Houston domestic violence homicides spike in 2018

HOUSTON – Police and prosecutors are trying to understand why the number of domestic violence-related homicides spiked in Houston last year. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said domestic violence-related killings accounted for 20 percent of all homicides committed in the city in 2018.

“It was a 38 percent increase in domestic violence homicides,” Acevedo said.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is currently studying reasons for such a sharp uptick in homicides.

“We want to know how to avoid the spikes,” said Carvana Cloud, chief of the DA’s Family Criminal Law division.

Cloud believes one factor in the spike comes from the toll Hurricane Harvey took on families. She said it's not an excuse, but natural disasters further strain an already troubled home.

“Loss of employment, loss of transportation; folks' basic needs are not being met,” Cloud said.

Cloud said before the homicides began to increase, the DA's Office was already working with police to see more domestic violence cases prosecuted. Many victims either don't report abuse, deny being abused when officers arrive or recant.

“Statistics show we go back an average of seven times, that could be three or 23. I went back actually seven times,” Dr. Conte Terrell said.

Terrell, a domestic violence survivor, founded Fresh Spirit Wellness for Women to help victims break the cycle of abuse.

“Helping them to understand that going back, first of all, makes it worse, and harder to leave each time,” Terrell said.

To help alleviate some of the burdens on victims to not only leave their abusers but also face their attackers in court, Cloud said the DA's Office has been taking a more evidence-based approach to domestic violence.

“What did that caller say when she called 911? We look at photographs that the police take. Maybe furniture was turned over or blood on the wall,” Cloud said.

The DA's Office has also been training officers throughout the county to spot subtle signs of strangulation. This form of abuse is common in domestic violence cases, but Cloud said many times, officers missed the signs.

“When people think strangle, 'Oh, there's got to be marks around the neck or something like that.' Most times external injuries are not present,” Cloud said.

Cloud said officers are taught to look for things like a raspy voice, coughing or petechiae, which are small dots in the mouth or around the eyes caused by capillaries breaking open. Cloud said officers are also now required to fill out a separate, supplemental report when encountering choking cases. Cloud said this step was important because what is referred to as “impeding breath” is a third-degree felony. Cloud said prior to the legislature creating this law, many of these cases were prosecuted as misdemeanor assaults.

Cloud said caseworkers are also now responding with police to many domestic violence calls, to inform victims of what services are available. Cloud said some victims are reluctant to prosecute because they are financially dependent on their attackers.

Last October, the DA’s Office also began an outreach program for victims of domestic violence. Cloud created the program, which has caseworkers meet with victims at different neighborhood-based organizations.

“Coming downtown is very daunting and then you pay $10 to park. What if you don't have $10?” Cloud said.

As a result of these efforts, the number of domestic violence-related cases filed by the DA’s Office climbed from 8,699 in 2017 to 12,236 in 2018. The number of “impeding breath” cases also went 1,413 in 2017 to 1,988 in 2018.

“Domestic violence is a huge driver in our community,” Cloud said.

Acevedo said he will also be talking with legislators about the possibility of giving police the authority to temporarily remove firearms from homes where domestic violence has been reported. He said the most common weapon used in domestic violence homicides is a gun.

“Doesn't mean they're not going to be able to use their firearms forever, but it does mean we have a process to be able to safely take away and keep them until we can help them navigate through whatever challenge they're having in life,” Acevedo said.

One domestic violence survivor who spoke with KPRC is using her ordeal to help other women realize the perils of thinking the abuse will suddenly stop. Porsha Daniels was nearly decapitated and disemboweled by her boyfriend after enduring several incidents of being beaten and choked.

“He made promises to me that he was going to change, he was going to be this person, he was going to marry me,” Daniels said.

To hear Daniels' full story, watch the video above. She also created a video on YouTube, chronicling her experience.