Domestic Violence Homicides Down in Ala.

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A unique firearms docket in Montgomery, along with more shelters and new state laws targeting spouse abuse
cases, are viewed as likely factors in the drop in domestic violence homicides in Alabama over the past decade.

According to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, there were 27 domestic violence homicides in the state in 2005 -- down from 58 in 1994.

While Alabama has seen an increase in domestic violence on the misdemeanor level through 2005, efforts to cut down on the homicide
rate seem to be working.

Lieutenant Steve Searcy is commander of the Montgomery Police Department's domestic violence unit. He says although you can't stop it completely, you can control the numbers.

Searcy recalls that a decade ago the newly formed unit found that 75 to 85 percent of women murder victims were being killed in their homes with a hand gun.

In response, the city of Montgomery formed a domestic violence firearms docket, called TARGET. The program speeds up the court process when a spouse is threatened with a gun, shortening the time when firearms violence might turn deadly.

Previously, Searcy says, domestic violence cases involving a gun would often get dropped back to municipal court, a slower docket. Now those cases go to district court, where there is a quicker turnaround.

Officers also look for signs to take action where once they were told there was nothing they could do beyond responding to domestic violence incidents when they occur.

Searcy says police had to adjust our thinking process and become proactive to a crime and not just reactive.

"Domestic violence is a crime in progress," he says, calling it a "cycle of violence."

In 2002, state laws were passed that classified domestic violence as a crime and allowed prosecutors to build a case based on evidence rather than waiting to hear abuse claims from victims, who are often reluctant to come forward.

Now officers are trained to base their investigation on evidence, says Searcy.

There has also been an increase in the number of victims getting services in shelters. There were only eight shelters in the state when Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence director Carol Gundlach started working with victims. Now there are 20.

Gundlach says the changes are working, but, she says, "we have a long way to go."

She says the good news is police are doing what they're supposed to do.

"Batterers are being held accountable," she says.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics Report in December showed that "intimate partner violence" rates fell by more than 50 percent nationwide over the past decade, similar to the homicide case numbers in Alabama.

But because the Justice Department's report is based on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, the results almost certainly underreport actual rates, according to Gundlach.

"People underreport because of shame or because they fear that the perpetrator will know that they disclosed the violence," she says. "Underreporting because of fear is most likely when the perpetrator and the victim are living together at the time of the survey."

This is most likely why the highest reported rate is among separated and divorced women.

Gundlach says they are safe to report the abuse at the time they are separated.

Now that strategies to help stop violence and aid victims have been identified, Gundlach believes they must be used consistently so domestic violence can continue on the decline.

"We don't want the public or policy makers to say, 'The problem is fixed, let's go on to something else,"' says Gundlach. "We don't want to quit now that we've succeeded."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)