As murders in New York City have declined significantly over the last 25 years, one category has remained stubbornly high: domestic violence homicides.
The persistence of such killings, now a larger share of the shrinking homicide total, has frustrated police officers, prosecutors, social service providers and policy makers struggling to prevent intimate tensions that play out behind closed doors from turning deadly.
And while the city already has a host of programs aimed at curbing domestic violence, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, announced this month that he was assembling a task force, headed by the first lady, Chirlane McCray, and James P. O’Neill, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, to come up with a “comprehensive citywide strategy” in the next four months.
The panel’s mandate is to find ways for social workers to intervene in troubled families before violence escalates, and to ensure more abusers are held accountable in court for their acts, aides to Mr. de Blasio said.
Homicides over all have declined nearly 40 percent since 2002. But the number of domestic homicides — killings that happen within a family or in a romantic relationship — has averaged about 68 a year during that period, fluctuating between a high of 92 in 2011 to a low last year of 41, according data provided by the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
And even as murders have edged down again this year, domestic homicides have been climbing, with 54 as of Nov. 27, according to police data.
Among the victims this year were a 60-year-old grandmother who prosecutors say was fatally stabbed in a Bronx housing project by her drug-addicted partner, and a 34-year old woman ambushed by her estranged husband in March at her Bronx apartment.
Progress on reducing domestic violence may be easier said than done. Domestic violence has accounted for more than 10,500 serious crimes reported this year, most of them assaults, a slight increase over 2015, the police said. But city officials estimate half of domestic assaults are never reported to the police. Indeed, less than a third of victims and abusers in domestic homicides have had previous contact with officers.
Even when the police make an arrest in a domestic assault, most cases end up being dismissed, often because the victim is unwilling to testify, according to prosecutors and officials at nonprofits that serve battered women.
Often it is fear of retribution that makes victims reluctant to testify. Even when they are willing, the slow pace of court proceedings can lead them to reconsider. Whatever the reasons, the lack of victim testimony means most criminal cases fall apart well before trial.
The Bronx, for instance, has the highest rate of domestic-violence episodes per capita in the city — about 544 per 10,000 residents. Yet prosecutors dismissed 70 percent of domestic violence cases last year. The rates were 67 percent in Brooklyn, 68 percent on Staten Island, 53 percent in Manhattan and 24 percent in Queens, according to the State Office of Court Administration.
And though it has fewer people than any borough except Staten Island, the Bronx also leads the city in domestic homicides, with 20 so far this year. Brooklyn, with nearly twice as many residents as the Bronx, has had 12.
Many victims depend on their abusers for housing and financial support, or have children with them. They worry about becoming homeless, or provoking more anger. Others fear being deported because they are not residing in the country legally.
“These are very difficult cases,” said the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., whose office produced a 59-page report in October with recommendations for improving prosecutions. “You have victims who are in a very complicated and dependent relationship with the abuser.”
One problem the task force hopes to tackle is the spotty coordination and communication among the police, prosecutors, city housing officials and organizations that provide services to victims. Those organizations say the information one agency has too often remains cut off from other agencies that need it. For example, many women showing up at city shelters are fleeing domestic violence, but no formal mechanism exists for the shelter staff to share information with law enforcement, Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said.
“This is a complicated problem, and it’s not just about law enforcement, nor just about social services,” Ms. Glazer said. “What we haven’t done that successfully is hot-wire all these people together so we can have a panoramic view of problems and solutions.”
Mr. de Blasio and Ms. McCray have both spoken out about the need to reduce domestic violence, and she has made combating the problem one of her signature issues.
In 2014, as part of a $210 million program aimed at reducing all crime in 15 public housing developments, the de Blasio administration started an awareness campaign in grocery stores and nail salons, encouraging people to report domestic assaults. That program also established a team of 10 social workers to respond to family violence in public housing. A year ago, the mayor also announced plans to expand beds at shelters for homeless adults with children fleeing abuse, seeking to provide temporary housing for 13,300 people a year, up from 8,800.
Efforts by the city to reduce such violence dates back decades, as do the bureaucratic roadblocks. In 1993, Ruth W. Messinger, then the Manhattan borough president, and Ronnie Eldridge, a leader on the City Council, formed a task force on domestic violence. It recommended a more coordinated response by city and state agencies.
A year later, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, directed the Police Department to assign officers in every precinct to track wife-abuse cases. He established a commission on family violence, and as a result of its recommendations, he instituted a domestic violence hotline, started public education campaigns, added shelter beds for victims and created of a system to notify victims when an attacker is released from jail.
In 2001, voters approved a charter amendment establishing the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, which today has a budget of $7 million and a staff of 83; it is supposed to coordinate city services for domestic violence.
The domestic violence commissioner, Cecile Noel, says her office tracks domestic violence trends, manages public awareness campaigns and oversees nonprofits providing services to victims, but it has limited influence over the police, district attorneys and courts. The aim of the task force, she said, is to bring police and prosecutors, as well as outside experts, to the table to develop better strategies.
Commissioner O’Neill said the drop in overall crime rates made it possible to devote more resources to domestic violence.
The Police Department currently has 450 officers who have been specially trained to recognize the signs of domestic violence and to collect evidence in those cases.
Liz Roberts, chief program officer of Safe Horizon, which provides housing and support to victims, said that despite the substantial resources the city had appropriated to address the scourge in recent years, there were still barriers that discourage victims from leaving their partners and filing charges. For instance, she said, the city’s domestic violence shelters are paid for through a federal program intended to help families, and so have few spots for single victims.
Judy Harris Kluger, a former judge who now is the executive director of Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit that helps victims, said a criminal conviction was not the best outcome for a family. In some cases, an order or protection against the abuser, coupled with an agreement to go to counseling in return for the dismissal of charges, can be more effective, she said. “The key is to provide victims with support no matter what their decisions are,” Ms. Kluger said.
In the end, education may be the best way to push domestic violence rates down further, Ms. Roberts and Ms. Kluger said. The attitudes that drive that violence are deeply embedded in patriarchal culture. Studies have shown children who grow up in homes where abuse occurs are more likely to be violent with their intimate partners as adults. “I think if we do a better job of educating people and providing resources in the schools,” Ms. Kluger said, “we might be able to head off future offenses.”