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Police Take New Approach To Preventing Domestic Violence

Tracy had been threatened, stalked, slapped and beaten by her ex-boyfriend. But it wasn't until a police officer pulled out a form and read a series of questions designed to determine her risk of being killed that she realized the danger she was facing.

"They do put things in perspective," she said of the questions.

Tracy, who asked that her last name be kept confidential, is one of a growing number of domestic violence victims who have benefited from a new screening process used by some police departments at scenes of clashes, regardless of the degree of intensity, between intimate partners.

Called Lethality Assessment Program (L.A.P.), it assesses the likelihood that the victims — usually women — could be killed by their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends or former partners. It is modeled after a program developed in Maryland with questions by Jacquelyn Campbell of Johns Hopkins University.

The form has 11 simple questions that ask for a yes or no answer. If, based on the answers, a victim is determined to be at risk, the officer calls the area domestic violence agency while still at the scene and hands the phone to the victim. A counselor at the agency then tells the victim how to be safe.

The questions range from direct ones, such as "Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?" to less obvious queries, such as, "Is he/she unemployed?"

In Connecticut, it started as a pilot program in 2012 and went statewide this year.

Now, 31 police agencies from across the state are using the assessment forms at domestic violence scenes. The municipalities stretch from Groton to Greenwich and from Ansonia — the first department in the state to use the program — to Manchester. L.A.P. is the result of a collaboration between the Police Officer Standards and Training Council and the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The timing couldn't be better: There have been 10 intimate partner homicides this year, already eclipsing the number for all of 2013. Two of the crime scenes were murder-suicides.

Victims have said the gentle intervention of a police officer "changed their perspective," said Liza Andrews, the coalition's communications and public policy specialist. "Because for the police officer to make that call from their personal cellphone … and hand that phone to the victim" shows that the officer really cares, she said.

And to have a domestic violence expert already on the other end of the phone that's handed to the victim means there's one less step for her to take.

"If you have three kids and a husband who's melting down emotionally, it's very difficult to make that call," said Karen Jarmoc, the coalition's executive director, at an event at the Legislative Office Building last week.

For Tracy, it was a question about whether her boyfriend ever tried to commit suicide that put things in focus. She recalled he had told her that if she leaves him, he'll kill himself, she said.

That made her think: If he's suicidal, "Of course he's capable of killing me," she said.

"The questions really make you think."

She said she also liked getting an immediate offer of assistance from a domestic violence expert and loves the fact that help is available 24/7. (The statewide number for domestic violence advice is 888-774-2900) It lets victims know they are not alone, she said, no matter what time it is.

The first time Tracy was screened — she participated three times — she called police because her ex-boyfriend had been sitting in a car watching her house from a distance and leaving her threatening voicemail messages throughout the night. He had been angry about their breakup and earlier chased her with a large flashlight when she asked him to leave, she said.

She opted to have family stay with her instead of leaving home for a domestic violence shelter, she said. Her ex-boyfriend was arrested within four hours of her calling police.

"I can't imagine what would have happened … if I had not called for help," she said.

Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara said his department has been doing the assessments for more than a year. In April, Fairfield officers did seven lethality screenings, one of which involved a person who was at a high risk of death, he said.

Measuring the program's success isn't easy, he said.

"It's hard to show success in what you prevent," MacNamara said.

The beauty of the program is that it allows police to be a bridge for victims and domestic violence experts at a critical time, he said. Officers are in a unique position when they are called to the scene of a domestic dispute, the chief said: they have a rare peek into the victim's life, which often is a closed-off world of fear and intimidation.

"We are the link between the victims and the services," MacNamara said. The officer's presence on the scene "starts a conversation."

By calling the domestic violence expert in the presence of the victim, the officer allows the person to quickly get the help he or she needs.

"The victim of domestic violence is so unlike the victim of any other crime because it's years and years of emotional conditioning," MacNamara said. They often don't call for help themselves.

Jarmoc said she wonders if Lori Jackson Gellatly would have done anything differently had she spoken directly to a domestic violence counselor the day she reported an incident of domestic violence with her husband, Scott Gellatly. The Oxford woman told a state trooper that her husband had grabbed her thumb, twisted her wrist and grabbed her arm the day before, all while she was holding their twins.

When the woman reported the incident on April 2, the trooper gave her a victim's rights card and circled the telephone numbers for a domestic violence hotline and for the office of the victim advocate, according to the warrant for Scott Gellatly's arrest on charges of third-degree assault and disorderly conduct.

They also discussed a safety plan, and she told the trooper she'd be safe with her parents at their nearby house, the warrant says.

But on May 7, Scott Gellatly resurfaced after being gone for weeks, police say, broke into her parents' house and shot both Lori and her mother.

Her mother survived. Lori didn't.

Coventry Police Chief Mark Palmer said his department started doing the assessments after his officers received the required four hours of training last year. It was not in place yet in August 2013, when Gregory Pawloski fatally shot his wife, Janice Lesko, and then himself. Even if screenings were being done at that time, the program wouldn't have prevented the murder-suicide because there was no reason for police to have been in the house before the deaths; there were no previous calls reporting domestic clashes there.

Still, Palmer said the program makes sense.

"I think early intervention is key," he said. "Turn the cycle around and get the couple help. The likelihood of escalation is greater if it goes unchecked."

The timing of the assessments is key because it's best to gather the info while "the incident is fresh" and the victim is still upset, Palmer said. If the offending person is drunk or on drugs, he or she will sleep it off and things seem to get better in the victim's eyes, he said.

Despite such endorsements for the program, only a third of the departments in the state have signed on. Besides the state police, those not on the list of participants include the biggest cities in the state, Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven — in part because the coalition hasn't pushed the bigger cities to join the nascent program.

Police in Bristol, where National Guardsman Alexander Ryng fatally shot his wife, Kyla, in June before turning the gun on himself, may start participating, Capt. Thomas Calvello said. But the department is not rushing to start the screenings for a few reasons, including the concern that they tie up officers, keeping them off the streets longer.

"It's going to require us to stay on the scene even after we would have already left," Calvello said. The department had 186 calls for service on June 1 and 198 on July 1, he said.

Bristol police twice had contact with Kyla Ryng and once with Alexander Ryng in the days before they died. But one of the contacts apparently did not involve violence, and the other involved an alleged assault by Alexander's brother — not him — so it's not clear what effect an assessment would have had.

As far as the time it takes to do the screening, Palmer said, "It's really not a strain on our resources. It doesn't take a long time." Police stay on the scenes of domestic clashes long enough to make sure the victim is safe anyway, the chief said.

Sgt. Todd Thiel, union president for Vernon police, said he wasn't familiar with L.A.P. He said he would have to do some research on the program, but "to me, 11 questions to ask doesn't seem like a whole lot. How long does it take to ask 11 questions?"

"It comes down to everybody's safety, that's why we're here," Thiel said. "I'm not opposed to doing anything new or trying something different if it's going to save somebody."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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