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Better officer training among 50 recommendations for stemming domestic violence in SC

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A task force's recommendations for combating domestic violence in South Carolina include training more 911 operators, improving documentation of the crime scene and increasing the number of shelters statewide.

Many of the 50 recommendations issued Monday involve uniformly training law enforcement officers statewide on how to investigate domestic violence cases.

Gov. Nikki Haley, who created the group by executive order in January, said there's a lot of work to do on recommendations that would seem to be common sense. She said she was shocked, for example, that officers often don't interview children at the scene or even document they were witnesses. Many officers don't interview the victim separately, allowing nonverbal intimidation from the abuser. Roughly one in five law enforcement agencies don't even require officers to file a report on a domestic violence call, according to the group's findings.

Prosecutors reported that, while photographs are important in getting a conviction, officers had failed to take a photo of the victim in 40 percent of their domestic violence cases. Sixty percent had no photo of the crime scene.

Haley called it a "kick in the gut" to learn that not all 911 operators are trained on handling domestic violence calls.

The Criminal Justice Academy offers a two-week course for 911 operators. But it costs $700 per person, and many smaller agencies simply can't afford the school, said Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith.

"If they don't know the right questions to ask, the officer doesn't know what he's walking into," Haley said.

Nationwide, South Carolina consistently ranks among the worst per capita in women killed by men. But the extent of the state's domestic violence problem is unknown. The task force discovered there's no uniform reporting system.

Some of the recommendations are aimed at supplying reliable numbers.

The Legislature passed a law in June that increased penalties for domestic violence convictions and gave prosecutors more options for punishment.

Haley asked her group to come up with systemic, cultural changes to combat the problem.

"We want to make sure anyone from a hairdresser to a dentist to a doctor can recognize the signs" and knows what to do with that information, she said.

At least 135 people from dozens of agencies, nonprofits and associations participated in the task force.

Once new guidelines are created, Haley said, she'll create a checklist for sheriffs and police chiefs across the state and ask them to sign a letter committing to implement them.

"I think law enforcement is doing all they know to do. We have no uniform processes on what they should be doing," she said. "They do what we tell them to do. What we need to do now is educate them."

The list of recommendations include:

—Making the paperwork for victims easier to fill out and uniform across the state. Victims are often overwhelmed and confused by the multiple forms, said Department of Corrections Director Bryan Sterling.

—Eliminating the practice of officers prosecuting domestic violence cases handled by magistrate and municipal courts. Haley said she's embarrassed that South Carolina is among four states that put officers in a courtroom against a "defense attorney with a ton of money."

—Creating a free brochure made available to employers, churches and other organizations that list all resources for victims, along with a guide for how residents can confidentially report suspected abuse.

—Increasing the emergency shelters available to victims, possibly through hotel vouchers and church parishes. Currently, there are 18 shelters across the state's 46 counties. More than 400 adults and children were turned away from shelters in 2013-14 due to a lack of space.

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