What we found when we reviewed 178 recent homicides related to domestic violence in Milwaukee

The story was originally published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with support from our 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Fund.

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Homicides related to domestic violence can be difficult to track.

Police agencies, advocacy organizations, academics and others use different criteria. Some focus on deaths overall and include offender suicides. Others use specific definitions from state law.

The Journal Sentinel set out to quantify the scope of homicides related to domestic violence in Milwaukee County from 2016 to 2022. The news organization used law enforcement data, court records, reports from advocacy organizations and other public records to try to capture a big-picture look at the problem.

These resulting figures are conservative estimates. The Journal Sentinel was limited to publicly available information and included only what could be confirmed through the records.

Here are key findings from the analysis.

At least 178 homicides were related to domestic, family and intimate-partner violence over the last seven years in Milwaukee County

The Journal Sentinel identified 178 homicides related to domestic, family and intimate-partner violence in Milwaukee County from 2016 through 2022.

The news organization looked for cases that involved what is termed intimate partner violence, which occurs within any romantic or sexual relationship, including current or past dating partners.

It also tracked family violence with relatives killing other relatives, child abuse and neglect deaths, and killings stemming from romantic rivalries between current and former partners, as well as retaliation after someone learns of abuse allegations and takes matters into their own hands.

Nearly 40% of the homicides stemmed from intimate partner violence

The Journal Sentinel found 39.3% of those homicides related to intimate partner violence, or between a victim and suspect who had were dating or had previously dated.

The next largest share of homicides, about 17%, were the result of family violence, which typically involved an adult killing a parent, sibling or other relative.

At least 181 people lost a parent in these homicides

At least 181 people lost a parent in these killings. This includes children under the age of 18 and adults whose parents were killed.

The Journal Sentinel relied on court transcripts of sentencing hearings and obituaries, in particular, to identify if victims had children and if so, how many. Information was not available for every victim, making this an underestimate.

Many domestic violence victims are parents. Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee has reported 80% of its clients are parents.

A child was present in at least 43% of homicides

The Journal Sentinel's review found at least one child was present during 43% of the 178 homicides.

This includes cases in which a child was a victim of a homicide or was present where and when a homicide occurred. This does not mean the child’s parent was killed. The Journal Sentinel relied on public records, including medical examiner's reports, to determine if a child had been present.

More than 1 in 4 homicides occurred in a public setting

Domestic violence often is viewed as a crime that occurs in private.

But the Journal Sentinel identified 47 homicides in the dataset — or more than one in four — that occurred in a public setting, including parks, yards and streets.

Forty of those homicides were shootings, showing how an errant bullet could put everyone in the public at risk.

13 bystanders were killed

Thirteen people were bystanders killed while an act of domestic violence was occurring. These are people who had nothing to do with the underlying domestic dispute or abuse allegations.

Among those victims: A 62-year-old woman inside a medical transport van. The van's driver was dating a woman whose ex-boyfriend had an open stalking case and restraining order against him. The ex-boyfriend was shooting at the driver when he shot and killed the woman.

7 children died during an act of domestic or intimate partner violence

Aside from children who died of abuse or neglect, typically from a parent or other caregiver, seven children were killed during an act of domestic violence or intimate partner violence.

Those deaths include two sisters, ages 5 and 4, who were strangled by the same man who had just strangled their mother in front of them, and a 2-month-old boy who was being held in his mother’s arms as his father repeatedly punched her, fatally injuring the infant.

Most victims are female, but male victims rising

Overall, the majority of victims — 57% — were female over the last seven years. At least four victims were pregnant at the time of their deaths.

Victims of domestic violence and intimate partner homicide, specifically, were overwhelmingly female — 72 victims, representing about 79% of the total. The majority of those homicides were shootings.

The Journal Sentinel data showed a growing share of male victims over time. This appeared to be driven by a small but noticeable rise in homicides involving family members, romantic rivals and retaliation, meaning when someone learned of abuse allegations and took matters into their own hands, resulting in a fatal confrontation.

Nearly 40% of victims were Black women

Most of the cases over the last seven years involved Black victims, who represented about 73% of victims. Nearly 40% of the total number of victims were Black women. Overall, 33 victims were white — 18.5% — and nearly 13% were white women.

Experts have said women of color are over-represented in domestic violence deaths compared to their share of the population, in part because of structural racial inequalities in housing, income and access to safety resources.

In domestic and intimate partner violence homicides, nearly one-third of victims were leaving a relationship

Of the domestic violence and intimate partner homicides, 28.5% occurred when a victim was leaving the relationship, had filed for divorce and/or had a restraining order out against the suspect.

Experts have long said leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a victim.

Homicides related to domestic, family violence make up larger share of city's homicide totals

Homicides related to domestic and family violence are making up a larger share of the city of Milwaukee’s homicide totals. 

From 2016 through 2018, those killings made up no more than 12.6% of the city’s homicides.

But in 2019, those deaths accounted for 17% of the city’s homicide and have remained elevated since then. Last year, at least 16% of the city’s homicides or one in every six homicides was related to domestic or family violence.

For this part of the analysis, the Journal Sentinel used only those homicides in its dataset that conformed to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting standards, which are used by Milwaukee police to report annual homicide totals.