Tahlequah Daily Press

October 18, 2013

Officers explain challenges of spousal violence

Domestic Violence Awareness Month statistics are alarming

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — This year, like many others, local law enforcement officers have responded to an alarming number of domestic assaults in Cherokee County.

Authorities have arrested dozens of people who were accused of choking, hitting or otherwise attacking someone with whom they were involved in an intimate relationship. Alcohol and weapons are often involved in the disputes, and in many cases, children are present and caught up in the altercation.

One man was arrested this year when he shoved a lit cigarette into a woman’s chest after hitting and choking her.

In another scenario, a drunk man was booked into jail after he arrived at home, grabbed a woman by her throat and threatened her life. Police said the victim had a 7-week-old baby in her arms when the suspect shoved the woman’s head into a wall, punched her, and slammed her to the ground. Officers eventually had to deploy a tazer on the man.

And over the summer, deputies arrested an Oklahoma police chief at Lake Tenkiller after he allegedly pointed a gun at his wife and threatened her life.

While more men than women typically go to jail and ultimately face charges for domestic violence, men are frequently victims, too.

“We see more men as victims than what the public might know or think occurs,” said Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault.

He and other officers believe men often decide, for various reasons, not to file a report when they are the victim of an assault by a girlfriend, wife, or family member.

“But domestic violence isn’t a one-way crime; it’s not always a female victim that we see,” said Chennault.

Earlier this year, a man and woman were both arrested after they began to fight and left injuries on each other. Neither would cooperate with authorities.

Deputies also arrested a woman this year after she assaulted a family member, leaving the victim with a large swollen spot on one eye and cuts on her lip. That assault, like many others, occurred in a moving vehicle.

Steve Garner, assistant chief of the Tahlequah Police Department, said officers are required by state law to follow up on reports of domestic violence, even when the victim asks otherwise or claims to be OK.

“Under state law, it is not the choice of the victim or parties involved,” said Garner. “If officers see evidence of a domestic assault, the law says he ‘shall’ make an arrest for domestic violence.”

Chennault said prosecutors have the ability to seek charges against an aggressor based solely on evidence of an assault, rather than relying on the cooperation of a victim.

If there appears to be no physical evidence of an assault, Chennault said authorities do their best to defuse the situation, perhaps encouraging those involved to cool off by spending some time away from each other. Police are also required to provide victims with packets of information telling them where they can seek counseling or other assistance.

Officers are often asked by victims not to arrest the suspect in an abusive situation. Sometimes, a victim who calls for help may call back and ask police not to respond.

“If someone calls in and says they’ve been assaulted, even if they call back and say ‘never mind,’ we still go and do at least a welfare check,” said Chennault. “We get that quite a lot.”

With the help of a grant, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office at one time employed an investigator who was specifically assigned to domestic cases, but the department has since lost that funding. Now, deputies are tasked with defusing domestic situations. If the case requires it, Chennault or another sheriff’s investigator will look handle the case.

TPD also lost its grant for a similar investigator position, but Detective Bryan Swim now handles domestic cases. Officers also receive training to learn how to investigate domestics; how to pinpoint the aggressor; and how to work the case without cooperation from suspects or victims.

Chennault estimates the sheriff’s office receives reports of 10 domestic assaults, on average, each week.

According to Chennault and Garner, a domestic occurs between people who are living together, in an intimate relationship, or who are family members.

Any assault involving strangulation is a felony charge, according to Chennault, and a suspect who uses any type of weapon can be charged with a felony as well.