Crime & Courts

Charlotte police have new tool for domestic violence

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are using a question-and-answer protocol to determine the danger level of domestic-violence victims and get them help more quickly than in the past.

Police are using the Lethality Assessment Program, which is used in 32 states and is based on research conducted at Johns Hopkins University. The immediate goal is to make victims aware of the danger they may face so they seek various kinds of help, including counseling and seeking refuge in a shelter.

“When the officers are on the scene, and they start going through the questions with a victim, it not only makes the victim understand the potential for problems continuing, but it also gets the officer thinking of the true volatility of the situation,” said Capt. Jacquelyn Hulsey, head of the special victims division in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Police in Raleigh and some smaller departments across the state also are using the assessment program.

An officer just has to get an affirmative response to one of the first three of 11 questions to trigger a referral to a domestic violence help group: Has the abuser ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon? Has the abuser ever threatened to kill you or your children? Do you think the abuser might try to kill you?

If the victim answers yes to four of the remaining eight questions – such as does the abuser ever spy on you or leave threatening messages – then the officer also recommends that the victim speak with a counselor. The officer can encourage the call, but it’s up to the victim whether to talk with a counselor.

The questionnaire “helps the victim see pretty quickly, in black and white, that other people who have answered these questions similar to you, and you are at high risk. And we want you to be aware of that,” said Sgt. Tracy Turner, of Raleigh’s family violence intervention unit. “It helps them understand the severity of the situation they’re in.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg received a three-month grant to begin using LAP in November 2012 and continued with the program after that, while Raleigh police began using the protocol in May 2013. It was created in 2005 to reduce domestic violence homicides and serious injuries by giving police a way to not just investigate domestic violence calls but also to protect victims.

Generally, when police are at the scene, “they’re not conducting an evidence-based screen to assess for the victim’s danger and risk of potentially being killed,” said Amy Johnson, director of programs for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, where LAP began.

The number of domestic violence homicides in North Carolina dropped by 14 in 2013 to 108, according to data that the state Attorney General’s Office issued last week. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police reported three domestic-violence homicides in 2013, down from seven the year before, according to the Mecklenburg County Women’s Commission.

During the three months that Charlotte-Mecklenburg received a grant, police conducted 625 lethality screens. Of those, 449 victims screened as high danger and 350 of those spoke with an advocate.

The Associated Press and staff writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.