With 11 Questions, Officers Assess Homicide Risk

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With 11 Questions, Officers Assess Homicide Risk

With 11 Questions, Officers Assess Homicide Risk

 David M. Sargent of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence has taught thousands of law enforcement officers how to implement the Lethality Assessment Program, which uses a short survey to assess victims' risk of being killed and a simple protocol to encourage them to get help.

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The following is a transcript.

ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. This is New Thinking, our podcast series where we interview justice professionals who are addressing some of the most challenging problems society confronts.

Today I'm talking with David Sargent about domestic violence. David served 21 years with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., and he now works with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

Thanks for taking a few minutes to chat.

DAVID SARGENT: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.

WOLF: David's in our office today helping train a group of visitors that we're hosting from Minnesota. The focus of your training is on the process of the lethality assessment program, which is a screening tool that police use to identify high-risk domestic violence victims. And then there's a process around what you do with that information. So that's what I wanted to ask you about.

Who is a high-risk domestic violence victim, and how does the lethality assessment program fit in?

SARGENT: Well when we say high-risk, what we're saying is that this victim is at the greatest risk of being killed.

The screening process that we use is evidence-based, mostly on the work of Dr. Jacqueline Campbell from Johns Hopkins University, who has done danger and lethality assessment work over the past more than 25 years. And we have used that information with Dr. Campbell's assistance to be able to take information that has been available on a clinician's level, since before 1981, to be able to take that information and to bring it to the level of the field practitioner so that the field practitioner can make the same research-based assessment identification of victims who are at the greatest risk of being killed.

With that information, what we do is we try to get victims into domestic violence services. We use a very proactive approach to be able to accomplish that. For example, with police officers, the officer uses the screen on the scene of a domestic violence call.

WOLF: Before you go on, the police officer is called to a scene, and there has been an allegation of domestic violence, and then the screen is a series of questions?

SARGENT: Essentially after the investigation is completed, the officer goes through a process where he tells the victim that he would like to ask her some questions to get a better idea of her situation.

He proceeds to ask the 11 questions that are a part of the field screening process. If a victim has answered yes to enough of these questions, which an officer immediately is able to determine, the officer tells the victim that she's in danger, that in situations like this people have been killed.

And what he or she—the officer—would like to do is to contact the domestic violence hotline to be able to get some information to pass onto her, but also for her to think about getting on the phone with the hotline worker.

It's always the victim's decision. If the victim answers ‘No, I don't want to get on the phone,’ then we respect that, but we encourage her again. And we say, ‘Well, that's fine, you don't have to, but I'm gonna call the domestic violence hotline to get some information to pass onto you and while I'm on the phone, I’d just like you to think about speaking with them.’

We've essentially hit the victim cold with this kind of information, or this overture that we've made to her. So we'd like her to have an opportunity to be able to process it and proactively have the hotline worker right there, prepared to speak with her. WOLF: Let me ask you, just to give a sense, what kinds of questions are you actually asking that help you make this determination?

SARGENT: The questions are, again, those that are most predictive of homicide, such as ‘Has he ever threatened you with a weapon? Does he have access to firearms? Has he ever tried to—as we say in the screen—choke you?’ We know the word is strangled, but choke is the word that the public commonly understands.

We ask questions like that, that as we've determined from the research are most predictive of homicide. And not of re-abuse. That's a different level. Again, we're trying to identify that portion of those victims who are being abused, who are at the greatest risk of being killed.

WOLF: And just to understand how this differentiates from common practice because I'm sure that police officers in many jurisdictions give a referral of some kind when they leave. This sounds much more proactive, where the officer is actually making the phone call in front of the victim. Is that sort of what distinguishes it from other methods?

SARGENT: It is absolutely. You're right. The normal approach is for simple referral. We decided early on during the development of this screen that it was not sufficient to have just an instrument that identified victims who were at a risk of being killed, but to have something proactively to be able to move that victim along to be able to take action.

What we found with our victims that we work with, who call for service, is that that is generally a different kind of victim than the victim who picks up the telephone in the middle of the night to call the domestic violence hotline because she is ready to get help. The victims that we see are not in the same—at the same stage.

There's a process called the stages of change that victims go through. And generally the victims that we're seeing on the road are those victims who are in the early stages of change. They don't recognize the situation they're in, and they are less apt to move forward. And so the process, the lethality process, by asking the questions—and hard questions to answer to—and telling the victim that in situations like this people have been killed, which is true and we know that from the research, to try to open her eyes and try to get her to take action.

Getting the hotline worker is another part of that. And part of the job of the hotline worker when she has the opportunity to speak with the victim is that the hotline worker will encourage the victim to come in for services, even to the point of scheduling an appointment and telling the victim that ‘You know, when tomorrow comes and you're thinking about this appointment, you're not gonna want to come in. Resist that and come anyway.’

