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Reducing domestic violence takes a community

Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum shares his perspective with the Sioux Falls Homeless Task Force on Monday, August 22, 2022.
Jackie Hendry
Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum

This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum says he remembers feeling a little powerless as an officer responding to domestic violence calls and leaving victims with only the phone numbers of local resources.

But community-based organizations are a powerful tool to protect victims.

For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Chief Thum joins In the Moment to discuss solutions to stopping domestic violence in a community. It starts with the youth.

Reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

Lori Walsh:
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Before the break, you heard my interview with author Leslie Morgan Steiner from February. She talked about her memoir "Crazy Love," which dove into her relationship and eventual separation from an abusive husband.

We're going to talk more about domestic violence now. We have Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum with us. Every call to the police reporting domestic violence can be an opportunity to get a victim help. We're going to talk about what that looks like and what the community is doing, what the community can know.

Chief Thum, welcome back. Thanks for being here.

Jon Thum:
Thanks for having me. Like I said, I always enjoy coming on.

Lori Walsh:
Now the news is positive in the sense that domestic violence calls have gone down in the city of Sioux Falls, but that needs some context. Tell us a little bit about what we know about domestic violence calls in the city.

Jon Thum:
So every year we look at trends and see what's the year-to-year progression on that because agencies look at different things in different ways. And so for us, we really take a hard look each year. And this year as we kind of did our mid-year stats report, we saw that there was an increase in aggravated assaults, an increase in simple assaults. But while that's taking place, which is kind of consistent with nationwide trends, we dialed down to domestics in both aggravated and simple categories. And they're both showing decreases from the last year.

So, in the face of rising assaults, we can see domestics actually going down. And I think that's a really positive thing to highlight and encourage, especially since over the last five years we've seen domestics kind of trending up. So, to take that step back, move in a good direction, I think is something that we can be pretty excited about and want to really talk about.

Lori Walsh:
What do you want to say about the community services and the places that people can go. Because that doesn't necessarily mean that domestic violence isn't happening, but it might mean it's not turning into a police call if someone's getting services elsewhere. Tell me how to think about these numbers.

Jon Thum:
So, I think we look at it as a lot of times we think of law enforcement either making arrests or a prosecution as the resolution of these events, right? Well, it's just something that happens as a result of other things. We see the cycle of domestic violence where officers are called back again and again and again.

So, it's not necessarily a byproduct of making arrests, but us partnering with some really good nonprofits who do really good things.

And I always look at the Compass Center, and ever since Children's Inn changed their name I always get it wrong, but it's Children's Home Shelter for Family Safety. I got to get it. It rolls off a tongue, but we need to highlight the work they're doing and make sure every time this topic comes up that we're shifting the focus to the whole system as a whole.

And that's a public that's aware of these issues and is aware of the resources that we can divert people to. Because as an officer, sometimes I'd kind of feel a little bit powerless at the end of a domestic violence call. And I'd be like, "Well, here's the number," for the Children's Inn at the time. And I'd write it on a sheet of paper and I'd give it to them. And I knew that I could at least steer them toward a resource, and I may not be the one that took them there, but if they take that step, there's somebody there willing to help.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah, there are always high-profile cases of two things. One, officers didn't catch something and then there's a high-profile death, or two, officers respond to a domestic assault that turns out to be very dangerous for the officers.

Avoiding all kinds of clichés, but realizing the seriousness of these calls and what can happen, what do you want people to understand about domestic violence and intimate partner violence that can go from chronic to very acute and life-threatening in an instant?

Jon Thum:
Yeah, I mean, it really grows over time sometimes too. And I think what starts out at first as, "Oh, well that'll never happen again," or "This is just a one-time thing. They really didn't mean it." But then it grows and grows and grows. And I think there's a misconception that domestic violence only takes place in some parts of town. It takes place everywhere. It's just if we look at it, if we study it, whether or not it gets reported though is the other factor.

