St. Paul cops to focus on domestic violence cases

A police car.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The St. Paul Police Department plans to start using an innovative screening tool to help predict whether domestic violence victims are at high risk of being killed by their abusers.

Starting this fall, patrol officers will be trained to use a "lethality assessment" to interview victims in all domestic-related incidents. If officers identify a high-risk situation, intensive steps could be taken immediately to protect the victim.

"We want to be smart with this, to the extent that we can," said Sgt. Paul Schnell, spokesmen for the St. Paul Police Department. "No one has a crystal ball, but a whole lot of really smart people around the country have been doing some really incredible work around developing a better sense of what risks exist, and what behaviors increase the level of danger to victims and their family members."

The assessment has yet to be finalized, but will consist of four or five key questions, Schnell said.

Officials based the screening on the work of several researchers, including experts at Praxis International, a nonprofit organization based in Duluth which works to prevent domestic violence, and Jacquelyn Campbell, a domestic violence specialist at Johns Hopkins University.

Campbell's more lengthy assessment includes direct questions about violence and threats of violence, including "Does he own a gun?" "Does he threaten to kill you?" and "Does he ever try to choke you?"

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Campbell said that using the term "choke" instead of "strangle" leads to more accurate responses.

"The 'choking' language is language that domestic violence victims can relate to," said Campbell. "It really is an attempted strangulation, but those kinds of words don't seem to apply to a husband or boyfriend or someone that you love and live with."

Assessments should ask about specific behaviors, such as whether the abuser sends threatening e-mails or text messages, and avoid general words like "stalking," she said.

Campbell's assessment also asks questions that might not seem germane, including whether the abuser is unemployed and whether the victim has any children from another partner.

Campbell said these factors by themselves do not cause violence, but can provide critical information when viewed in the context of an already violent relationship.

Unemployment often leads to increased stress, which can trigger an already violent abuser to kill his partner, Campbell said.

If an abuser lives with a non-biological child, it could act as "a daily reminder that she was with someone else once," she said.

The police department's Paul Schnell said the new assessment tool is part of the city's larger effort to improve domestic violence interventions throughout the criminal justice system. City officials, in partnership with local domestic violence agencies, plan to release information about additional changes later this year, he said.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence say they expect the new assessment will help police officers identify high-risk situations and intervene before they result in serious violence.

"Instead of just looking at a particular incident, it's looking at the whole picture and the whole history," said Rebecca McLane, program manager for the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. "Most domestic violence calls that go out, there's been a history. And an understanding of what that history is, is really critical for helping determine what the danger levels are."

In the first six months of this year, police officers in St. Paul responded to 2,495 domestic calls, a 16 percent increase from the same period last year.

The assessments will increase the length of time officers spend on each of these calls, but Schnell said the difference will be offset by an increase in staffing. The city's police department received federal stimulus funding last month to hire an additional 28 officers.