We've been successful in getting victims into services. The national percentages of victims who have been killed in domestic violence situations—only four percent of them have ever availed themselves of the services of a domestic violence program, because they didn't know about it, because they weren't ready to take action or they were afraid to take action.

Well, now victims become aware of our services. And 38 percent of victims who went in for services in 2010 in the state of Maryland, 38 percent of victims who spoke on the phone, excuse me, went in for services. These are high-risk victims that we know of, none of that 38 percent which last year was nearly 1,200 victims, none of those victims was killed in a domestic situation.

WOLF: So each one of those situations is challenging, really, to measure the impact on homicide, presumably, but you're looking for other indications like these are people who probably would not have gone for services if the officer hadn't been so proactive and the hotline operator also hadn't been proactive.

SARGENT: In the last three years, our intimate partner homicide rate has been reduced by 41 percent. We can't attribute that to the lethality assessment program, but when we are getting the percentages and numbers of high-danger victims into services that we are, none of those has been killed. And I think we can say with some hope that the reduction is due, in large measure, to the work in the lethality assessment program.

WOLF: So I’m speaking with Dave Sargent, who served 21 years with the metropolitan Police Department in Washington, and is now helping train people in Maryland and around the country in the lethality assessment program.

And I wanted to ask you how it started in Maryland, when did it actually start, and now how widely is the process used?

SARGENT: We went through a development process with a large committee, multi-disciplinary committee between 2003 and 2005. We implemented it in the state of Maryland in October of 2005 and 92 percent of our law enforcement agencies that respond to calls for service participate in the lethality assessment program, including our state police. All of our domestic violence programs in all of our counties are participants as well.

Yes, we have extended beyond Maryland. The lethality assessment program is now being implemented by more than 140 law enforcement agencies in 13 states with their partner programs. And we're preparing to train even more jurisdictions in other states as we speak.

So this has had a broader impact than we imagined when we first began. I think it just speaks to the simplicity of use, but also to the paradigm shift that has occurred in how victims are worked with, both by law enforcement and by the domestic violence program. The communication level between the two, between domestic violence services and between law enforcement, has been a big byproduct of the lethality assessment program.

It's improved and it will improve if the agency and the program are working together to make sure that there are successful aspects of this, that they try to get a victim on the telephone, the officers do. That the hotline tries to get the victim into services, and encourages them to take that step. And it happens.

And our, in small sample surveys that we've done with victims, they have told us that they have gone in for services in one respect based on the partnership that they felt between the law enforcement officer and the hotline worker during that time of that call for service. They sensed a certain working together that was occurring, and they felt support from both that officer and that hotline worker. And that was the encouragement that propelled them to move forward, to seek out the services.

WOLF: So obviously you recommend that groundwork be laid between the police agency and the hotline to coordinate this, obviously, because it just doesn't happen naturally, it sounds like.

SARGENT: It has to happen. Both law enforcement agencies and the domestic violence program have to be willing to work together to see this through.

WOLF: And the 11 questions, are they very user friendly for a police officer? Can anyone do this or is it best if an officer is a special kind of officer trained not only in this questionnaire but in the domestic violence issues?

SARGENT: We do go through considerable training because we want to be able to convey the process that we believe is at stake here, and we want the officers and domestic violence advocates to fully understand the process. But the actual practice of it is very, very simple.

Yes, any police officer can ask the questions. Any person who's working in an agency, a receptionist who's working for an agency that may see a domestic violence victim come in during the course of its normal work would be in a position to ask these, and they're not conveying any kind of professional or expert information in doing this. So essentially they're serving as a conduit to that domestic violence program where the expert information can be relayed.

So yes, anybody can do it, and part of the process is to train other community partners to be able to use the lethality assessment program, such as hospitals, departments of health, departments of social services, even the faith community because we find that victims go to their faith leaders and disclose domestic violence and to seek guidance in large numbers. And if they’re going to this source for help, then we need to work with that, with those faith leaders to be able to allow them to be able to serve as an appropriate conduit to the professional help that is available through the domestic violence program.

WOLF: And if someone wanted to find out more about the lethality assessment program, where can they get that information?

SARGENT: Well it's on the Maryland Network against Domestic Violence's website, which is www.mnadv.org. All our information is there, including our email information, which is info@mnadv.org.

WOLF: Great, well I thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

SARGENT: Thank you so much, I appreciate the time.

WOLF: I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. I've been talking with David Sargent of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence about the lethality assessment program. To find out more information about the Center for Court Innovation you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.

May 2011

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