Force Science News #86:

“Lethality Assessment” Helps Gauge Danger from Domestic Disputes

In this issue:


I. “Lethality Assessment” helps gauge danger from domestic disputes

II. New study provides realistic look at school crimes

III. One agency’s innovation for easing shift fatigue


I. “Lethality Assessment” helps gauge danger from domestic disputes


Officers from nearly 60 departments in Maryland have begun using a research-based “lethality assessment” checklist in hopes of preventing homicides and suicides that might otherwise evolve from heated domestic disputes.


As part of their intervention at domestic calls, officers put a quick series of pointed questions to the apparent victims (usually females) in these incidents. Depending on the answers they get, they may immediately call a domestic-violence counselor to guide the victim in taking positive action to protect herself.



“As first-responders, we’re getting there in the heat of the moment,” Cpl. Tracy Farmer of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office told The Baltimore Sun. (The Harford SO was one of the first of a growing number of LE agencies to adopt this approach in recent months.) “If you get with these victims a couple of days later, [after the incident is over], their batterer will be trying to make amends and the victims will have had time to rationalize [the assault]. It’s helpful not only to tell them of the resources available, but to get the ball rolling” while emotions are still raw-and before the attacks turn deadly.


The questions posed were originally developed for abuse-victim advocates and health professionals by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell, a nursing professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a researcher of domestic violence dynamics. The intent is to effectively identify victims who appear to be at greatest risk of eventually being murdered or driven to suicide by their partners.


With the help of Dave Sargent, a retired LEO from Washington, DC, the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence has been training police to use the assessment checklist as a proactive patrol tool.


First, responding officers ask the apparent victim 3 questions calculated to reveal direct threats of deadly violence:


* Has your partner [or whoever the aggressor is] ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?


* Has he or she ever threatened to kill you or your children?


* Do you think he/she might try to kill you?


If the answer to any of these is yes, officers immediately call a domestic-abuse counselor, who is on standby alert, and have the counselor confer with the victim.


If the answers are negative, officers can probe more deeply with additional questions:


* Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?


* Has he/she ever tried to choke you?


* Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?


* Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?


* Is he/she unemployed?


* Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?


* Do you have a child he/she knows is not his/hers?


* Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave threatening messages?


These inquiries are intended to surface common precursors of deadly violence. For example, Dr. Campbell explains, women who were threatened with a gun are 20 times more likely to be murdered at some point, and women whose partners threatened them with murder are 15 times more likely that other women to be killed. Choking has also been found to be a high-risk indicator of eventual homicide.


Too often, says Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network, “We seem to be addressing these issues after the fact and lamenting that a tragedy occurred.” Often the victims have been “living with their situations for so long or in such isolation that it is hard for them to see the peril they face.”


However, experience has shown that nearly a third of the victims who speak to a counselor from the scene “later show up at a domestic-violence agency seeking a protective order, shelter, counseling, a support group or other service,” thereby hopefully improving their survival chances, according to a report on the assessment results.


According to the Washington Post, 86% of victims considered to be at highest risk “had never before sought help.”


In the opinion of Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center, use of the intervention checklist by patrol officers represents “a model approach for fulfilling law enforcement’s traditional motto of ‘Serve and Protect.’ ” Lewinski teaches domestic violence response as part of the LE curriculum at Minnesota State University-Mankato.


Officers have been trained to make somewhat similar inquiries of victims in a number of other jurisdictions, he says, including Duluth (MN) and San Diego, whose police departments have had strategies in place for several years. But the Maryland program “takes this approach to a more sophisticated level of application,” Lewinski says.


For other articles about use of the lethality assessment checklist in Maryland, go to:


For information on award-winning video training materials on domestic violence intervention, visit the website of the Law Enforcement Resource Center.



II. New study provides realistic look at school crimes


The latest profile of who commits crimes in schools and what weapons are involved has emerged from a new study by the FBI’s Crime Analysis, Research & Development Unit.


Some surprises and some reinforcements of prevailing beliefs are documented in the report on offenses and offenders in U.S. schools, colleges, and universities during a recent 5-year period.


“Crime in schools and colleges is one of the most troublesome social problems today,” state the report’s authors, James Noonan and Malissa Vavra. Because it affects not only those immediately involved but “also hinders societal growth and stability, … it is vital to understand the characteristics” of school crime and criminals “so that law enforcement, policy makers, school administrators, and the public can properly combat and reduce” these offenses.


Nearly 50,000,000 students attend more than 90,000 schools in the U.S., including 16,000,000 students enrolled in some 4,200 post-secondary institutions. However, the study data came from about a third of the nation’s state and local LE agencies, who police roughly 20% of the U.S. population.


“Despite the limited sampling, one strength of the FBI survey,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, “is that it provides a more representative picture of the true nature of school crime than do the shocking headlines about active shooter incidents so often associated with educational institutions.”


