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Metro keeps close tabs on fury in the home

Domestic violence deaths arent entirely predictable, but they do follow a pattern: In the months or years leading up to a fatal attack, the aggressive partner often threatens to kill, chokes the victim, spies on the victim, becomes wildly jealous, loses employment, attempts suicide, gets a gun.

The pattern is so common that its calculable: The more of these behaviors in a relationship, the greater its potential to turn deadly, experts say. This is called a domestic violence lethality assessment a sad census Metro Police have recently realized they can use to their advantage. In late February police in two of Metros eight area commands began asking 11 questions of every domestic violence victim they encounter. The survey is designed to identify those at the highest risk and encourage them to seek help.

If the program is successful, every Metro patrol car will carry a copy of the lethality assessment survey by August.

With the number of domestic-violence-related homicides in Clark County growing, and the economy putting a strain on fami

lies across the valley, Metro Capt. Vincent Cannito has decided to focus his detectives on domestic violence issues. The lethality assessment is just one facet of a plan that also includes legislation, community outreach and simply looking at cases differently.

Cannito oversees the Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau, which handles offenses such as sexual assaults and Internet crimes against children. But in the end, Cannito says, almost every case the bureaus detectives investigate comes back to some form of domestic violence not just altercations between intimate partners, but between siblings, or parents and their children. And the violence isnt just physical; its sexual and psychological as well.

Domestic violence becomes the nexus between crimes, and we dont want to wait until its too late, Cannito says. We need people to understand when someone puts their hands on you, there are resources out there.

In 2007, 29 of the 125 homicides in Metros jurisdiction were related to domestic violence. In 2008, the number jumped: 49 of 132 homicides were related to domestic violence. Studies have shown that fewer than 4 percent of victims of fatal domestic violence sought help, though half had contact with police before their deaths. Victims who can be persuaded to enter a domestic violence shelter, however, have historically reduced chances of a second attack by 60 percent.

If a victim answers yes to key lethality survey questions, or answers yes to too many of the questions, a Metro officer will try to connect the victim by phone to SafeNest, a local shelter; WestCare, a facility for substance abuse; or the Rape Crisis Center.

If the victim refuses assistance, the officer will contact one of Metros victim advocates, who will try to persuade the victim a second time, by phone, to seek help.

So far, just fewer than half of the 40 or so victims who were surveyed have sought assistance after police contact. When it comes to domestic violence cases, which are almost defined by victims hesitancy to come forward, Cannito considers this a success.

Part of the renewed focus on domestic violence also means reaching out to non-law-enforcement agencies, like the Rape Crisis Center. In the past 10 months, representatives from the Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau have begun having quarterly lunches with representatives of the center, and have begun participating in training seminars, which have benefited both parties, the centers executive director, Lou Torres, says.

The relationship has become really, really strong, she says. We share information on a lot of events now. We are supportive of each other, and we really listen to each other.

Torres, who is familiar with victim hesitancy when it comes to seeking police or advocate assistance, also considers the test-drive survey program a success.

One of the key questions is: Has the aggressor ever tried to strangle you? In Clark County, strangulation was the third most common cause of death of domestic violence victims from 2006 to 2008. This pattern holds across the country, which is why the question about choking is also on surveys in Maryland, where the lethality assessment survey was pioneered.

The number of strangulation deaths would be higher were it not for victims fighting back, or aggressors releasing at the last minute, Cannito says, noting that studies have shown eight pounds of pressure, applied for 30 seconds, can be fatal. Last year more than half of the 104 attempted homicides connected to domestic violence involved choking.

This is why Metro, with backing from some 43 assemblymen and senators, helped introduce Assembly Bill 164, which would make strangulation a felony offense in domestic violence cases. The bill defines strangulation as any intentional impeding of the victims normal breathing or blood circulation as a result of pressure applied to the persons throat or neck or blocking of the nose or mouth.

The goal of the bill is to both avoid the pattern of attempted murder charges being pleaded down to misdemeanor offenses and to make sure the severity of the act is lain out plainly not to mention that felony charges come with harsher penalties.

It really is a very thin line between life and death when you are putting your hands on someones throat, Cannito says. The bill, he says, is aimed at ensuring the severity of the act is being accounted for.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee passed the measure in mid-March, but it has yet to come before the full Assembly.

If the bill passes, Nevada will become the seventh state to have such a law.

Abigail Goldman canbe reached at 259-8806or at

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Author:Abigail Goldman
Publication:Las Vegas Sun
Date:Mar 18, 2009
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