Domestic violence widespread, crosses geographic and economic lines

Staff writer

Fist fights, pushing matches and scuffles — it makes little difference what it’s called because it’s all categorized as one thing by police: assault and battery.

In Williamsburg, James City and York counties between 2014 and 2017, there were more than 5,000 reports to police for assault. Of those cases, about half result in an arrest, according to data from the Virginia State Police.

While the severity of the assault can be one factor in how police look at a case, the familial connection between perpetrator and victim can change the charges from assault and battery to domestic violence.

From an argument between spouses to physical abuse between a father and son, mother and step-daughter, domestic violence incidents run the gamut in neighborhoods across the area.

In an analysis performed by The Virginia Gazette, law enforcement in York and Williamsburg have documented more than 1,300 domestic violence incidents and disputes during the past five years.

James City County was unable to provide the data without significant expense, however, police department spokeswoman Stephanie WIlliams said between 2014 and 2018 the department made more than 1,000 arrests stemming from domestic violence.

Click on a pinpoint or hotspot to see more information. Use CTRL + scroll to zoom in on the map on a desktop computer. Use two fingers to swipe on a mobile device. The addresses listed on the map show neighborhoods where domestic disputes were reported and does not indicate that any person living at that address was involved.

Locations reported in The Virginia Gazette’s domestic violence incident mapping analysis were provided by police via multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.

“We see it across the entire spectrum,” York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Troy Lyons said of domestic violence. “When the economy is doing poorly it seems to pick up a little bit because people fight over financial stuff. That causes stressors that tend to cause arguments.”

It’s not a particular socioeconomic group; it’s a societal problem, Lyons said. Domestic violence can occur in any neighborhood, which can make prevention efforts difficult and the cases particularly difficult for police and prosecutors.

Nearly half of all Americans have experienced psychological aggression from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been raped, suffered a violent attack or been stalked by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Victim advocates, such as those at the Avalon Center and at the College of William and Mary ,are often the first line of contact for victims.

For Morgan Goad, a trained victim advocate at the Avalon Center, calls from survivors can come at any moment.

“The first question is always ‘are you safe right now?’ ” Goad said. The next question is whether the caller needs to have the police called on their behalf.

About 10 advocates at the Avalon Center staff the phones waiting for calls, according to Avalon spokeswoman Priscilla Caldwell. About six of them staff the 24-hour helpline.

“Almost half of those calls are survivors,” Caldwell said. “Not one call is like another.”

Intimate partner violence can be more than physical abuse, Goad said.

“Especially now, people are really starting to wake up to that fact it’s not just a punch. It’s financial, emotional, psychological and even the reproductive aspect of that,” Goad said. “We deal with that every day. It’s sad, but it’s not surprising.”

Elder abuse is another facet of the problem. For Susan Castle, an advocate at the Peninsula Agency on Aging, there can be red flags for domestic abuse.

Castle looks at the way couples interact when she speaks with them. Obvious fear or deference can be one red flag, she said. Another sign of abuse is frequent unexplained bruises or falls.

“Should we suspect abuse, we contact our local adult protective services agency and make referrals to other agencies,” Castle said.

For police, the high stress and emotional situations can make it difficult to gather evidence. That can make it difficult on a victim to stand up for themselves if they’ve been attacked.

“Ultimately, if an assault has taken a place, we take the appropriate action,” Williamsburg Police Department Chief Sean Dunn said. “Generally, by the time these matters go to court, the victim and the abuser may have some codependency, and they may find themselves in a situation where they're no longer arguing and they've patched things up. Then we find ourselves in a situation where a victim doesn't want to prosecute or see through that part of the process.

“Unfortunately, if they remain together and if they don't get some help, then it becomes a situation where we can find ourselves responding repeatedly to the same location.”

What makes a hotspot

Two of the three localities in the Williamsburg area collect data on where domestic violence occurs. James City County does not collect domestic violence data in a manner that can be mapped.

Of the more than 1,300 incidents with locations associated with them that have been mapped in The Virginia Gazette analysis, about 800 occurred in the city of Williamsburg proper, Penniman, Bruton and Yorktown north of Ft. Eustis Boulevard.

Hotspots in the region include the Northeast Triangle of Williamsburg, an area marked for redevelopment by City Council. More than 100 domestic incidents occurred in the small stretch of hotels, townhouses and apartment complexes between 2014 and 2018, according to the analysis.