Highlights of the FBI analysis of nearly 620,000 school-related offenses include:


* OFFENSE TYPE. Perpetrators were most often arrested for simple assault and drug violations, these 2 categories accounting for more than half (52%) of the arrests. But the full range of offenses included virtually anything officers might encounter in any community: kidnapping, forcible rape, sexual assault with an object, murder/manslaughter, incest, burglary, arson, vehicle theft, counterfeiting, robbery, theft from coin machines, ATM fraud, trespass, DUI, gambling, prostitution-you name it. Almost 38% of all crimes reported on school campuses involved a violent criminal offense.


* FREQUENCY. The number of school crimes reported increased from more than 84,000 a year to over 132,000 annually during the study period, but much of this numerical increase is believed to be the result of more thorough reporting. The portion of crime generally that occurred at school locations held steady at about 3% across all 5 years of the study.


* TIMING. School crimes most often occurred in October across the survey period, followed by March and September.


* OFFENDERS. Males were reported as offenders 3.3 times more often than females. Whites accounted for more than 70% of offenders and were 2.5 times more likely to be perpetrators “than were all other races combined.” The most common age group for offenders was 13-15 years old (38%), the least common (about 2%) under 9. Surprisingly, 287 offenders in the study were reported to be 4 years old or younger. Overwhelmingly, offenders were residents of the community in which the crime took place.


* VICTIM-OFFENDER RELATIONSHIP. An acquaintance or someone “otherwise known” to the victim was 3.3 times more likely to be an offender than any other type of perpetrator. A stranger was reported as the offender only 7.5% of the time. Just as often, a relationship termed “Victim was Offender” was reported. This involved incidents in which “all participants were victims and offenders,” such as assaults resulting from brawls or fights.


* WEAPONS. Personal weapons (hands, feet, fists, etc.) were 3.4 times more often involved in crimes than any other weapon type, although criminal offenses with no weapons involved were second most common. Knives or other cutting instruments outweighed “the number of times guns were used by 3.2 to1.” Defined weapon categories included blunt objects, explosives, motor vehicles, fire, and poison, while an unspecified category (“Other”), which ranked third in frequency, included such weapons as “acid, pepper spray, belts, deadly diseases, [and] scalding hot water.”


These findings, according to authors of the report, “may be useful for officials and policy makers at educational institutions who are seeking to develop proactive policies, an important need to effectively protect these vital societal foundations.”


[Our thanks to Tom Moy of the University of Delaware Police Dept. for tipping us to the FBI's study.]



III. One agency’s innovation for easing shift fatigue


We’ve reported previously on the dangers of fatigue in policing, but we haven’t described a creative countermeasure, typified by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in Redwood City, CA.


To help deputies who would otherwise face exhausting commutes after long shifts, the SO has established 2 free “crash pads” where personnel can get adequate sleep before going back on duty.


One is a house in a residential neighborhood of Redwood City, south of San Francisco, where 5 rooms have been outfitted with 14 beds. Another 4 beds have been installed in a substation located at Moss Beach on the far western edge of the county on the Pacific coast.


Lt. Steve Shively of the SO’s Professional Standards Unit, which oversees the facilities, estimates that 28 to 34 deputies use the Redwood City house each week. Traffic is somewhat lighter at the substation because fewer personnel are assigned to that area. Technically, any of the sheriff’s 500 employees, including corrections officers and maintenance workers, can use the accommodations.


The bed space “is a great benefit,” Shively told Force Science News, “because we work 12-hour shifts. The day shift works 2 days on and 2 off, and the night shift is 4 on and 4 off. If commuting time is added to shift time, that doesn’t allow for much sleep.”


Indeed, in order to find affordable housing in the inflated California market, some deputies have to drive 2 to 3 hours between work and home. Between-shifts access to the free beds “serves as an important fatigue buffer,” Shively says, and, also important these days, it saves gas money.


Another “big benefit” is that the beds keep more personnel “within a short distance” in the county in the event of an emergency, “such as a fire, a flood, an earthquake, a terrorist attack,” he points out.


The county pays $3,800 a month rent for the Redwood City house. Personnel sign up in advance on a first-come first-served basis for the privilege of flopping there, and the place is monitored to assure that no Animal House atmosphere develops.


“We’ve had no complaints,” Shively says. “Our guys realize what a huge benefit this is, and they’re not about to mess it up. They basically drop in, go to sleep, and get up for their next shift. They’re aware that everyone’s there for sleeping.”


Currently only males are using the house, but when females register a bedroom can be assigned exclusively for them.


Several other agencies in California are looking into the SO’s arrangement, Shively says. “We’re getting inquiries regularly.”


Written by Force Science Institute

December 2nd, 2007 at 7:26 pm

© 2017 Force Science Institute Ltd.