorney's Office followed suit and created a vertical prosecution unit. A provision in the state penal code allowed vertical prosecution units but provided minimal funding for such initiatives. The City Attorney's unit was initially staffed with 3 deputy city attorneys, an investigator, and a victim advocate. It has since grown to include 9 deputies, 3 investigators, and 2 victim advocates. The District Attorney's Office domestic violence unit is somewhat smaller, owing to the fact that over 90 percent of domestic violence cases in San Diego are prosecuted as misdemeanors.

Shortly after creating the vertical prosecution unit and adopting the victimless prosecution policy, the City Attorney's Office realized that without the police department on board, they would not make much progress in prosecuting domestic violence cases. Even though the law stated that domestic assault was a felony, without a pro-arrest policy in place, the police were not arresting or reporting domestic violence incidents. In 1990 the Council developed a protocol for law enforcement that subsequently was adopted by the San Diego police chief's and Sheriff's Association. In 1990 the San Diego Police Chief also appointed a domestic violence coordinator to examine the effect of the law defining domestic violence as a felony on the number of cases reported. This internal research showed that domestic violence was gravely underreported and that despite the law giving police officers the authority to arrest, arrests were not being made. The new protocol and these findings, along with the new protocol, from this research prompted the Police Department to establish a specialized investigation unit in 1992. This change was made by reorganizing staff and closing lower priority departments and, thus, no any additional funding was required.

Training of all staff, both in the domestic violence unit of the prosecutor's offices and the police department was key to getting the police to make arrests, write up thorough reports, collect evidence, and pass the case on to the City Attorney's Office. It was also important to the development of strong victimless cases and successful trials by the deputy attorneys. The cycle of violence, why victims stay, and what questions to ask were all addressed by this initial training.

Some of the other highlights of the DV Council's past work include the medical services protocol developed in 1990 and the batterer intervention standards created in 1991. In recent years, the DV Council, law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates, and social service providers have continued to refine their response to domestic violence. Other specialized units and programs have been developed including one in the probation department, a joint program between probation and the Children's Services Bureau (CSB), a unified court in South Bay, and an intensive advocacy program at Children's Hospital.

Representatives from the CSB joined the DV Council last year. Since then, both the CSB staff and the other council members have struggled over philosophical differences between the CSB and the victim advocates (on the council). Both groups are very concerned by the lack of children's services and the inattention to children who witness domestic violence. Trying to focus on common ground rather than difference of philosophy has helped these two groups develop common goals and work together. At the same time, the CSB has been developing a domestic violence protocol for their agency, and they are asking for input from experts in the community, most of whom sit on the DV Council.

Many active members of the council feel that they are currently at a cross-roads in their development, and they have planned a retreat in the near future to assess their purpose and to outline their future directions. The Council has recently been unable to obtain sufficient private funds to retain a full-time director, and, at present, is staffed by a voluntary position. Much of the council's recent work has focused on primary prevention activities. Council members speak in classrooms throughout San Diego County and have developed an ad campaign in conjunction with the Junior League that includes billboards and a series of bus kiosk posters.

The informal coordination among community agencies and criminal justice agencies has flourished through the DV Council. Without the council, many of these agency representatives would not know one another. Through their work on the DV Council, agencies have a face to associate with a name, and when staff need to make a referral to a shelter, batterer intervention program, or victim support group, they have more than just a name and phone number associated with the needed service. There have always been service providers in the community focused on domestic violence; however, the DV Council and the increased attention it has brought to domestic violence have resulted in more funding for these services over time. As a result, more services are available and the quality of many of the services has improved, according to some people. Some providers felt that when you know other people in the community who are going to access your services for their clients, there is more incentive to provide a quality service.