WESTBROOK — The Police Department will add more training in detecting domestic violence and continue to pay for an on-call advocate for victims, thanks to a $65,594 state grant.

Hobbs Contributed / Through These Doors

Through These Doors, a Portland-based nonprofit that gives vital resources to people fleeing domestic violence, will conduct the training and provide the advocate, paid for by Maine Public Safety’s STOP grant.

The training is important, Executive Director Rebecca Hobbs said, because the signs of domestic violence aren’t always immediately identifiable. Bruising, for example, takes time to develop and wouldn’t be visible to an officer responding to a call. Broken blood vessels in the eyes, which result from being strangled, may go unnoticed until an officer knows to look for them.

“We have a specific training we provide on nonfatal strangulation,” Hobbs said. “That’s been big in our community and that’s an area five years ago we didn’t recognize. Strangulation is more common than we thought. When new issues come to light, we develop training and deploy them.” 

Domestic violence arrests in the city have remained stable over the past three years with 76 cases in 2017 and 75 in 2019, according to the Police Department. Westbrook’s population was 17,494 as of the 2010 census.

By comparison, in South Portland, with a population of about 25,000, police made 49 domestic violence arrests in 2017, 60 in 2018 and 40 in 2019.  Portland, with a population of about 66,000, saw 213 arrests in 2017, 177 in 2018 and 191 in 2019.

The Westbrook data likely does not provide a full picture of domestic violence in the city. Hobbs said much domestic violence is noncriminal and wouldn’t factor into police records. Stalking, for instance, doesn’t always escalate to an arrestable offense, and emotional abuse isn’t included. In addition, she said, victims often will not report the abuser for fear of their own safety or a myriad of other reasons, Hobbs said.

Calls to Through These Doors have increased over the years with 7,783 helpline calls in 2020 and 5,077 in 2018. The phone conversations last longer, too, which often correlates with increased severity – calls are longer during dangerous situations with more to work through.

The Police Department has worked with a Through These Doors advocate through the grant since 2019, and the grant the City Council approved Monday will continue to fund that position. Advocates this year will put a special focus on breaking language barriers and helping people with diverse backgrounds, Hobbs said.

The advocate follows up with police on domestic violence cases and connects survivors with other resources, such as legal representation, financial help and temporary shelter. They do not respond to active calls, Hobbs said, but will respond to follow-ups with the officer.

“It may be easier to talk with an advocate knowing they won’t judge,” Hobbs said. “We are with the law but not a part of their department so we have confidentiality requirements, which means we won’t tell anyone what they say to us.”

The advocate also helps review high-risk cases with the department and helps allocate police resources, such as domestic violence alarms.

The Westbrook department’s domestic violence investigator, Doug Maher, sees the follow-up work as the most important piece.

“The cycle of power and control is often what keeps violent relationships together and prevents victims from cooperating with the criminal justice system once the index assault has been resolved by police action,” Maher said. “Most important to me is that survivors of domestic violence feel safe in the days and weeks following an incident and are provided information about the criminal justice process.”

Hobbs said it is up to everyone to be aware of domestic violence, to report it and to prevent it.

 “A lot of what we are trying to do is change attitudes and beliefs about domestic violence and helping people say something when they see it,” she said. “It’s not all a crime, people don’t want to be involved, and once you call the police you lose control about what happens next,” Hobbs said.

We need to not put this at the seat of our officers, and we all need to recognize we have a role to play in ending this issue and part of it is recognizing and responding to abuse and helping people meet their daily needs,” she said. 

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