By KIANNA GARDNER And CHAD SOKOL Daily Inter Lake
Editor’s note: This story is one in a series examining domestic violence in the Flathead Valley.
Montana law enforcement officers responded to a domestic violence call every 1.75 hours in 2020 — and experts say that’s likely a significant underrepresentation of the problem.
Additionally, more than 200 people have been killed in domestic violence-related incidents in Montana over the past two decades, and some worry the threat of homicide is only increasing.
“This is an issue that impacts 1 in 4 women, and the issue of domestic violence as a whole has become more dangerous,” said Hilary Shaw, executive director of the Abbie Shelter in Kalispell. “Cases where the threat of loss of life is present are happening more frequently.”
Research also indicates about 1 in 7 men in the United States is a victim of domestic violence.
Officers throughout Montana responded to 4,987 reports of strangulation or assault by family members or intimate partners during the last calendar year, up 26% from 3,686 calls in 2011, according to data the Daily Inter Lake obtained from the Montana Department of Corrections through a public information request.
On average, Flathead County law enforcement officers responded to about 388 domestic violence calls per year over the decade. That’s about 9% of all domestic violence calls in Montana during that period.
Nearly 57% of the local domestic violence calls were fielded by the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, while nearly 31% were reported to the Kalispell Police Department. The police departments in Whitefish and Columbia Falls handled about 5% and 7% of the local domestic violence calls, respectively.
From the start of 2016 through 2020, domestic violence accounted for roughly 6% of all police calls statewide, including in Flathead County, though police note such calls often take significantly more time to resolve.
The data reflect incidents as they were initially reported to law enforcement, not the subsequent charges and convictions, as the state does not comprehensively track domestic violence cases at every step through the legal system.
Separate data from the Montana Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission, a panel of 20 experts from various disciplines appointed by the state attorney general, indicate more than 200 people have lost their lives due to domestic violence in Montana over the past two decades.
Most of those people were women and children, but the list also includes men killed by their abusers, attackers killed in self-defense and those who killed themselves in murder-suicide scenarios.
Four people died in 2000, and another four died in 2011. And those were the years with the lowest domestic violence death tolls, according to the commission. The worst years on record were 2015 and 2016, with 43 domestic violence fatalities.
The commission, which reviews fatal incidents and searches for patterns to identify systemic gaps, addressed that horrific two-year stretch in its 2017 report.
“Our 2015 report identified 12 incidents of intimate partner homicide resulting in 17 deaths during the previous biennium. Unfortunately, those numbers jumped to 26 and 43, respectively, in the past two years,” the report states. “That increase, 153%, is easily the largest in the 16 years the commission has been tracking intimate partner homicides in our state. All of us are driven to do better.”
The death toll dropped to 25 over the course of 2017 and 2018. But the commission noted: “All would agree that number is too large.”
Get help: If you are facing domestic abuse or know someone who is, call the Abbie Shelter’s 24-hour helpline at 406-752-7273, or reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.
Kianna Gardner may be reached at email@example.com. Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.