By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — After spending 18 months scrutinizing every aspect of Blue Earth County’s judicial system and how it deals with the perpetrators and victims of domestic violence, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, probation officers, court staff and judges are moving forward with a Blue Print for Safety plan.
The plan, which is based on a program implemented in St. Paul a few years ago, aims to reduce domestic violence by setting rules for dealing with suspects and victims while creating lines of communication between all the judicial agencies involved.
Everyone from Eagle Lake Police Chief Phil Wills to future 5th Judicial District Chief Judge Bradley Walker has spent hours identifying, improving and, sometimes, completely changing procedures to protect victims as much as possible.
A $121,000 grant to create a Blue Print for Safety plan for Blue Earth County was requested after a string of deadly domestic violence incidents with Blue Earth County connections. It was issued to CADA, a local women’s shelter, and administered by Bob Sutter, a former CADA board member.
It’s being rolled out this week during a three-day training conference at the Verizon Wireless Center. The grant money is gone and the plan is in place, but the work isn’t over.
“We’ve definitely made some progress, but it’s not a completed project,” Sutter said. “We have the agencies working together and establishing some of those relationships that should improve communications, but it’s going to have to be revisited periodically to make sure we have a common goal.”
With help from Praxis International, a research and training organization that provided the domestic violence reform framework for Blue Earth County, those involved created a 164-page plan. The Mankato Department of Public Safety, Minnesota State University’s Security Department and the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Department have each created protocols for how to deal with domestic violence. Smaller county police departments, such as Eagle Lake, are included in the Sheriff’s Department plan.
Former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington was at the training conference Monday to explain to local officials, many of them fellow law enforcement officers, why creating the plan was important for his city. He had learned earlier in his career, while setting out to chase down gang members and prostitutes in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, that domestic violence was, by far, responsible for most of the violent crimes in that area.
“That was one of the first light bulbs that went on,” Harrington said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been chasing the wrong set of bad guys.’ In fact, (the victims) were being quietly killed by people at home who said they loved them.”
There were officers who thought it would be too much work to track down every domestic assault suspect, arrest them and get them into the court system. Harrington said he told those officers to think of the victims as if they were fellow police officers who had been killed or seriously injured.
“Tell me what rocks you wouldn’t move to get the guy who did it,” Harrington said. “Then you’ll move those rocks for these victims. You’ll kick those doors down for these victims.”
In 2004 there were about 15,000 cases of domestic violence in St. Paul. The Police Department started focusing on people who were repeatedly violating court orders to stay away from their victims, a precursor to what later evolved into the Blue Print for Safety. That number dropped to 9,000 domestic violence cases in 2007.
The Blue Earth County plan includes steps officers can follow at an assault scene, including giving the victim information about CADA, either arresting the suspect or, if he left, ensuring he isn’t still in the area and checking back to make sure the suspect doesn’t return.
The plan also helps officers analyze how serious the situation is by looking at factors such as whether the suspect already has a no-contact order, if he has a history of stalking, and whether he owns guns or other weapons.
Among many other checks and balances, there also are steps probation officers, court staff and judges can follow to make sure arrest warrants are acted on and protection orders aren’t violated.
Colia Ceisel is a Praxis International consultant who worked with Blue Earth County agencies to develop the plan. She said the process went well, but, like every jurisdiction, there have been some unique problems here.
One of those problems is the size of MSU and the impact it has on local law enforcement, Ceisel said. A shortage of resources, she highlighted law enforcement officers and judges, also was a concern.
Some of what will happen through the Blue Print for Safety won’t be new for the area because local agencies had been proactive about domestic violence in the past, Ceisel said. The plan makes everything more organized and more likely the process is followed in every case.
“There’s a lot of discretion throughout the system,” she said. “I don’t think they weren’t seeing the risks and dangers before, but this will improve the tools they have to assess those things.”