Newly filed Texas bills aimed at repeat DV offenders

AUSTIN — Texas Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) hopes to combat domestic violence by repeat offenders in Texas in two bills filed this legislative session.

House Bills 524 and 525 would help inform the community of domestic violence offenses while increasing punishments given to the offenders. Villalba filed the two bills last year on Dec. 7, and Texas’ 2017 legislative session began Jan. 10.

Ben Utley, legislative director at the Texas House of Representatives, said the bills have not yet been introduced but that they are both a top priority.

“Domestic violence is a growing epidemic with tragic consequences,” Villalba told FOX 7 in Austin. “We need to send a strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated and that repeat offenses will be met with the harshest penalties available under the law.”

HB 524 would make a third domestic violence conviction a second-degree felony while altering the offender’s eligibility for parole and mandatory supervision. HB 525 would require an offender on his or her third conviction to register in a public database.

Sandi Murphy, a legal and policy advisor for the Battered Women’s Justice Project and advisor to Big Mountain Data, advised caution in supporting a database or registry of this nature.

“Too often, victims of DV end up arrested and convicted (rightly and wrongly),” she said. “Such registries would create devastating effects on their efforts to find work and housing and keep custody of the children.”

The central database proposed in the bill would contain information about the offenders committing violent acts against children or other family members and would also include convictions of dating violence.

“Such registries (much like the firearms bans) create obstacles for prosecutors to obtain plea agreements to charges that actually reflect their DV status, with offenders seeking to plead to non-domestic charges to avoid the registry,” Murphy said.

Villalba has shown similar concerns. In an interview with NBC in Dallas-Fort Worth, he discussed the possibility of a database “outing” potential victims.

“The question is, do we really want to out victims?” he said. “That’s a concern. In this situation, we will prioritize life over that concern.”

Information that wouldn’t be publicly available in the database includes the offender’s social security, driver’s license and telephone numbers, along with any information that could identify the victim. The new bills come after a year that saw another unprecedented domestic violence victory in several states, including Texas.

Last year marked the first time the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women awarded funds based on requirements of the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act. If a state meets the requirements of the act, it would be eligible to receive additional funds in its Stop Violence Against Women and Sexual Assault Services Program. Texas was one of 12 states to qualify for the funding.

Domestic violence hotlines in Texas answered 185,373 calls in 2014. More than 100 Texan women were killed by their partners in 2012, which is about 10 percent higher than the national total.

Two New Additions to the Big Mountain Data Advisory Board

In January of 2015, I was invited at the request of the High Point Police Department, to learn about the agency’s incredible work on domestic violence.  It was a full two-day workshop and law enforcement agencies from around the country attended.  Also present were representatives from The Battered Women’s Justice Project, the Department of Justice, John Jay College, and The Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IIR).

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Sandi Murphy, Battered Women’s Justice Project, asking the tough questions about the High Point Model for domestic violence offender deterrence.

Sandra Tibbetts Murphy, BWJP

Before I got to the meeting, I met a woman in line at the car rental counter.  We exchanged jokes and pleasantries about the inefficiency (understatement) of the car-renting process.  When I got to the HPPD workshop, I spotted this same woman in our session!   That woman was Sandra Tibbetts Murphy.  She asked tough questions in our workshop, and I made a mental note to be sure to connect with her after the two-day training class was over.

Sandi is a world-class attorney who’s written extensively on scholarly and legislative aspects of domestic violence law.  Many times, I’ve reached out to her over this past year and asked her to clarify aspects of the law I didn’t fully comprehend.  She has always been patient and kind to give me her best insights on her interpretation of the law or the issue I was addressing.

Today, I’m proud to announce Sandi is joining our esteemed Board of Advisors.  She will now be able to engage with our extended team on our enterprise social network, and help guide and inform our understanding of the law.

Retired Chief Marty Sumner, HPPD

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Chief Sumner’s May 2016 retirement party in High Point. A still from our film footage.

The second superstar joining our board is someone I’ve come to know and admire since our very inception.  In fact, it was his words spoken on national television in September 2014, that compelled me to jump out of my seat and demand to know more.  At the height of the Ray Rice saga, ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos ran an investigative segment on domestic violence.  I will never forget the words I heard that day:

“In the five years before we began this, we had 17 domestic-related violence homicides.  In the five years since, we’ve only had one.”  – Chief Marty Sumner,  September 2014.

Chief Sumner retired from his 31-year in law enforcement last May.  He has an unparalleled understanding of crime data, and especially domestic violence data. For the past 7 years, he led the initiative to apply focused deterrence to High Point’s domestic violence problem that was once over a third of the city’s homicides.  What has come to be known as the High Point Model has now been recognized by the DOJ’s Office of Violence Against Women, resulting in a $1.6M contract to the National Network for Safe Communities for replication and further evaluation.  The High Point story is the subject of our documentary. It was Chief Sumner who led the effort to perform a thorough analysis of the city’s domestic violence data, make necessary modifications to the law enforcement software, and implement a system of reporting and alerts that established the baseline that fueled the High Point Model’s success.

The addition of these two strong advocates for change have added a new layer of credibility and strength to our mission.

Big Mountain Data to Participate in Police Data Initiative Data Dive

Last spring, the White House announced the Police Data Initiative (PDI).   When we saw the announcement, it immediately piqued our interest.  Big Mountain Data’s mission is predicated on openness and transparency with regard to the data that can be collected, analyzed, and reported on intimate partner violence.  Via our partner Socrata and our contacts at the Sunlight Foundation, we reached out to see if we could begin to form a community of interest for knowledge-sharing and best practices specific to intimate partner violence data within the PDI.

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We were thrilled to hear last summer that Orlando joined as the first city in the state of Florida to join the PDI.  Orlando has an excellent reputation for community engagement, a strong technology base, and a progressive law enforcement agency keen on innovation. Orlando Police Chief John Mina even attended a forum with President Obama in October to discuss criminal justice reform and specific ways data can be made available to the public.

As the Orlando Police Department (OPD) prepares to release data on the open portal, the agency has been exploring how featured areas of interest can be examined in a “data dive” forum that will bring together subject matter experts in the community, law enforcement, and city government.  Lucky for us, the first data dive effort to explore this new form of collaboration will be focused on domestic violence and sexual assault data.  The event is invitation-only, and we are pleased to be taking part in this exciting inaugural event.  Representatives from the state involved in advocacy work, as well as local advocates and data experts will be sharing their expertise along with local government officials and law enforcement.  The goal of this session is to bring people together to preview the datasets, provide feedback before final public release, and generally kickstart conversations on how increased transparency can help inform programs and introduce new approaches in the spirit of better protecting and serving the community.

The Director of Innovation for the City of Orlando, Matt Broffman is leading this effort on behalf of the city.  He’s done a terrific job of coordinating the stakeholders involved in the event, as well as setting expectations.  The event will take place on January 27th in the afternoon.  Big Mountain Data has provided input for suggested themes worthy of exploration by the participating teams and will be contributing the talents of Stacy Sechrist and John Weil from University of North Carolina – Greensboro who have worked together over three years analyzing a decade’s worth of domestic violence crime data.  We are very optimistic that this workshop will be an excellent catalyst to launch many conversations on the strategic use of police data to thwart violence against women in central Florida.  We are thrilled to be a part of this historic event.  If the workshop yields good results, this model could be replicated to other PDI sites.