'Tremendously traumatized' Houston police face the growing problem of domestic violence

Brooke Taylor Image
Saturday, December 10, 2022
'Traumatized' HPD faces the growing problem of domestic violence
The number of homicides in Houston continues to rise each year and, in many cases, the victims are being killed by someone they know and love.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The number of homicides in Houston continues to rise each year, and, in many cases, the victims are being killed by someone they know and love.

13 Investigates found that family violence-related homicides nearly doubled since before the pandemic. There were 44 domestic violence murders in 2019 and 80 domestic violence murders in 2021.

It did go down in 2019 when there were 44 family violence deaths compared to 63 the year before. But, in 2020, it was up 36% and increased another 33% in 2021 with 80 deaths.

The Houston Police Department created the Domestic Abuse Response Team, known as the DART program, to directly respond to domestic violence scenes and educate victims on available resources to save those victims from potentially being killed.

"Our victims are tremendously traumatized," Lt. Julie Pleasant, who oversees the program, said. "There are scenes where they had their doors kicked in, a knife to their throat, they have been shot at or shot, our victims need help."

Each DART unit consists of a specially trained officer and a victim's advocate. The units respond from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. each night when domestic violence calls are at their highest.

Currently, two to three units a shift work overtime answering calls city-wide.

Pleasant is not required to respond to scenes as lieutenant, but she said it is important to see what her officers do and understand the city's needs, so she puts on a uniform and helps respond to calls every Friday.

Pleasant allowed ABC13's Brooke Taylor to join her overnight as she responded to calls where DART units were needed.

"I just got an update, it was a strangulation, and it's so bad it's hindering her breathing," Pleasant said.

Aggravated assault calls are most common for DART units, according to Pleasant.

While primary officers take care of the arrest, transport the suspect, and clear the scene, DART units solely focus on the victims' needs.

"I think it's huge," Pleasant said. "As law enforcement, we are running from call to call. Nationwide, law enforcement is short-staffed. When you have a domestic violence victim, you need to sit down, slow down, and be trauma-informed and explain their resources."

In many of the calls we responded to, victims were more likely to speak with the victim advocate.

"In our under-served communities, in our minority communities, especially, there is a gap we need to bridge as far as trust goes," Pleasant said. "When you have that other option, a civilian in plain clothes, who says I am here for you, that puts them at ease."

DART officers will work with its non-profit partners, such as the Houston Area Women's Shelter, to find emergency shelters for the victims and drive them there if needed. Pleasant said finding shelter has become a problem in Houston.

"It's not easy to find emergency shelter in this city, especially when you have a family of six children, not including the mother," Pleasant said. That means you need a whole room in the shelter. I was just at a conference in Galveston where I taught at the national social workers association, and it's a huge problem for everyone nationally, but especially in Houston because we have 2.3 million people here."

Toward the end of the shift, around 3 a.m., Pleasant was dispatched to a SWAT standoff on Lidstone St. in southeast Houston. A suspect barricaded himself inside his home after firing his gun at his pregnant girlfriend and two kids. She managed to escape, and he was later arrested.

The DART unit focused on ensuring the pregnant mother had somewhere to stay and knew what resources the city has to offer.

She wanted to stay anonymous but told ABC13 she wanted to help other domestic violence victims after learning what we were doing there.

"There's always hope, you know, and to trust and listen and follow your instinct," she said. "Protect yourself, and there's always hope out there."

The city's "One Safe Houston" crime initiative put $3 million towards DART. Lt. Pleasant said it comes at a time when the city desperately needs it. She hopes to expand the program and add more full-time officers.

"Not having to worry about abuse, being hit, threatened, or children taken away, they have literally escaped," Lt. Pleasant said. "The joy for me is to be able to see that and know I helped someone leave an abusive situation. For me, that's the only reward I need."

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