Learning to read the danger signs

Maryland patrol officers take an extra step to end domestic violence homicides


   Studying domestic violence for more than 25 years, Jacquelyn Campbell, Ph.D., of the John Hopkins University School of Nursing, found that in 50 percent of domestic violence-related homicides, officers had previously responded to a call where a homicide occurred.

   Rarely do victims who may be killed or seriously injured seek help to end the cycle of violence. Campbell's research shows only 4 percent of domestic violence murder victims nationwide had availed themselves to domestic violence intervention services. Yet these services are important. Campbell found that the re-assault of domestic violence victims in high danger was reduced by 60 percent when they went to a shelter.

   Handing out print materials that describe domestic violence intervention resources and contact information didn't seem to prompt any action — other than frustrating the officers because victims weren't seeking help.

   "There are some domestic situations that just trouble you — you worry something is going to happen to the victim, and there wasn't anything you felt you could do about it," says David Sargent, a retired police officer who's now a consultant and trainer for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence (MNADV).

   In Maryland and seven other areas of the country, that's changing. Based on Campbell's research, MNADV put together a model program to prevent domestic violence homicides and serious injury by encouraging more victims to seek services offered by domestic violence intervention programs. MNADV's Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) has two parts: the lethality screen for first responders to identify victims with increased risk for homicide; and a protocol to refer victims to services, such as counseling and shelter. All Maryland law enforcement agencies that respond to calls for service use LAP; and in 2009, additional agencies in Florida and Vermont implemented LAP.

Better understanding

   Before officers started using the lethality screen, Officer Erika Heavner of the Howard County Police Department in Maryland describes she and other officers primarily focused on "the here and now."

   In other words, they were identifying if anyone is injured, or how to resolve the situation at hand.

   She says when questioned, a victim might have said little more than, "We argued, he shoved me and left."

   The lethality screen helps officers delve deeper to better understand a situation and recognize the danger signs predictive of homicide, or as the LAP information packet says, officers learn to read the danger signs.

   Not every victim of domestic violence is screened. Officers initiate a lethality screen when an intimate relationship is involved and:

  • An assault is believed to have occurred;
  • The potential for danger is high;
  • Officers responded to calls involving the victim or location before;
  • Or an officer believes an assessment should be conducted.

   If a victim resists screening, he or she becomes a lost opportunity.

   "We don't know if she's a high-danger victim or not," Sargent says.

   If a victim agrees to participate in the screening, 11 yes-or-no questions are asked based on Campbell's work looking at why more than 4,000 victims of domestic violence were killed or nearly killed, and are modeled after Campbell's dangerous assessment instrument for clinical use.

   Using a checklist format, officers can consistently obtain the most valuable information.

   Questions, for example, include:

  • Has he or she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?
  • Do you think he or she might try to kill you?

   Retired Howard County Sgt. Steve Martin, who supervised his department's domestic violence unit, says when officers initially started using the screening tool, they would say, "I can't believe how bad this woman has it."

   Overall, Martin found officers trained to use the screening tool became more empathetic to a victim's plight.

Following protocol

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