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What if They Had Known?
Retired Police Chief, R. Luke Thompson
As have many others, I have watched the mystery of Gabby Petito’s murder play out in the national media. I have seen the body-worn camera footage from the police officers in Utah that encountered Petito and her fiancé after a 911 call reported them fighting to police. After nearly 21 years in local law enforcement, I never grew to like responding to reports of domestic violence. As a younger officer there
seemed to be no positive outcome for such a call. I have been attacked by more than one domestic violence victim because I was taking their abuser to jail. I never really got a handle on domestic violence until about year number seventeen. I was asked to participate in a meeting to discuss domestic violence grants in our state. The conversation turned to statistics, or the lack thereof, available. We have always done a great job of collecting data and information in police work, but we have historically fallen short when using that data to make meaningful changes in our communities. As I questioned the person that was presenting the available data, the conversation turned to incident based crime reporting, something that our state did not do at the time.
After that meeting, a woman heading up the meeting that I had never met before asked if I would be interested in attending a training conference with her in Seattle. In a moment of confession, I was not expecting anything earth shattering. It was another conference in a far off city that I had never been to and that was basically the appeal in going. Within ninety minutes of the beginning of the three day conference, I was asking my new friend, “Why are we not doing this?” Her reply, “No one knows about it.” That day I embarked on learning everything I could about the Domestic Violence Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP).However,mymotiveswerealittledifferentthanthosethat brought this tool to my attention. Their purpose was to provide services to victims; to get victims of domestic violence connected to services and know their options in a dangerous situation. I saw officer safety. This was a risk assessment. This was an opportunity to train my police officers in a simple tool that asked eleven yes/ no questions and gave officers a definite decision to make in an
otherwise lose-lose situation. I came back from that conference to find only one statewide agency that was aware of the LAP and they were not a police agency charged with responding to domestic violence calls.
I set out to create this protocol for our police department, but no one else was doing it so I was starting from scratch. I quickly realized that a relationship with a victim service provider was a requirement. It really is all about relationships in law enforcement and victims services. We quickly established relationships with several service providers that helped with specific aspects of our protocol, including the initial training. Police departments do not typically provide additional services to victims (there certainly are those that do and they do it phenomenally) and of course domestic violence service providers do not enforce the law. The relationship is fundamentally vital for the LAP’s success. This required us to make new friends and we found a group of wonderful people on the service side that were eager to help us. There were state requirements imposed on local law enforcement when interacting with domestic violence victims, but these requirements did not help much in the collection of data or in determining the true extent of the domestic violence problem in our state. As we implemented the protocol in our police department, the effects were immediate. We were not only generating real data to see whom we were really helping, but our officers had a tool that helped them make a reasonable decision regarding domestic violence. It did not force anyone to do something they did not want, but made connections between victims and service providers that we were making before. We later determined that it added a whole three and half minutes to each domestic call for service. Twelve questions (we added one based on the advice of one of our new partners), in three and half minutes and officers made one phone call from the scene. We reduce the number of domestic violence calls by nearly one third in the first year. Reports took on a new better quality. Arresting offenders was easier and our judicial officials like the tool because they too saw the risk for victims and officers it displayed. What we determined was that a significant portion of the reduction was primarily a reduction in repeat reports from the same addresses. The days of officers saying, “if we come back out here everyone goes to jail” were gone. Our domestic violence victims were getting services and officers were safer because of it. And, the questions are easy enough for the officers to remember so that they learn to begin asking them in a conversational manner.

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