Ohio police begin use of domestic violence screening system

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – More than a dozen central Ohio law enforcement agencies are the first in the state to adopt a system requiring officers to assess whether domestic violence victims are in imminent danger of physical harm or death.

Participating officers who determine risk exists must offer victims the on-the-spot chance to speak with someone at a Columbus-area domestic violence shelter.

The Lethality Assessment Program, developed in Maryland, is a proven tool that helps identify victims the greatest danger of being killed, said Columbus police Detective Rick Ketcham.

“The whole concept behind all of it is literally putting them in touch immediately from the scene with services, as opposed to allowing that time to elapse to where they have time to think about it, and don’t do it,” Ketcham said.

In the past, officers might leave the local domestic violence shelter’s number, but it was up to the victim to call, said Sue Villilo, executive director of CHOICES, the Franklin County domestic violence shelter.

Nineteen Franklin County departments have signed up to date, including Columbus police, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and suburban departments in Dublin, Hilliard and Westerville.

The screening questions are divided into two parts. The first three measure extreme risk by asking, for example: “Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?”

A yes answer to any of the first three triggers a call to the CHOICES hotline. If the victim doesn’t confirm use of a weapon or a threat of being killed, the officer follows up with seven more questions, such as, “Has he/she ever tried to choke you?”

“Yes” responses to four of those questions also trigger a call to the hotline.

The program allows police, who are not in the position to offer long-term solutions, to put the victim in touch with those who can help over time, said Annie Murray, director of the Columbus city attorney’s domestic violence and stalking unit.

A 2014 academic study found the program showed promise as a way of increasing domestic violence survivors’ safety.

Police departments in more than 30 states are using the program, including Pittsburgh; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Baltimore County, said Megan Rosenfeld, project director at the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

The Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center in Cleveland is using a federal grant to test the same system in Cuyahoga County, though for now outreach to victims deemed at risk is done later, said center CEO Linda Johanek.

Domestic violence survivor Lisa Schartiger said victims are often so isolated they can’t see outside their situation or even understand that they’re being abused.

“You ask yourself: ‘Is it bad enough for me to call it domestic violence? Is it bad enough for me to call it abuse? Is it bad enough for me to call the police? Is it bad enough for me to leave?'” said Schartiger, who was stabbed multiple times by her then-husband in a 2003 domestic violence attack in Tuscarawas County.

“Having really good questions would help you assess that for yourself,” said Schartiger, 45, who now lives out of the state.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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