Delaware County equips police with new domestic violence screening tool


    Police are learning to use a danger-assessment questionnaire to identify high-risk situations before abuse becomes murder.

    Police in Delaware County are learning to use a danger-assessment questionnaire to identify high-risk situations before domestic abuse becomes murder.

    “It’s about five extra minutes taking time with the victim to go through the questionnaire,” said Sgt. Rodger Ollis from the Coatesville Police Department.

    He’s training Delaware County officers to ask the right questions, such as: “Has he/she ever used a weapon against you? Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children? Do you think he/she might try to kill you?”

    Answer ‘yes’ to any of those three red-flag questions and that prompts an immediate referral to an advocate who can help make a safety plan.

    Ollis suggests that officers pre-program the outreach number in their cell phone, and he urges battered women to get on the line immediately. During training, he reminded officers that a battered woman may not want to use her own cell phone.

    “Often the controller, or abuser, goes through a victim’s phone. They might go back and look at a call log,” Ollis said.

    “We have a lot of things around our duty belt. I have my extra magazines, firearm, two sets of cuffs, flashlight, portable radio, pepper spray,” Ollis said, adding that you can’t always arrest your way out of a problem. He said the questionnaire begins to uproot deeper issues. 

    During a domestic violence call, if the situation seems dangerous–even if a woman refuses to get on the phone–a police officer makes the hotline call anyway to let someone know there is a family in crisis. That’s the new protocol.

    Learning from a Maryland model 

    The so-called “lethality assessment” was first developed in Maryland more than a decade ago. Since then, that state has recorded fewer repeat 911 calls and noticed a drop in intimate-partner homicides.

    District Attorney Jack Whelan said Delaware County is responding to an increase in homicides directly related to domestic violence. There were four such deaths in 2013 and double that number so far in 2014.

    “Year to date, we’ve lost eight women and two children in Delaware County, it’s a very high number for us, we have lots of theories and philosophies about what’s going on, but it’s really, really tough to pinpoint,” said Rita Buckley Connolly, executive director of the The Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County.

    “Maybe it’s economic pressures, maybe there’s just more crime overall,” but Connolly said the growing ethnic diversity in Delaware County makes it hard to craft prevention messages.

    “Different understanding, different views, different religions about this issue, different views about the role of women. I think for our county it complicates things even more,” she said.

    “We know that over time, if it’s left un-dealt with, domestic violence increases in severity and frequency,” she said.

    The danger assessment tool helps connect families to help early.

    “I think it’s also a resource for the officer, so that if he or she is not 100 percent sure about what he’s hearing, or what she’s hearing, getting another advocate involved immediately. Whether it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, or 7 o’clock Sunday night,” Connolly said.

    “Officers sometimes in the past would walk away from a scene wondering what else could they do,” Ollis said.

    Men have been murdered by an intimate partner in other parts of the country, but in these Delaware County cases, it was women killed by men.

    Sparking a larger conversation 

    The HBO documentary film “Private Violence” debuted on HBO his week. The movie expands the conversation beyond the NFL and celebrity punches caught-on-tape.

    Throughout the documentary, we watch survivor and advocate Kit Gruelle push to get a conviction in federal court for Deanna Walters’ husband. Walters, a young North Carolina mom, was forced to take a cross-country trip with her estranged husband. Over several days, he beat her severely in front of their two-year-old daughter.

    Gruelle says even well-meaning family and friends still ask battered women the ultimate victim-blaming question: “Why don’t you just leave?”

    “She’s the one that understand more than anyone else exactly what he’s capable of, because she’s been living with him. So if he has said to her: If you ever leave me I’ll find you and kill you. Then that becomes her working reality,” Gruelle said.

    Cynthia Hill produced and directed the film.

    “You have been told over and over again that you are worthless, that noboby wants you, and you start to think that.” It takes a while to bring your back to yourself,” Hill said.

    Throughout the movie, Kit Gruelle wears cowboy boots and lots of purple. It’s the color advocates have adopted to raise awareness about domestic violence. Hill said it was a pleasure to watch Gruelle and other advocates help restore battered women who had been demoralized. Just listening and believing a woman helps, she said.

    “Sometimes that’s all it takes for someone to have enough courage to take the next step,” Hill said.

    In “Private Violence” we learn that during the cross-country trip, Deanna Walters’ husband threw soda at her and urinated in her hair. The film reveals photos of Walters’ bruised and battered face taken in the emergency room at the end of that ordeal.

    Once her husband was convicted, and Walters was safe, the audience also gets to see her move on with her life, with help from advocates.

    “She really has started to thrive. She does have the same typical issues as anyone who’s trying to succeed as a single mom. Just normal life issues are getting in the way now. It’s kind of nice to see that,” Hill said.

    Gruelle tracks press reports on domestic violence, and says often it’s not a husband or boyfriend that ultimately kills, but an ex, or an estranged partner. She said leaving may be the most dangerous thing a woman can do.

    For too long, the community response hasn’t been adequate among judges, police and doctors, Gruelle said. 

    “Physicians have historically said nothing because they don’t know what to say,” Gruelle said. “And so when I used to go to the medical school at Chapel Hill, I would say to the medical students first thing, it’s not your job to fix this, and you could almost see the relief.”

    But, experts do want doctors and police to ask a few basic questions. Write a report, be a witness, listen and believe a woman when she says she being hurt in her own home.

    Addressing the fear of speaking out 

    Delaware County Deputy District Attorney Michael Galantino says for six cases, there’s no record the battered woman ever spoke to an advocate or was referred to a shelter.

    “One common thread is that many of these victims feel they can handle it on their own, we have a lot of cases, where the victim misjudges the risk that the situation will escalate and result in his/her death,” he said.

    During a training session for police who will use Delaware County’s assessment tool, prosecutor Galantino talked about a 1995 case in the city of Chester that seems to still haunt him.

    Venir Harris’ boyfriend beat her, punched her and broke her cheekbone. Prosecutors took on the case, but Harris didn’t show up in court. She’d already missed work to heal her face, and she was worried about losing her job.

    The judge dismissed the case. The boyfriend Bruce Davis was released from prison, and hours later he found Harris.

    “A short time after getting home, Brue demanded her money and her car, so that he could go buy drugs,” he said.  “When she refused, he took a butcher knife and stabbed her to death,” Galantino said.

    Galantino says the questionnaire may have helped in that situation. 

    “If there is serious jeopardy, or if the lethality assessment comes back that this person is at high risk, then I think we have an obligation to go to the district justice and say to the district justice: We have a high score here, we believe this particular victim is at risk, and we [post] substantial bail so this person goes to jail where he should be,” said Jack Whelan.

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