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Fighting Domestic Violence With Technology

by Laura Forlano, Nov 01, 2002
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The fight against domestic violence is going digital, with digital 911 calls and digital photography, digital phones and even a digital courtroom.

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Digital technology is better than analog because digital recordings are relatively immune to distortion and can be transmitted electronically using less bandwidth than analog media without affecting the quality. Clocks, tapes and records are examples of analog technologies while digital watches, computers and compact disks are digital.

The New York Police Department recently announced they have begun to use high-quality digital recordings in 911 calls about domestic violence. Recording 911 calls digitally will allow the police to supply the district attorneys quickly with the evidence needed to prosecute domestic violence cases.

In 2000, there were 11.5 million calls to 911 in New York. Calls to 911 are answered by two Public Safety Answering Centers. The centers use digital telephone systems which display the caller's telephone number and location automatically.

There are 90,000 domestic violence cases in New York City each year; the police respond to 600 incidents each day. Only one third of all cases reportedly lead to arrest and court hearings.

"This is another example of applying technology to make government more efficient," said Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Gino Menchini. "Digital audio will make it much easier and faster to pass along vital information from the police to prosecutors in a timely and efficient manner that will help save lives."

In the past, 911 calls were recorded on tape but it took an average of three months to manually retrieve recordings of 911 calls. Now, digital recordings can be provided to prosecutors within hours of their recording. In addition, they can be stored, searched and retrieved quickly from a database.

The upgrade to digital recording technology was implemented jointly by the New York Police Department and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. The new system cost the city about $4 million, which is an amount that can be easily justified by the saved labor costs and greatly increased ability to prosecute defendants using the 911 calls as evidence.

District attorneys from Kings County, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens all strongly supported the city's investment in the new technology. Currently, the digital 911 recording is being demonstrated in Kings County for three months before its implementation in all five boroughs and expanded to include all 911 calls, not only those about domestic violence.

"Technology has immeasurable potential to improve people's lives and there is no better use than to protect the vulnerable and punish those who abuse them," said Mayor Bloomberg. "Digitizing 911 calls will help our district attorneys bring those who abuse children, their partners or their parents to justice and even help protect those victims as the criminal justice system takes its course."

In addition to digital recordings of 911 calls, the police department is also using digital cameras to document domestic violence abuse. Similar to high-quality digital recordings, digital photographs are much more clear and can be provided to district attorneys almost instantly. In the past, the police used blurry Polaroid pictures to document abuses.

In Queens, domestic violence convictions rose almost ten percent in the first six months of the introduction of digital photography. New York is the first major city to use digital photography in the police department.

However, there are a number of concerns about the use of digital technology for documenting crimes particularly with respect to sensitive domestic violence cases. Some critics including the Legal Aid Society worry that the digital files might be altered or manipulated.

In addition, digital evidence may make it easier to prosecute defendants in domestic violence even when the victim of the abuse does not intend to send them to jail. Many victims of domestic violence choose not to testify against their abuser due to fear, severe injury or the desire to keep their relationship intact despite the violence. Critics worry that digital technology may drive some domestic violence underground because of fear of swift punishment for abusers.

As part of the city's campaign against domestic violence, Verizon Wireless donated 250 cell phones and started a recycling program to collect old wireless phones for victims. The phones were reprogrammed to dial 911 and the city's domestic violence hotline in an emergency. In total, the company has collected 790,000 used phones, 50,000 of which have been distributed in the New York area. Verizon also sponsors HopeLine, which provides free voicemail to victims of domestic violence.

Another example of using technology to fight domestic violence is the Center for Court Innovation's Domestic Violence Court Technology Application, which improves the communication between courts, police and social service organizations by putting computers in the courtroom and in the social service agencies at the same time. In this way, court orders can be called up electronically. Communication is improved; efficiency and consistency is increased.

The problem of domestic violence may be as complex as human nature. But those charged with handling it are turning to technology to make things easier.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.


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