JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Flags were flying outside the Duval County Courthouse Thursday, but not in celebration. Instead, the almost 5,000 purple flags planted on the lawn mark the reported and estimated cases of domestic violence in Jacksonville -- this year alone.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office recognized the start of Domestic Violence Awareness month by unveiling the latest statistics. Worrisome trends include both the number of domestic violence homicides that involved mental illness in 2014 – 45 percent compared to 6 percent in the prior 17 years – and 11 fatal domestic incidents so far this year, compared to 7 in all of 2013.
But while local law enforcement tracks domestic violence statistics, First Coast News has learned that Florida is one of just two states that doesn't provide that data in a format the FBI can use. As a result, it's almost impossible to compare Florida trends to national ones.
For instance, in a recent report by the Violence Policy Center, the numbers for Florida and Alabama are simply left blank.
Gretl Plessinger, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, says the state does collect what is known as Supplemental Homicide Data, and provides that data to the FBI, but because the data fields don't match, the FBI doesn't consider them comparable. For instance, the state categorizes a victim as a "spouse," while the FBI differentiates among husband, wife, ex-husband and ex-wife.
Plessinger noted that local law enforcement agencies aren't required to submit the supplemental homicide data. Changing that, she said, "would probably be a legislative decision. We don't have any control over local law enforcement."
There is also concern that making a change could be "cost prohibitive" to smaller agencies, Plessinger says, and force some of them to opt out of reporting altogether.
JSO Undersheriff Pat Ivey said he couldn't comment on what the FBI or FDLE requires, but thought the data roughly comparable. "You could pull the numbers by individual counties and make that comparison. You should be able to come to a relatively accurate number."
First Coast News crunched the state's stats using the Uniform Crime Data collected by state law enforcement. In 2013, 64 women were killed by their male spouses or boyfriends, a rate of .67 percent. According to the report by the Violence Policy Center, that would put Florida squarely in the middle of the pack nationally.
But a spokesperson for that agency says it's not a fair comparison. "Obviously the solution would be for Florida to submit their data," said spokesperson Avery Palmer, "which is an issue deserving of attention."
Reducing the total number of victims was the main focus of Thursday's event. Prosecutor Theresa Simak, who chairs Jacksonville's Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team, urged people who believe they know a victim to get help.
"We are calling out to all of you – family, friends, coworkers -- and I say this year after year after year – please: speak up stand up and help someone."
Anyone who believes they know a victim of domestic violence can call the state's Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-500-1119.