Murder is rare in Arlington — there have only been seven homicide investigations in the county since January 2002. Early this month, after the discovery of Susan Lewis’s murder, police and local media surrounded her family’s Penrose neighborhood home.
Before police had identified a suspect in the April 12 murder, police spokesman Matt Martin had a message for concerned residents: most murders in Arlington are committed by someone the victim knew. “We don’t have a lot of stranger-on-stranger homicides.”
That point was driven home the next day, when police detectives arrested the man they said had strangled 41-year-old Lewis: her husband William Powell Jr.
That made the circumstances of Lewis’s murder among the most common of Arlington killings: women killed by husbands or boyfriends. It’s a pattern repeated around the country, said Connie Kirkland, director of sexual assault services for George Mason University. “A very high percentage of [murdered] women are murdered by spouses, ex-spouses or ex-partners.”
But those murders are usually the endpoint following months, if not years, of domestic violence. “Most cases involve domestic violence when they end with the murder of the wife,” Kirkland said.
There’s no clear evidence that was the case in Lewis’s murder, or in the other recent murders in Arlington, said Lt. Paul Larson. Larson commands the police department’s special victims unit, which investigates all reports of domestic violence in the county.
“There was no previous history of domestic violence in any of these cases,” said Larson. That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, he said, merely that it was never reported. “It’s most likely the case, that nobody called the police.”
<b>SIGNS INDICATE THERE</b> is significant domestic violence in Arlington, said Linda Dunphy, director of the Arlington Community Temporary Shelter, or TACTS. TACTS gets 10 calls a day reporting some level of domestic violence, but at the group’s safehouse, “we only served 75 women last year,” said Dunphy.
“The numbers are all there to suggest we have substantial violence in families,” she said, pointing to “The World According to Our Kids,” a June 2001 survey conducted by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families.
Based on questionnaires distributed to 3,400 sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade students, that survey showed that almost 30 percent of Arlington students were victims of violence and over 25 percent said they suffered physical abuse at home.
Abuse creates the future abusers for domestic violence, she said, and the county is leaving the problem unchecked. “There are precursors that we aren’t really reckoning with, “ said Dunphy. “We don’t have any domestic violence conflict resolution going on in the schools.”
Dunphy has seen the kind of problem that creates. In 1991, she began running support groups as a volunteer in the county. In one of those groups, Dunphy met Jenny Dolan.
“She was killed by her boyfriend, and he killed himself afterward,” said Dunphy. “When women try to reckon with this violence, that’s when they’re at the greatest risk.”
So when they are ready to leave, women need the most support, said Dunphy — that’s when coordination becomes the most important, ensuring that an abuse victim can find counseling, as well as help finding a new place to live and maybe a job.
That’s also when domestic violence is most likely to become a murder investigation, because the abuser may see nothing left to lose, said Kirkland. “In the cases of partner murders, if he knows she’s leaving him, or has a new boyfriend … the risk is very, very high.”
<b>MURDER WOULD HAPPEN</b> less if the county worked to ensure that no women fell through the cracks, Dunphy said. “Arlington doesn’t have a game plan around domestic violence,” she said.
That’s not to say no one is addressing the problem: many people are. Maybe too many, Dunphy said. There are officers in the police department, social workers in the county’s child protective services and domestic violence services, the commonwealth attorney’s office, courts, schools and non-profits. “There’s a lot of organizations doing their part, and probably doing it well. But we don’t know how well. … There’s a big gap.”
Arlington stands in a sad shadow cast by neighboring Alexandria, where the domestic violence intervention program is “a national model,” said Dunphy.
Coordination doesn’t take much, said Claire Dunn, director of the domestic violence intervention program run by Alexandria’s Office on Women. Two steps make the biggest difference, she said: centralizing victim services, and police making in-person visits to homes where domestic violence has been reported within 24 hours of the incident.
“It’s prevention,” said Dunn. “The more you put in upfront, the less you have to deal with being reactive.”
National statistics bear out Dunn’s experiences in Alexandria, said Graciela Cerda, director of the TACTS emergency safehouse. At a recent Richmond conference addressing domestic assault, Cerda and other attendees saw studies detailing national police efforts on domestic violence. “They saw a drop in murder rates if they put more resources in domestic violence,” she said.
<b>THERE’S A WILL</b> but not a way in Arlington, said Dunphy.
Larson would like to send officers out to check on the victims of domestic abuse within 24 hours of the incident. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources,” said Larson.
There’s no county coordination for domestic abuse service, but Dunphy and other public and private agency heads are hoping to fill that gap by reviving the county’s domestic violence alliance.
“There’s a lot more Arlington could be doing,” she said. “There’s no Arlington-wide approach, the way there might be for emergency preparedness or failing grades in the school system.”
Given the number of residents in Arlington, the number of murders is low. There are few gaps for cases to fall through, said Larson. “All the parts are there, it’s just a matter of making it a more streamlined process.”
The weakest link in the chain is reporting, he said. “A lot has to do with education. We do a fairly good job of community outreach — the numbers reporting domestic violence in the Latino community has increased over the last three to five years.”
The weakest reporting, he said, is in neighborhoods like Penrose, where Susan Lewis lived.
“We don’t see those numbers in the white communities. I think there’s still a stigma, and a taboo,” said Larson. “But it still may be a problem there.”
But given the stakes, Dunphy said, it would be better to make sure the county can address domestic violence in all of its neighborhoods, before it can be conclusively linked to murder.
“It’s sort of like child abuse: we always pay attention when the children die. But it’s all the children who come close to death. That’s the invisible population. It’s the same with domestic violence,” said Dunphy. “Particularly in the middle class.”