Monday, January 25, 2010

I'm Moving to Athens

Because Athens takes domestic violence seriously.

Depression, jealousy, substance abuse, unemployment and even pregnancy can be warning signs that a troubled relationship is headed toward murder.

Domestic violence experts call these clues "lethality factors," and after a particularly deadly 2009, Athens-Clarke police plan to revamp their reporting system to document those risk factors in the future.

"We're working on putting lethality factors in reports so when they get to the investigators, they can determine where they need to go with them," said Lt. David Leedahl of the Athens-Clarke Police Department's Centralized Criminal Investigations division.

"The higher the lethality factors are, the higher the risk is" that a victim might be seriously harmed or killed, Leedahl said.

Police will track lethality factors to help prioritize cases, and prosecutors will look at those circumstances to fast-track the most dangerous abusers through court, and judges will consider them when deciding whether to set bail, Athens-Clarke Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm said.

"On the standard report, officers don't have a list of lethality factors, so this is going to make it easier for them to check things off," Chisholm said.

Looking for and documenting lethality factors is just one way authorities are trying to prevent another year like 2009, when a record 10 people were killed in Clarke County because of domestic violence.

Two weeks ago, police tripled the number of investigators assigned to work domestic violence cases, from two to six.

That means the average monthly caseload for a domestic violence investigator should drop from 45 cases to about 20, according to Leedahl.

"That's a more manageable number," he said. "It will allow investigators to get more in-depth in their cases and lead to more prosecutions."

The Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council funded the new investigator positions, under the Violence Against Women Act, partly because the grant application cited the huge spike in domestic violence murders, according to Leedahl.

"We certainly don't want to see a repeat of last year," he said.

Chisholm's office also received a CJCC grant that will soon let him hire a prosecutor dedicated to handling domestic violence cases in State Court, just as the district attorney has for Superior Court cases.

"We want someone who will be handling cases from the arraignment on," Chisholm said. "We want prosecutors meeting not just with victims and witnesses, but going to the (crime) scene and being more active with their communications between victims, detectives and domestic violence services so that we can reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility of information slipping through the cracks."

Hiring more detectives and prosecutors will help better protect domestic violence victims, but just adding lethality factors to police reports could have a dramatic impact, said Joan Prittie, executive director of Project Safe, a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence,

"Lethality factors are useful because they focus on aspects of domestic violence that are really significant in the potential for danger," Prittie said.

When she trains police officers and others about domestic violence, Prittie uses an example to show how lethality factors can predict violence:

An Athens woman broke up with her abusive boyfriend, but he found out where she moved and pestered her with notes, flowers and promises to treat her better. One night he banged on the woman's door and refused to leave, threatening to get a relative's gun and kill himself.

The woman called the police, who charged the man with criminal trespass, because he hadn't threatened or hurt the woman or committed any other crimes.

"If you looked at what happened in the traditional way, it doesn't seem that frightening," Prittie said.

"If someone who knew about lethality factors had talked to (the victim), they would have learned she was pregnant, he had a substance abuse problem, the abuse escalated prior to her leaving, and he was unemployed," she said.

Abusers like to feel they are in control, but they might feel it slipping away when they don't have a job or the victim gets pregnant and changes her priorities to focus on her child, Prittie explained.

"Sure enough, in this case, the guy came back and shot her, but amazingly she survived," she said. "If the police had been using lethality factors, then this case of criminal trespass rises to the stack of all they have to investigate. And the magistrate, instead of just saying this is just a criminal trespass case says, 'OK, we need to set a high bond or get a no-contact order,' and the prosecutor can put this offender on the fast-track."
These are the 14 most general recognized lethality factors, indications that an abusive relationship might end with serious violence or death:

The abuser:

  • Choked the victim
  • Sexually assaulted the victim
  • Has gotten more violent
  • Made death threats
  • Has access to firearms
  • Abuses drugs or alcohol
  • Lives with the victim or knows where to find him/her
  • Tries to control the victim and has jealous tendencies
  • Suffers from depression or has suicidal thoughts
  • Harasses the victim through stalking and other means
  • Doesn't have a job
The victim:
  • Left the abuser or is trying to
  • Has a strong feeling of terror
  • Is pregnant

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