Despite an increase in deaths nationwide due to domestic violence in 2010, the trend in Santa Clara County reversed -- with only five deaths in 2010 as compared to 11 deaths in 2009, the District Attorney's office announced Monday (Feb. 14).
County intervention programs, increased reporting of domestic-violence incidents, outreach, mental-health programs and rigorous arrests and prosecution contributed to the decline, Assistant District Attorney Rolanda Pierre Dixon said during a press conference in San Jose.
"It is our belief that Santa Clara County's cutting-edge policies and procedures helped keep the number of domestic-violence-related deaths down this year, especially at a time when the economy is in such poor shape. ... It is very clear that outside stressors such as underemployment can be deadly in a domestic-violence home," she said.
But while the lower numbers are encouraging, county officials say there is still more work to be done.
"Even one death is one too many," said Dixon, chair of the Domestic Violence Death Review Team, a committee of the Santa Clara County Domestic Violence Council. The committee is composed of representatives from the DA's office, local law enforcement, therapists, victim advocates, probation, Department of Corrections, adult protective services, the Coroner's Office and other legal and social services groups.
The number of deaths in 2010 is up from a low of three in 2008 but down from a high of 21 deaths in 2003, according to the committee's annual report. The highest incident rate for the past decade was in 2000, with 15 separate events.
The 2010 deaths occurred in three separate incidents: in Mountain View (one homicide/suicide) and San Jose (one homicide/suicide and one homicide). All of the deaths were by firearm, Dixon said.
The victims' and perpetrators' ages ranged from 28 to 70. The three female victims were 28, 31 and 62 years old; the male perpetrators were 40 and 70, the report noted. Two of the dead were Asian, two were Caucasian and one was Hispanic. None were African-American and none were among immigrants. One of the deaths involved persons involved in a same-sex (lesbian) relationship.
The committee focused on a case-by-case examination of all deaths in the county related to domestic violence: homicides, homicide/suicides, suicides, accidents and blue suicides -- when an individual threatens to kill police officers and comes at the officers with a deadly weapon, provoking law enforcement to shoot the perpetrator.
The reviews thoroughly examine the lives of victims and perpetrators and any contact they had with the system prior to their deaths to identify gaps in law enforcement, justice, penal and social services.
The committee's investigation of last year's cases "clearly shows that nearly everyone around these victims was aware of serious problems in the relationship but did not intervene prior to the deaths. Domestic violence does not get better on its own," the report noted.
For that reason, since 2002, the committee has been pushing the theme "Speak up -- Save lives," to develop public awareness and the need to alert authorities when such violence is suspected, Dixon said.
The District Attorney's Office reviewed 4,433 domestic-violence cases in 2010 (85 new cases per week) and prosecuted 2,457 -- about 47 new criminal cases weekly.
Restraining orders appear to have a significant impact on reducing domestic-violence deaths, Dixon said. In the 2010 deaths, none of the victims had filed police reports for prior domestic violence and none of the perpetrators had prior restraining orders, according to the report.
Santa Clara County Superior Court issued 2,252 restraining orders and the DA's office issued 1,917 misdemeanor and 540 felony domestic-violence complaints, according to the report. The county also offers counseling, batterer treatment groups and programs for victims and their families, according to the report.
Santa Clara County became one of the first in the state to take part in the Domestic Violence Registry, which provides current information to law-enforcement agencies statewide on domestic-violence perpetrators.
In the vast majority of domestic-violence cases, when the decision to kill was made, the perpetrator was "stone cold sober. You can't blame it on the Budweiser," Dixon said.
Untreated and inadequately treated mental-health issues underlie many of the cases the committee reviewed this year, Dixon said.
In 2009, Palo Alto resident Heather Russell, 29, died by suicide on May 5, 2009, after repeated beatings by a boyfriend, according to police. Jennifer Schipsi, 29, also of Palo Alto, was strangled Oct. 15, 2009, and her body was burned in an arson fire set by her boyfriend, Bulos Zumot. He was convicted of first-degree murder and arson on Feb. 10. The couple had a long history of domestic violence, according to prosecutors, and many of the "red flags" professionals say lead to domestic violence.
The committee found the following warning signs and characteristics of batterers who kill:
■ Loners -- do not have any friends of their own. If they have a friend it is often someone from their childhood, who hasn't stayed close to them.
■ They will "co-opt" the victim's friends in an attempt to learn more about the victim.
■ They are overly possessive, controlling and jealous. They will try to get all of the victim's friends, family members and co-workers away from the victim.
■ They control all the finances, even if they don't work. They control the victim's important papers i.e. passports, money or access to money.
■ They are often underemployed or recently unemployed.
■ They often have attachment issues, having lost a parent at an early age.
■ Close to the time of death they will begin to unravel -- unable to sleep, talking about dying, threatening suicide or homicide, extremely upset about life -- while at the same time having the ability to meticulously plan the victim's death.
■ They will engage in stalking conduct if the victim tries to leave them.
■ Batterers do not mellow with age. Getting older can ever be more dangerous, especially if the victim is in good health and the batterer is not.
■ They become distraught at the discussion of separation.
■ They have had prior unsuccessful intimate relationships.
■ What the batterer wants is primary, nothing else matters, not even children. Everyone around the victim is at risk.
■ They will threaten homicide and or suicide, do not ignore them.
■ They often have a firearm in the home or access to firearms, call 911 and ask law enforcement how to have it removed.
The committee also offered the following advice regarding danger signs in relationships and former relationships:
■ The perpetrator wants to know everything about you from the moment you meet, i.e., phone numbers, access codes, and computer passwords.
■ The perpetrator does not want you to have a life outside of your relationship, will try to do everything possible to end your prior associations and friendships, including relationships with your family members.
■ The perpetrator's intensity scares you but you don't listen to that inner voice and try to excuse the conduct.
■ All threats must be taken seriously whether or not you feel the perpetrator has the means to follow through on them, or later makes the excuse that they were just kidding.
■ The perpetrator keeps you on an emotional roller coaster.
■ If you have a break up, the perpetrator will not accept it and will continue to try to get you back into the relationship. Get a restraining order and make sure all violations of it are reported to law enforcement.
■ The perpetrator uses force to control you but tries to pretend they were "just playing."
■ The perpetrator will apologize profusely for "bad" conduct but will then repeat it on another occasion.
■ The perpetrator shows explosive anger that is not proportionate to the incident.
■ The perpetrator never takes personal responsibility for the rifts in the relationship, always blames you.
■ The perpetrator has hiding places for items, i.e., guns/deadly weapons in the home, and you are not allowed in that area.
■ The perpetrator monitors your phone calls, cell phone, text messages, social networks, email and your computer or laptop. They will also confiscate your important papers.
■ The perpetrator gets too serious in the relationship too soon.