Editor's Note: This is the second part of a series that takes a closer look at domestic violence in rural Montana. The first part can be found here.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are difficult topics of discussion. However, law enforcement and victims advocates say it’s a crisis that needs to be addressed.
“We need to say that this is an epidemic and it has been for years,” said Connie Huffman, executive director for Hi-Line’s Help for Abused Spouses.
Data from the Montana Board of Crime Control, Statistical Analysis Center tracks reported domestic violence crimes. For crimes against persons involving intimate partners — assault offenses, homicide, kidnapping and sex offenses — the state averaged 6,065.6 reported incidents a year from 2015-2019.
Montana did see a decline in reported domestic violence crimes during the pandemic with 4,533 total reported offenses, but advocates say it’s not a result of abuse not happening, but increased isolation.
“They’re isolated anyways in our rural areas and then you put the pandemic on top of that and the isolation becomes even worse,” noted Huffman.
In recent years, Lewis and Clark County has averaged one of the highest rates of reported domestic violence crimes in the state.
Law enforcement and area advocates don’t argue the statistic but see it as progress with more victims willing to reach out and trust law enforcement to hold the perpetrator responsible.
“Domestic violence still is an issue in our county, it’s an issue in our country and it leads someone to actions because they don’t know how to handle conflict and then we’re called in to keep the peace,” said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton.
Dutton has 36 years of experience with Lewis and Clark County, starting as a reserve deputy. He still vividly remembers the first domestic violence call he went on.
“When I went through training there had been an officer killed over in Anaconda who had responded to a domestic violence call by himself, so the ruling came down on high: Thou shalt not respond by yourself, which is good,” explained Dutton.
Leaving is often the most dangerous time for a victim and for officers responding.
According to an Am J Public Health study in 2003, 77 percent of domestic violence-related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75 percent increase of violence upon separation for at least two years.
“Unfortunately in my case, I was close, was the first there and I could hear yelling and screaming and the punching,” recalled Dutton. “I can’t think of anyone who could listen to that and wait for backup. In this case, I did not. I went in, there was a gentleman who had the woman pinned in the bedroom and he was punching her repeatedly. I had to do something. I tackled him with everything I had.”
Dutton recognizes that he put himself in danger during that situation and has worked to make sure his deputies hopefully never have to make a similar decision. Department policy is to always respond with at least one other member of law enforcement, be that another deputy, a Montana Highway Patrol trooper, game warden or other sworn officer.
Lewis and Clark County also reinforces de-escalation tactics with deputies and strive to treat victims with compassion. They work closely with victims’ advocates, the courts and other agencies to help individuals and families find safety and hold abusers accountable.
Laws have changed in the past decade to help hold abusers accountable. Strangulation is now a separate offense reflecting the severity of the crime. Officers are also required to report why an arrest was not made when responding to a domestic violence call.
But domestic violence situations are complicated. And law enforcement intervention is limited if a victim chooses not to press charges.
“There are so many reasons why a victim doesn’t leave or a victim goes back. And we shouldn’t ever be saying ‘Why do they go back?’ or ‘Why don’t they leave?’ We should be asking why are they being abused and why is nobody being held accountable,” said Huffman.
Dutton and Huffman both believe more needs to be done in ways of educating people that violent behavior is unacceptable, and change on a community level how domestic violence is addressed. Dutton would even encourage making conflict resolution part of the regular school curriculum.
Dutton worries there is a greater sense of “that’s not my problem” or “we should mind our own business” rather than reporting a situation to authorities or asking someone if everything is okay. Law enforcement would much rather respond to call where there isn’t a problem than never get the call when someone is in danger.
Communities are also strongly encouraged to openly discuss the issues and say something when they see something wrong.
“Once you get all that done I’m out of a job. So, I’m anxious for that day,” said Dutton. “I’m anxious for people to quit being violent, especially for domestic violence... I wish I could say that would happen but it’s not going to. But I’ll never give up, we’ll never give up, you shouldn’t give up.”
Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses Hotline: 800-219-7336
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233