And I think it comes up again and again and we need to just be open and have that dialogue about what exactly are the signs. And I think I remember having this conversation, our domestic violence detectives do great work with working with victims in the state's attorney's office with their victim advocates and really messaging it doesn't get better. Stats tell us it doesn't get better. In fact, stats tell us it gets worse the longer this goes on. And then you see some really tragic cases and some really bad situations.

But I always like to reference this back too in this behavior that's modeled and displayed for our kids then. And so what are our kids' expectation of a healthy relationship? What are our kids' expectation of how their significant other's going to treat them? And if we don't interrupt the cycle, it becomes just part of what's an accepted part of a relationship. And I think we're doing way better than we were 20 years ago about calling out loud and not hiding it.

But again, there's a lot of shame that goes with it too then. So I think working through all those multifaceted issues to really make an impact is difficult, but it's something we have to really keep it on. And with October, again, being the month, we always highlight what I think is really year-round. It's a year-round thing. We got to be bringing attention to that.

Lori Walsh:
There are other circumstances. And talk to me a little bit about officer training and what the law allows you to do where someone might call you anticipating that you'll make an arrest and instead you give them a phone number for Children's Inn. Help us understand the nuances, the range or the spectrum of officer responses to a domestic violence call.

Jon Thum:
And it really was interesting, when I got hired 2005, there were already some state laws in the book because it was a mandatory arrest when there was probable cause that a domestic assault had taken place within something that had met the definition of a domestic relationship. And so that was already a move way back then to say, you know what? We're going to kind of take away from the victim. Now the victim needs to have rights, but there are many really complicated reasons why a victim would choose to be a victim in those circumstances. And we're trying to make sure the state has the opportunity to intervene and make a mandatory arrest. So, soon as I showed up, we were well-drilled on what's a mandatory arrest. What are the elements of domestic assault? What are the elements that need to be met to make an arrest? And as this changing evolution has kind of taken place, the law has been refined through the years. So our officers get training almost every year on this topic.

And then the other piece of it though is there are situations where it just doesn't apply. There may be some words used in maybe an unhealthy relationship, or something may have happened in the past, but we're not getting where we need to. And I think that's where you see a lot of times officers refer people to a protection order, right, sometimes. And I've had personal experiences where the conversation I'm having with a victim while I'm in uniform in this moment of crisis just isn't as effective, right? We're just not going to get the inroads where we need to. And that's where I was really always comfortable with, "Hey, I know maybe you're not ready to talk today, but there are people out there who want to help you."

And the Children's Inn component, the Compass Center component, we could send people because I may be far more comfortable talking to an advocate than I am as an officer, because what's our end goal? Our end goal, yeah, we need to make arrests where arrests need to be made. But we need people to have the empowerment and support to get out of their bad situations and their bad relationships. So, hopefully, we don't have to go back again. I think that's the ultimate goal. It's not measured in arrests, it's measured in individual stories and how people can move forward and break the chains of the domestic violence cycle.

Lori Walsh:
The research shows that a domestic violence call can be dangerous for officers, but in a different way than the normal high-risk officer call. So, what are some of the details, again from a training perspective, where you tell your officers, if this is the call, these are the sorts of things that you want to do that will put you in the situation to help people, but will also get you home at the end of the night?

Jon Thum:
Well, I think it's important, and we always kind of stress early on that this is a highly-charged event. There's some deep emotional ties that are also on top of this interaction. If I go to a regular fight outside of a bar, for example, that's probably the heat of the moment. There's not years of history between the two. There are not shared kids. There's not shared relationship. There's not deep emotional hurt that you see within a domestic relationship. So because of those factors for both the suspect and the victim, there are some nuances that you just don't see in other calls. What is this suspect thinking, planning or doing?

I remember going to certain calls being really acutely aware of their actions because you don't know what's about to be uncovered and you don't know what's going to be there. Well then from the victim's standpoint, the victim really may not want to be a victim because they rely solely on this other person for their financial stability, the ability to see their kids, the ability to have some function in their lives, so they may fight against that too. And they may be so kind of twisted by the moment that they start to see the officer as the adversary.

