SHERIDAN — Reports of domestic violence in Sheridan County reached their highest level in five years in 2016, but law enforcement and advocacy groups have a difficult time determining if the numbers indicate an increase in crimes committed or an increase in victims reporting those crimes.
The culture around domestic violence looks different than it did 20 years ago. While Wyoming and Sheridan experienced an increase in reports of domestic violence, the state and community also witnessed a change in the culture around how society looks at the crimes.
“I think the change in society — it’s not acceptable at all anymore in general society,” Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said. “It kind of was in the ‘90s, definitely was in the ‘80s. It was a different world. But the changes in laws and the social norms have come a long way in the last 20 years and that’s a great thing.”
When he entered law enforcement, Thompson said he worked with officers and deputies in the era of victim blaming and shaming, with many asking what the victim did to set off or provoke the perpetrator.
“It’s embarrassing,” Thompson said. “The social norms at the time were unbelievably different than they are right now.”
Sheridan County Deputy and Prosecuting Attorney Dianna Bennett agreed that a culture shift has occurred, saying that when she was a kid, domestic violence was prosecuted less and law enforcement wasn’t as in tune to it as they are today.
Thompson said he made at least two arrests per week related to domestic violence when he first started at the Sheridan Police Department, which as an entity, made between five and 10 per week during that time period. Changing laws make it hard to track how many domestic violence crimes took place over the years. Battery charges were reassessed to reflect batteries and assaults specific to domestic situations, or incidents involving household members.
The SCSO recorded five domestic batteries in 2015, 15 in 2016 and 12 so far in 2017. Domestic assaults did not reach higher than two per year from 2014 to 2016 and there have been three reported so far this year. Only 51.9 percent of Wyoming’s assault incidents in 2016 resulted in arrests, according to the Crime in Wyoming uniform crime report published by the Division of Criminal Investigation.
The Sheridan Police Department’s CrimeReports website reported 203 family offenses through Oct. 11 in 2017. In all of 2016, a total of 276 family offenses were reported.
While the culture shift has brought domestic violence into the public eye, much work remains in the prosecution and public perception of the crimes.
It was only last year, after multiple reports of domestic violence cases — such as that of NFL player Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee in an elevator — that the NFL revised its personal conduct policies.
The policy was changed so that regardless of conviction, NFL players would be subject to discipline. Violations that involve felony criminal assault or battery, domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence or sexual assault can result in players receiving six-game suspensions without pay. A second offense will result in permanent banishment from the NFL with the opportunity to petition for reinstatement after one year.
Bleacher Report magazine reported the NFL enforcing the suspension punishments against two of 18 players publicly linked to domestic violence allegations since the new policy.
Punishments for domestic battery and assault in Wyoming may include fines of up to $750 and not more than six months of imprisonment if the perpetrator was previously convicted of domestic assault or battery or a similar offense. Another conviction within five years bumps up the sentence to a maximum of one year imprisonment and a fine of $1,000. Two or more convictions within 10 years increases the fine to $2,000 and the sentence to a maximum of five years.
Bennett said since laws changed to define assaults and batteries against household members, offenders also face other consequences under federal law, including the loss of the right to own firearms.
Unleashing the secret
Events like the March Against Family Violence and coalitions forming around the issue helped change the culture of secrecy that surrounded domestic violence.
“I think awareness here, like nationwide, is better,” Bennett said. “I think it was a secret; I think people are more willing to talk about it now and we have something like the Advocacy and Resource Center. I imagine 30 years ago they didn’t have any such thing.”
In 2016, the center reported 224 victims of domestic violence and 33 victims of assault. These numbers count each victim only one time, regardless of how often advocates met with the victim throughout the year.
“I know that our awareness campaigns nationally are louder,” said Yvonne Swanson, a volunteer coordinator and victim advocate for Sheridan’s Advocacy and Resource Center. “It’s being talked about more between our professional sports and our news…information is getting out.”
Numbers can indicate trends, but the true success in reducing domestic violence remains unknown.
“It’s hard to answer that question, too, because when our numbers for the month or the year increases with the amount of people we see for domestic violence-related incidents, we can’t really tell whether it’s because it’s happening more or it’s because people are feeling safer to come in, more supported to come in and maybe we’re in contact with more people because of that,” victim advocate Cassidy Drew said.