King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is concerned that domestic-violence cases are receiving inadequate attention because Seattle police shifted the investigation of apparent misdemeanor offenses from detectives to patrol officers, the City Council was told Friday.
At a briefing on the 2014 city budget, council members received a letter from Satterberg saying the change has hindered misdemeanor investigations and made it more difficult to determine which ones rise to the level of felony cases.
“Misdemeanor domestic-violence investigations are often just as important as felony investigations, and misdemeanor-domestic-violence-prosecution teams recognize this connection and call themselves ‘homicide prevention units,’ ” Satterberg wrote in an Oct. 22 letter to council budget Chair Tim Burgess.
The issue comes on the heels of campaign-trail exchanges in which state Sen. Ed Murray, in his bid to unseat Mayor Mike McGinn in this year’s election, has accused McGinn of giving less priority to domestic-violence matters. McGinn has hotly disputed the charge.
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Hours after the council briefing, Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel reiterated his department’s longstanding commitment to domestic-violence cases but announced he was taking immediate steps to bolster such investigations, including a review of how many misdemeanor cases can again be handled by detectives.
“It’s true what Dan says: misdemeanors matter,” Pugel said in an interview.
Pugel said in a letter on the department’s website that police altered their approach in 2012 in response to a spike in felony domestic-violence assaults. But the department took steps to assure patrol officers received special training on preparing domestic-violence cases and assigned a full-time officer to work with the City Attorney’s Office, Pugel wrote.
Pugel wrote that he learned only Friday of Satterberg’s letter and wasn’t previously aware of any concerns or need for additional staffing.
Councilmembers were told during Friday’s staff briefing that, as part of a broad shift in handling serious crimes, detectives in the unit that investigates domestic violence, elder abuse and family protection began focusing on felony cases.
But after the change, county and city prosecutors raised concerns about the quality of misdemeanor investigations, according to the briefing.
Satterberg noted that Seattle police respond to thousands of domestic-violence cases every year, resulting in more than 1,000 misdemeanor prosecutions handled annually by the City Attorney’s Office.
“For these reasons, improving misdemeanor domestic violence investigations should be a priority,” Satterberg wrote, adding that his office and that of the city attorney have worked together in a nationally recognized program to identify “felony cases within misdemeanor response.”
Satterberg said the lack of misdemeanor detectives has made the work more difficult for a felony prosecutor, Kim Wyatt, who screens cases for felony or misdemeanor prosecution.
When misdemeanors were removed from detective work, Wyatt was forced to become “increasingly selective” about cases she referred for felony investigation because of “limited resources” for follow-up on misdemeanor matters, Satterberg wrote.
Of 154 cases tagged for additional investigation in 2012, nearly half received limited or no follow-up due to higher-priority felony workloads, he wrote.
In 134 felony cases rejected for prosecution that year, 59 were sent to the City Attorney’s Office for possible misdemeanor prosecution. But 34 of those were ultimately declined.
“When detectives are available to do follow-up work, a declined case can instead be sent as one needing more investigation,” Satterberg wrote. “That additional investigation will often revive a ‘declined’ case and make it prosecutable.”
Many domestic-violence offenders begin by committing misdemeanors before “advancing to greater violence,” Satterberg wrote.
He urged the council to increase the capacity of police to provide more detective work on all domestic-violence cases.
Among the options available to the council are adding more detectives to the 15-member domestic-violence unit or asking the department to again make detectives responsible for misdemeanor investigations.
Burgess, the budget chair and a Murray supporter, said misdemeanor cases serve as the “canary in the mine,” and described the shift from having detectives investigate them as a “shocking mismanagement of resources.”
In a letter to Burgess posted on the Police Department’s website, Pugel said that, among the steps he has ordered, all misdemeanor cases will be routed through the domestic-violence unit before being sent to the city attorney.
In addition, the department will perform a staffing analysis of all other criminal-investigation units and reassign misdemeanor domestic-violence cases to two additional detectives, he wrote.
The department also will work with the city attorney’s chief criminal deputy to determine if improvements can be made to the work done by patrol officers, Pugel wrote.
“Lastly, if your additional analysis shows that the Department needs more DV detectives, I would gladly receive them to work the misdemeanor cases,” Pugel wrote to Burgess.
In other discussion Friday, City Council staff said the number of police patrol officers had dropped by 57, from 559 to 502, between April 2010 and September of this year — even though patrol is considered the department’s highest priority.
Pugel has projected the number of patrol officers will increase by more than 40 by September 2014, which includes a proposal to create 25 new positions. But meeting that target might be difficult because of various staffing issues, the council was told during the briefing.
Burgess said then-Police Chief John Diaz promised a few years ago to add 30 more patrol officers.
“These statistics show they didn’t do that at all,” he said.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org