Identifying, Assessing Risk of Lethal Domestic Violence Discussed at General Sessions Conference

October 5, 2020

Domestic violence is a scourge that affects millions of people in the United States each year, often with devastating consequences. Unfortunately, the problem is especially acute in Tennessee, which recent data shows has the fifth highest rate of women killed by men in the country. Because 92 percent of women are killed by men they know, this points to a serious issue with intimate partner violence in the state.

At the recent Tennessee General Sessions Judges Conference, judges learned about the dynamics that underlie domestic violence and also about the many steps that are being taken by law enforcement and other agencies to try to prevent lethal domestic violence in the state. Some of the most impactful of these steps involve attempting to identify high risk cases before it is too late.

Davidson County General Sessions Court Judge Allegra Walker is one of three judges on the general sessions bench in her district who handles domestic violence cases. Before she became a judge, she was a prosecutor who often handled domestic violence cases. Judge Walker said it is important to realize that domestic violence victims and perpetrators do not fit into any one category.

“Domestic violence abuse is a respecter of no one,” she said. “It can be anybody. It’s one of those crimes that regardless of your age, your sex, your socioeconomic status, your educational occupational background, your religious beliefs… it’s going to cut across all those barriers.”

While domestic abuse affects a wide array of people, Judge Walker said that abusers do share at least one important commonality.

“Violent behavior is the result of learned, reinforced behavior more so than biology or genetics,” she said. That behavior may be encountered at home, in church, at the workplace, or in any number of other environments.

Judge Walker also discussed victim psychology with the judges. There are a number of factors that can explain why a victim may not report violence.

“A lot of victims minimize or deny the violence or blame themselves for making the abuser angry,” she said. “It’s painful for people to acknowledge that the person they love, they married, they care for, are not very nice people who are violent and do bad things.”

That is one of the reasons that, on average, it takes seven incidents of violence before a victim calls the police.

There are a variety of other reasons, too, that hinder a victim’s efforts to leave or get help. One of the most powerful is the threat of further violence. Unfortunately, that is a very real threat. One of the most dangerous times for a victim is when they do choose to leave.

Other reasons include financial vulnerability, a lack of affordable and safe housing, and cultural or religious beliefs.

Judge Walker also discussed judicial objectives in domestic violence cases.

“When you’re up on that bench one of your primary goals is to stop the violence,” she said.

Judges have various ways to do this, one of which is by setting bail conditions.

“The three factors that a magistrate or a judge needs to take into consideration is a threat to the victim, or a threat to the public safety, or the reasonable likelihood the defendant will appear in court,” she said.

While Judge Walker discussed what steps judges can take when a case has come to court, Metro Nashville Office of Family Safety Department Head Diane Lance talked about tools that first responders are utilizing to identify victims who are especially at risk of escalating violence.

One of the most powerful of these tools is the Lethality Assessment Program, which was launched in Nashville in December 2016. The LAP includes an 11-question assessment that officers use on scene when interviewing victims in intimate partner domestic violence cases. In 2019, the Metro Nashville Police Department administered this assessment 6,976 times. Other counties across the state may learn more about implementing a LAP program through the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Office of Criminal Justice Programs.

The assessment is based on the fact that certain past behaviors by abusers are more likely to be indicative of the threat of escalating violence than others. The assessment seeks to identify whether those behaviors have been present in a relationship.

For instance, the LAP assessment includes questions asking a victim whether they have ever been strangled by their abuser, whether their abuser has access to firearms, and whether their abuser has ever threated to kill them or their children. A positive answer to any of these questions significantly raises the risk of lethal violence later. Lance cited statistics, for example, showing that an abuser who strangles their victim is 7.5 times more likely to inflict serious or deadly harm on a victim. Death threats result in a risk that is 15 times higher. Death threats or assaults that involved a weapon are associated with a 20 times higher risk of serious harm or death.

To illustrate how the LAP assessment could be helpful, Lance cited a case study where a victim’s car had been vandalized by her partner. The police responded to the event as usual, and shortly thereafter the victim’s partner followed her to work and killed her.

Property damage is obviously a far less serious offense than homicide, but Lance said that if an assessment had been done when the vehicle damage was reported, officers would have detected that the victim was in danger.

“We would have detected some high risk markers in this case,” Lance said. Indeed, subsequent investigation showed that the abuser had previously threatened to kill the victim and her children, had strangled her until she lost consciousness, and had displayed a gun during an argument.

“Now when you look at all of that it’s really clear what was happening and that this relationship was escalating to the point where she would be killed,” Lance said. “Under the LAP the thought is that when you know about the risk you can wraparound services in a more appropriate and direct way and hopefully prevent the homicide.”

Becky Bullard, the senior director of programs at the Metro Office of Family Safety, expanded on the uniquely dangerous role that firearms can play in domestic violence situations.

She said that LAP assessments in Nashville have shown that 30 percent of abusers had used or threatened their victim with a weapon. Forty-one percent said their abuser had or could easily access a weapon. In addition, eight out of 14 domestic violence homicides reported in 2019 involved a firearm.

Bullard also connected the issue of domestic violence to mass shootings, noting that some of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings have been preceded by violence at the shooter’s home.

“These individuals who are being abusive may pose a greater threat to the community than we thought before,” she said, adding that 42 percent of mass shootings, defined as involving four or more victims, are actually domestic violence incidents.

There are laws in place that prevent certain people from owning firearms. For instance, in Tennessee, convicted felons, those previously convicted of domestic violence, and those who currently have an order of protection against them are prohibited from possessing firearms.

As Bullard explained, though, there are some loopholes that can complicate the enforcement of these provisions. For example, she said that Tennessee is “the only state in the United States that has third party dispossession that does not require any proof for that dispossession.”

She mentioned one case studied by the Office of Family Safety’s Domestic Abuse Death Review Team that involved an abuser who shot and killed his ex-wife at her workplace. He had a domestic violence conviction, but had not been dispossessed of his weapon.