Kingston’s new program takes a different approach to intimate partner violence

(Photo by Daniela Brown)

Kingston is at the forefront of efforts to combat domestic violence with an innovative new program that combines offers of help with an escalating series of sanctions aimed at dissuading perpetrators from further abuse.

The Intimate Partner Violence Initiative (IPVI) is entering its second year. Program administrators say they hope they’ll soon have the data to back up their belief in the program’s potential to save lives.

The initiative was developed by the National Network of Safe Communities, a think tank run out of New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The center incorporates the work of David M. Kennedy who in the 1990s developed a successful youth violence intervention program in Boston. The center has since expanded those efforts to address open-air drug markets, violence in prisons and domestic violence.


National Network of Safe Communities’ approach relies on focused deterrence to identify and concentrate efforts on a relatively narrow slice of people most at risk of becoming perpetrators or victims of violent crime. The IPVI arrived in Ulster County in 2017 when officials at the state Department of Criminal Justice Services reached out to Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright.

“They said they had this program, it had had some success elsewhere but it had never been done in New York State,” recalls Carnright. “They asked if we would take it on as a pilot program and I said, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’”

What followed was a year-long effort headed by Kassondra DelPozzo — a program administrator hired with a DCJS grant — to put in place the protocols and recruit partners for the initiative.

Team-focused approach

At its heart, the initiative relies on a carrot-and-stick approach that seeks to persuade domestic abusers to change their behavior. Abusers are offered services like anger management and substance abuse counseling. At the same time, they’re warned of an escalating series of negative consequences, ranging from unscheduled visits from police to “enhanced prosecution” for any crime they commit, whether or not it involve domestic violence. Parallel with law enforcement outreach to perpetrators, other members of the IPVI team contact victims with offers of assistance and counseling.

“It’s really a team-focused approach that relies on all of these moving parts working together to find solutions,” said DelPozzo.

That team consists of the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office, which coordinates the program and handles prosecution of offenders, and the Kingston Police Department which handles the front-line work of identifying and classifying offenders. The team also has representatives from Ulster County’s Probation Department and Crime Victims Assistance Program, as well as the State Division of Parole. The team meets several times a month to review cases, share information and plot strategy. The core team also relies on a number of community partners like Family of Woodstock and the Bridgeback drug treatment program to provide services for offenders and victims.

On the street level, the initiative kicks off when the KPD is called to the scene of a suspected domestic incident in progress, or when someone  reports domestic violence. Under state law, police are required to file out a “Domestic Incident Report” anytime they encounter suspected domestic violence, whether or not an arrest is made. The IPVI, however, requires officers to carry out a more thorough investigation to identify a “primary aggressor” and whether the incident is part of a broader pattern of abusive behavior. Results of the investigation are then passed along to a shift supervisor. The Sergeant takes the results of the investigation and, using IPVI criteria classifies the offender in one of four categories from “A” to “D”

The lowest level, D, is for cases where police suspect domestic violence has occurred and can identify a primary aggressor, but do not establish probable cause to make an arrest. At the top of the scale, the A awaits offenders with prior arrests or convictions for domestic violence, a record of violent crime and those who violate existing orders of protection or use a weapon.
Subsequent domestic incidents move offenders up the scale with new consequences kicking in at each level. “D” offenders get a form letter that explains how the initiative works and what treatment services are available. At level C, the offender gets an in person visit from a detective explaining in more detail the legal consequences of further incidents including increased bail and more strict condition of probation. At level B, the offender is called in to a meeting with police and community leaders who will deliver a “moral and legal message” against domestic violence. Level B offenders are also warned that they can expect to be monitored more closely by police and, if they re-offend, will face more severe legal consequences. If an offender makes it to the top of the scale, the IPVI team will “pull the lever” triggering an all-out legal effort to take them off the street by whatever means available, including prosecution for offenses, like drug possession, that do not involve domestic violence and thus do not require the cooperation of a victim.

“The message is, ‘Don’t make yourself a target,’” said Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti of the IPVI outreach. “This behavior is not acceptable anymore, it needs to stop and we have the muscle and the focus to make sure that it does.”

Recognizes a messy reality

Elizabeth Culmone-Mills is a county senior assistant district attorney and spearheads the Ulster DA’s Office’s participation in the IPVI. Mills stresses that nothing in the program shields offenders from the legal consequences of domestic violence — if police turn up the evidence, her office will initiate prosecution regardless of the offender’s status on the IPVI scale. But Mills said the initiative’s emphasis on changing behavior recognizes the messy reality of violence in the context of intimate relationships.

“In the past we were so victim-focused that we didn’t see how we could rehabilitate these offenders,” said Culmone-Mills. “But we find that in many cases the victims don’t want out of the relationship, they want the violence to stop.”

Culmone-Mills said that the IPVI protocol also had the benefit of focusing law enforcement attention on the most dangerous offenders: those who continue to abuse their partners even after repeated and explicit warnings about the consequences.

“Those offenders who aren’t going to stop will rise to the top,” said Culmone-Mills. “They will become the A’s and they can’t say they weren’t aware of the consequences of their actions, because we told them exactly what would happen if they didn’t change their behavior.”

The IPVI rolled out in March 2018. In the ensuing year, 264 Kingston residents have been enrolled in the program. During that time, DelPozzo said, the program had hit a number of goals laid out during the yearlong development process. According to DelPozzo, 100 percent of victims had been contacted by the program and 80 percent had received “affirmative outreach” consisting of an in-person visit or phone call from a team member. City police, meanwhile, were for the most part hitting their target of making contact with offenders within 48 hours of the triggering incident. A more comprehensive data analysis by the National Network of Safe Communities is expected soon.

But results from other communities show the promise of the IPVI, said DelPozzo. In High Point, N.C., for example, domestic violence homicides fell from 18 in the seven years prior to initiating IPVI to just three in the seven years after. During the same period, reports of domestic violence injuries fell by nearly 20 percent while the city experienced domestic violence recidivism rates significantly lower than similar communities.

In Kingston, supporters say, the IPVI is already paying dividends. Anecdotal evidence suggests that domestic violence victims are availing themselves of programs and services at higher rates than before. The enhanced investigations of suspected domestic incidents by Kingston police have resulted in more prosecutable cases — and, according to Culmone-Mills, resulted in the exoneration of several people falsely accused of domestic violence. The program, DelPozzo said, had also enhanced communication between the partner agencies.

“It’s added some work for everybody, but that added work has benefited everybody,” said DelPozzo. “It has definitely opened the door for additional collaboration and information sharing between all of the involved departments.”