Learning to read the danger signs

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


   After a victim has been identified as a high-danger victim, officers use the LAP protocol. They tell victims that they are in danger. Specifically, an officer may say, "In situations like this, people have been killed."

   Next, the officer says, "What I'd like to do now is call the domestic violence hotline so I can get some information to help you. While I'm on the phone, I'd like you to think about speaking with the hotline worker."

   Regardless of whether or not the victim says he or she wants to talk to a hotline worker, the officer will call the hotline and provide basic information. If the victim has previously indicated he or she does not want to talk on the phone, the officer again encourages him or her and asks if the victim would like to talk to the hotline worker. If the victims still does not want to talk on the phone, they don't have to. The advocate then provides basic safety planning information that the officer conveys to the victim.

   If the victim has said yes, the officer hands the victim the phone. The hotline worker's objective in a brief conversation (no more than 10 minutes) is to encourage the victim to go into domestic violence intervention services. Hotline workers have written guidelines to help ensure a victim gets basic information for immediate safety planning, and can even schedule the victim to see a counselor.

   "While we want to be proactive, we want to give the victim information that will empower her to decide to seek help," Sargent says. "It's always the victim who is making the decision. The emphasis in training is on encouraging the victim. The police officer encourages the victim to talk on the phone, and the advocate encourages the victim to go in for services."

   Most advocates and officers in Maryland then provide further encouragement and support through follow-up home visits or phone calls.

Realizing the danger

   Research has shown that victims who experience domestic violence early on continue to be victims of abuse through life, thinking that's the norm, Martin points out. They don't think they need help, he adds.

   By going through the questions, victims start to realize the danger they are in.

   "I think it helps them see — for their sake and for the sake of their kids — they really need to start taking steps to get out of the situation," Heavner says.

   Before lethality assessments, Heavner says a victim tended to downplay her situation. She would say something like, "This is just how he is, this kind of stuff has always happened. I just can't get rid of him." The victim wouldn't necessarily come forward with the fact that she was threatened in the past.

   Heavner remembers a woman's ex-boyfriend kicking down the woman's door to break into her home when she and her two young daughters were present. He left before police officers arrived on the scene, and they had been to the scene before. Once the victim answered the assessment questions and heard herself verbalize what was really going on, she started thinking about getting a protective order and going forth with charges.

   In general, Heavner says victims are more willing to take action because they've been confronted with serious information.

10 minutes could save a life

   Agencies looking to implement LAP may find, as Howard County did, the biggest challenge is that all patrol officers will need to be trained.

   Another challenge Martin says is officer buy-in. Officers will need to fill out another form. LAP does not replace pre-existing forms, but in some cases agencies have combined the written LAP assessment with another form.

   A common question officers ask Ron Russum, the LAP contact person and trainer for the Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence in Maryland, is how much time LAP takes. On average, he says it takes 5 minutes to do the screening and another 5 if the victim wants to speak to a domestic violence advocate.

   Sargent says, "Our goal was to make a tool that was going to be as user-friendly as possible for police officers. Part of making the assessment tool user-friendly was ensuring that the assessment and protocol would be brief."

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