The first thing that triggered alarm bells for domestic violence parole and probation officer Jennifer Brissenden was a November 2014 Portland Police report. The criminal mischief complaint laid out a concerning incident involving one of her clients on parole, a 48-year-old with a history of drug abuse and domestic violence related crimes. The report itself was not so unusual to Brissenden, considering her client wasn’t known for following the guidelines of his parole or probation. What stood out to Brissenden, however, was the victim.
“The offender had shown up at this woman’s house at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving and told her to open the door and come outside,” said Brissenden. “She refused, so he punched out her glass window in the living room. According to the police interview that followed, the victim stated the offender had been harassing and terrorizing her frequently.”
The scenarios began to play out in Brissenden’s head. Sure, her client had exhibited controlling behavior around most, if not all, of his past ex-girlfriends, but this particular victim hadn’t been around for years.
“I was more concerned about his most recent victim, and had no reason to believe that this woman was currently at risk as well. Often times, in cases like these, where the crime is years old, we aren’t able to make contact with the victims. This case demonstrates perfectly that we don’t often have a full picture of what is going on.”
But soon, the signs of a prolific stalking case would become clear. There was mounting evidence that the offender had gone to his ex-girlfriend’s home as many as 133 times in one month. Some days he would visit three times a day, others as many as five. The visits would last anywhere from two minutes to an hour, and occurred at all times of the day and night. The victim recalled him standing on the street corner, front porch, or near windows, just watching her. His persistent presence went unreported for at least six months.
“She didn’t call police because for victims, confrontation can mean something worse,” said Brissenden. “Often times, because of the nature of the crimes, these women are too scared to report the violence and become responsible for testifying against their abuser. The fear of retaliation is very real.”
The key to foiling the disturbing trend hinged on two critical elements: the initial police report and GPS monitoring. Because of the offender’s history of absconding, Brissenden decided to place a GPS tracking device on him months earlier. With help from Multnomah County corrections technician Diego Cervantes, the team was able to verify the victim’s address by tracking the suspect’s exact location on Thanksgiving morning. They were also able to detect other times the offender had been to the same home.
“Long story short, we found out he had been stalking her for months and months. Thank goodness for GPS,” said Brissenden.
The case represents one of millions of stalking cases reported every year according to the National Center for Victims of Crime with many escalating into violence or worse. The year 2014 was one of the worst years on record for domestic violence-related homicides, said Saron Nehf, a response advocate with the Department of Community Justice. Domestic violence-related homicides with domestic violence-related murder suicides accounted for one-third of Portland homicides. In 2015, Nehf says there have already been eight domestic violence-related homicides and attempted homicides.
Many parole and probation officers and victims advocates with the Department of Community Justice’s Domestic Violence Unit believe control, intimidation, humiliation and physical harm are at the core of the crime.
“There are some offenders who do want help and want to address the issues with services and programs offered through the department,” said Brissenden. “But making sure victims are safe is a priority in our unit. ”
Last December, after admitting to damaging the victim’s window, Portland Police charged the offender with stalking and criminal mischief. He is currently serving a sentence for criminal mischief and will be under supervision for that additional case, upon his release from custody.
“We weren’t able to convict him on the stalking case because the victim opted not to testify. But the positive that came out of this case is the victim is currently safe and has the option to safety plan during his time of incarceration.”
At the Department of Community Justice’s domestic violence office in Southeast Portland, 12 parole and probation officers work with an in-house response advocate to set up a range of resources for victims including financial assistance, housing, help with restraining orders, safety planning, and emotional support. Programs are also set up for offenders. For Brissenden, one of her most important roles as a parole and probation officer is education.
“Our job is to help people stay safe- through assisting the victims at whatever level they need and through holding our offenders accountable for their behaviors. The woman in this case now has the option to move forward with her life and escape the long history of abuse. That makes our jobs rewarding.”