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“Lethality Assessment” Helps Gauge Danger from Domestic Disputes

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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: www.mnadv.org/

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

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