For the last month, Philadelphia police officers in three districts have been documenting domestic abuse in a new and unusually detailed way.
As part of a pilot program, officers in the East Division have been using a specific domestic-violence form, developed with the help of advocacy groups and experts, that includes an extensive checklist of questions for the victims.
Was there pushing and shoving? Punching? Biting? Hair-pulling?
Were the children hurt? What about the pets?
Was anything thrown or broken? Was the furniture overturned?
While all seemingly obvious queries, the old police form - known as a 48 - didn't ask for specific documentation, and officers often wrote bare-bones narratives.
"They would say things like, 'Arrived on the scene. The guy was gone. The complainant stated that he beat her up,' " said Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor and director of the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. "It wouldn't necessarily include all these contextual factors."
Collecting more detailed information is important for a number of reasons, including for prosecuting the offenders.
"In cases where we have to go to court without the victim, that's a tremendous help for us," said Deborah Harley, the chief of the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit in the District Attorney's Office.
Police leaders and advocates hope the new form will not only help the officers, but also draw out sometimes traumatized victims.
"The new form is fantastic," said Molly Callahan, director of the Legal Center for Women Against Abuse. "We also know victims can be very reluctant. . . . They're not always going to tell everything that has happened."
The form is part of a broad effort to change the way police investigate, report, and make referrals in domestic-abuse cases - all spurred by an unexpected surge in domestic homicides last year.
While homicides overall were in a two-year decline, domestic killings jumped from 21 in 2008 to 37 in 2009. There have been 21 domestic homicides so far this year.
Eventually, police leaders hope to enact a number of changes that will provide warning signs of future and escalating violence - and help get victims help.
As part of the pilot program in the East Division - which includes Northern Liberties, Kensington, Fishtown, Port Richmond, and parts of North Philadelphia - police have been sharing the information collected with advocacy groups such as Women Against Abuse.
The new form asks for a "call back" number counselors can use to reach the victims to offer them services and help. Previously, counselors would have to wait for abused women to contact them, usually through a hotline.
Jeannine Lisitski, executive director of Women Against Abuse, said the advocacy groups have spoken with two-thirds of the victims since the pilot program started in August.
"We would have never reached this many people," she said. "What struck us is the staggering need, and this is only one division."
After a second call to the same home, a police victim-assistance officer also reaches out to the victim. After a third call, a domestic-violence detective gets involved, said Deputy Commissioner Patricia Giorgio-Fox.
In the first week of the program, the East Division had four victims who each called police three times, she said.
Two of the suspected abusers were arrested immediately after the third visit from police; two others required further investigation, Giorgio-Fox said.
She said she hoped to have all six police divisions using the form by the end of the year.
Police can receive as many as 100,000 domestic-violence 911 calls in a year. Once the program expands citywide, the advocacy groups won't be able to contact - or try to contact - each victim.
"I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project.
In the meantime, the Police Department is tweaking the form, based mostly on the suggestions of the officers responding to domestic calls.
"I gave them a draft of a form and I said, 'Tell me what you like and don't like,' " Giorgio-Fox said. "It's going a lot better than I expected. I'm very pleased with the response of the officers."