Other hotspots include the Merrimac Trail neighborhoods of York Terrace and Carver Gardens, with several dozen incidents between the two neighborhoods; some regions, such as the Jamestown Road corridor of Williamsburg, have seen far fewer.

For Dunn, hotspots can be chalked up, in part, to higher density housing in areas with year-round residents.

“Along Jamestown Road, it’s probably an older population and a student population who are only here eight months a year,” Dunn said of the relatively low numbers of domestic violence incidents along the major corridor.

For Liz Cascone, director of the Haven at the College of William and Mary, the idea that there are fewer reports to police of domestic violence in areas around the college wasn’t surprising.

“Students are probably less likely to involve law enforcement,” Cascone said. “I think we know that people with experiences of intimate partner violence is much higher than what's reported to law enforcement.”

Sometimes, Cascone said, victims feel helpless to fight for their own protection.

James City police said they respond to about 200 cases of domestic violence and arguments yearly, according to Williams. The department has the ability to track arrest numbers, but not the locations of the arrest or incident.

Domestic violence or assault and battery?

In domestic violence cases, the familial relationship between victim and perpetrator can be complicated, however, the law is clear, Lyons said. Victims and perpetrators need to be family, or they need to have lived in the same household for the past year.

That sort of connection is obvious in some cases, such as that of the Williamsburg police officer accused of domestic violence after court documents said he drunkenly shot his AR-15 rifle once inside his home during an argument with his wife.

Richard Frederick Drab Jr., 50, was charged with domestic violence after an Oct. 24 incident, according to a James City County Police Department news release.

A man at Drab’s address reportedly called 911 and said, “There’s a man with a gun, and I’m sorry you have to do this,” according to information provided by James City County as part of a Freedom of Information Act Request.

Drab was arrested without injury and has made one court appearance since the alleged incident.

For other cases, the difference between domestic violence and assault and battery is simply a marriage certificate.

Jamar Miles, 26, of Petersburg, was charged with assault and battery and strangling after he allegedly strangled his girlfriend of nine years on Jan. 30, according to court records filed in York-Poquoson General District Court.

“Although they have dated for 9 years, they have no kids nor do they live together,” the criminal complaint in the case said.

Miles could not be charged with domestic violence under Virginia Code because the couple does not live together and has no children.

Drab’s case is held in the more private juvenile and domestic relations court, which aims to punish perpetrators in an appropriate way and reconcile the perpetrators with their victims when possible. Miles’s case is held in general district court, which aims to punish and reconcile perpetrators with society at large.

‘It didn’t happen the way they said’

While the law limits which relationships can rise to domestic violence charges, the familial connections of those accused of the crime can make it even more difficult to prosecute an offender, Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green said.

People often rely on one another to pay rent and keep the lights on, he said. That sort of dependency on one another can make it difficult for the victim and the accused to stay away from each other, even under court order.

“There are situations in which the perpetrator has a very close relationship with the victim,” Green said. “Regardless of whether or not steps have been taken to limit access of the defendant to the victim, oftentimes they have contact anyway.”

Further, a victim’s interest to see the case through the court system wanes over time, according to Green. They can renege on the statement they gave to police at the time of the offense.

“We oftentimes have victims who are saying ‘it didn’t happen the way they said,’ ” Green said. “They run the range from ‘it didn’t happen that way, it happened a different way’ to ‘I’m not saying it didn’t happen that way, but I’m not going to get up there and testify,’ and in between is the memories have faded, ‘I don’t remember it anymore.’ ”

The nature of the relationships between victims and perpetrators can make it so hard to prosecute that the Commonwealth’s Attorney has pushed for victimless prosecution — a process of evidence collection that allows victims not to testify in a case.

“The majority of domestic violence cases we prosecute, the victims maintain the relationship,” Green said. “It’s not a past relationship. It’s a present relationship.”

Green said few people — not the police officer who takes the report nor the prosecutor who takes the case — will ever understand what a domestic violence survivor experienced in that moment.

“I can never truly understand what they’re going through,” Green said before adding. “As tough as it is to prosecute, it’s harder to live in a house with domestic violence.”

Need help?

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence call the Avalon Center Crisis Hotline, available 24 hours daily at 757-258-5051. To talk or schedule an appointment at the Avalon Center, call 757-258-5022.

If you or someone you know is a student at the College of William and Mary and a victim of domestic or sexual violence, call the Haven at 757-221-2449 or visit their office at Campus Center 166.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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