And that's where we train early on that in these situations to be acutely aware of everything. And I've even had calls where family members show up, church elders show up, because all of a sudden it's become a far more broad issue, and now you're dealing with the different aspects that are there too. So I think if anything, we're just always trained that the moment may have brought you there, but there are years potentially of events leading up to that point, which are making that call that much more difficult and dynamic.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah. We talked about some of the stereotypes thinking that, "Oh, this is a neighborhood where domestic violence happens in these homes, but not in these homes." And we know that to not be true. Are there other stereotypes, gender stereotypes, for example?

Jon Thum:
Yeah, there are gender stereotypes, but the reality is that we see it both ways. And while one, probably the male offender probably gets more attention, we've arrested women for domestic violence, too. There are other dynamics of relationships. The law doesn't really specify gender. It specifies actions in the predominant aggressor of an interaction. So, you have to kind of work back to the training piece. Really you're checking your own bias. If I always think that this is going to be the case, I have to make sure that I'm having an objective view.

Went on a call as a sergeant years ago, and it was a pretty heated mess of a call. There were multiple officers there and me and another sergeant, and as we're sifting through this, we were kind of split on which way this needed to go because there were a lot of dynamics at play here. So we had to sit and really talk through all the elements, look at the evidence of what we had, and make this determination that this is the direction we were going to go and kind of check our biases at the door.

Now, it's kind of one of those things too, it's like I always say, and I've talked to numerous people on these calls. Law enforcement is the front door to the criminal justice system. There are courts, there's proceedings that determine further action down the road. But for us in the field, we have to make a decision based on what we have at the moment.

Lori Walsh:
Tell me a little bit about the future and what you think a city like Sioux Falls, which is growing, needs to continue to take these kinds of family problems beyond just the, "I'm going to call 911 right now." Because you don't want to be in that business. I guess what I'm trying to say, it's not just about more cops on the streets will help bring this number down and help reach people. What do you think the right direction is to go for this kind of public service?

Jon Thum:
By the time we arrive, the damage is typically done. Law enforcement arrives, the action's already taken place. Then we talk about prevention. Well, what does prevention look like? And I think it always comes back to support kids and families. People always ask me, "How do we tackle crime issues?" Support kids and families. Support kids and families. So, engaging our youth in conversations early on about what's healthy and what's not and modeling good behavior. And I think even back to relationships probably when we were back in middle school or high school, right?

Well, what peer groups or how do we teach people what a healthy relationship is versus an unhealthy relationship? I think a lot of people can think back to some pretty unhealthy relationships they had as young adults that kind of set the stage for where they're going in the future. And so I think with a lot of issues, it may be something that we're uncomfortable talking about with kids and maybe law enforcement isn't the voice to carry that. But how do we engage with young people in schools or have early warning systems and peer accountability where, you know what? If I see that my friend is in an unhealthy relationship that I feel strong enough and encouraged enough to call that out and help that person to work through it.

I think that's where we make inroads, is by really an informed community who seeks to empower and help each other rather than hope that the cops come in. Because like I said, by then, it's a little too late. But we need to be the voice for it and we need to collaborate, which is why I'm always talking about how great our partners are and how much work can be done there.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah, I don't know. I remember every year when my daughter, it's been a few years, was in elementary school when Buddy Police Bug would come and Officer Pottebaum, who she called Officer Bomb-Bomb because she couldn't pronounce his name in kindergarten.

Jon Thum:
I can't pronounce his name either.

Lori Walsh:
He would give the speech. Every single year, there was a kid who would come forward and say something that he had said they didn't know was wrong and that was happening in their life. Lives are saved by those interactions.

Jon Thum:
We take for granted sometimes, depending on your upbringing. Just we see the horrors that kids are exposed to on a regular basis as law enforcement. And we see what becomes situation normal for them. So, we can't take for granted that we need to be a voice for some of those kids to say, "Yeah, you know what? That's not the way things should be, and you don't have to be treated that way." And again, support kids I think is the biggest way we make inroads in a lot of these really complex societal issues.

Lori Walsh:
Chief Thum with the Sioux Falls Police Department, thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to our next conversation.

Jon Thum:
Thanks for having me. Put me on the calendar, happy to talk about anything at any time.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.