New domestic violence program applauded for life-saving capabilities

In a town where domestic violence is the second most investigated crime, the Greenwich Police Department’s recent implementation of the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) is being hailed.

The program, which is being done in partnership with the YWCA of Greenwich’s Domestic Abuse Services, is modeled after one piloted in Maryland between 2003 and 2005. It was launched in Connecticut as the result of a collaboration between the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV) and the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council (POSTC). It recently kicked off in just 14 towns across the state, including Greenwich and Norwalk — the only towns selected in Fairfield County.

LAP implements nationally recognized risk assessment strategies to better serve domestic violence victims in the greatest danger using a detailed screening process administered by first responders.

Trained Greenwich police on the scene of a domestic violence call assess a victim’s risk for serious injury or death, then link high-risk victims to the YWCA Domestic Abuse Services LAP Hotline, with the goal of quickly linking the victim to life-saving services.

 

According to police Lt. Richard Cochran, the department was one of a handful chosen to implement the program because of its thorough domestic violence unit, which has been emulated by other agencies around the state, as well as the department’s good rapport with CCADV.

Second only to larceny, domestic violence is the second most investigated crime in Greenwich, with an average of five calls per week, but most residents are not aware of its prevalence in town Lt. Cochran said.

“I call it Greenwich’s deep, dark secret,” he said. “It’s a very sad reality.”

The focus of LAP is to close a loophole in the system that leaves domestic violence victims vulnerable after an attack, according to Greenwich police Sgt. Brent Reeves.

A standard domestic violence call leaves the victim alone after officers have collected information about the incident, though the suspect may still be close by, and domestic violence counselors do not typically contact the victim for one to two days after that, Sgt. Reeves explained.

“During that time there’s a safety issue” that LAP reconciles, he said.

With the institution of LAP, if a victim screens in as high-risk, police immediately make a call from the scene to a YWCA counselor who has a phone on his or her person 24 hours a day. The connection is instant, day or night, and allows the victim to be connected to whatever services are needed, whether it be transportation to a shelter or the development of a safety plan, Sgt. Reeves said.

The meat of the process, he said, is the LAP screening form used by all departments who employ the program.

Consisting of 11 carefully formulated risk assessment questions, the form is broken down into two parts. If a victim answers yes to one of the form’s first three questions, such as “Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?” the individual is automatically considered to be at high risk, Sgt. Reeves explained. If the victim answers yes to any four of the remaining eight questions, such as “Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?” that also qualifies the victim as high-risk.

Additionally, Sgt. Reeves said, if an individual answers no to all of the form’s questions but the responding officer “gets a feeling something more is happening that the victim doesn’t want to share,” the officer may qualify the victim as high-risk and go forward with LAP protocol.

It is important to note, however, that LAP is used only with domestic violence cases that involve intimate partners, he said, “because the paradigm of emotions for intimate partner violence is much different than it is for brothers, sisters” and similar family relationships.

Intimate partner violence is what Greenwich officers see most in domestic violence incidents, and “there is a much greater concern for [intimate partner] safety,” Sgt. Reeves said.

Furthermore, he said, “You’re never really sending anyone to prison in domestic violence cases. The idea is to really rehabilitate and keep the family together, to find a way to make it work, so [LAP] is an excellent tool.”

LAP has been well received by Greenwich officers and was immediately endorsed by Chief of Police James Heavey, Lt. Cochran said. After pitching the program, along with Sgt. Reeves, Lt. Cochran said, Chief Heavey was “all for it” and wanted 100% compliance from all officers.

A domestic violence case requires police to fill out more paperwork than any other crime, so officers were initially skeptical of LAP, cringing at the thought of filling out another form, Lt. Cochran said. But after learning how the program worked, the department was fully on board, “and if it saves a life it’s worth it,” he said.

Training officers on how to appropriately use the LAP screening form, however, is critical to the program’s success, Sgt. Reeves said. While it would be easy to rattle off the LAP questions without any sincerity, it’s vital that officers make a connection with the victim to show that they are truly concerned for his or her safety and well-being. They must picture what it’s like to have just been in “mortal combat,” he said.

Equally as important as getting all officers on board with LAP, said Lt. Cochran, was ensuring that all parties involved in local domestic violence incidents understood the program. Lt. Cochran recently gave an overview of LAP to prosecutors, judges, bail commissioners, and others involved in the process, how it worked and why it was important. Everyone was “very excited” to get on board, he said.

Another exciting aspect of the program is that it “forges a new bond with YWCA counselors,” Sgt. Reeves said. Before the program was implemented, police officers and counselors were involved in the process separately. Now there is a “melding of disciplines” and a deep collaboration between the two agencies that will benefit victims, he said.

Suzanne Adam, director of the YWCA’s Domestic Abuse Services program, agreed, saying the “enhanced relationship” counselors now have with the Police Department is something they are very grateful for.

And although 14 towns in the state are using LAP, only five domestic abuse agencies, including the YWCA, are handling each of those municipalities.

“We are delighted that we were chosen for this program,” Ms. Adam said.

The most significant aspect of the program and the reason counselors are thrilled with its implementation is that victims are connected to services right at the time of the incident. “It’s a whole paradigm shift,” she said. While previously counselors “had their fingers crossed” that victims would reach out for help, now they are instantly provided with the services they need most.

Over the last year, not one of the victims of the 18 domestic violence-related homicides in the state were even aware that domestic abuse services were available to them, Ms. Adam explained. “Now we have something to do about it.” All it takes is one immediate phone call, connecting the victim to a counselor, and statistics show that the lethality rate drops by a staggering 60%, she said.

“At the end of the day, it’s a program that is, No. 1, much-needed, and a fabulous response to what’s already there for domestic violence victims,” Ms. Adam said. “It’s wonderful. Keeping victims safe and connecting people to services is a really beneficial, enhanced service that we can provide to the town of Greenwich.”

Since the implementation of LAP in Greenwich on Sept. 17, police have already screened in five high-risk individuals who otherwise may never have gotten help, according to Lt. Cochran.

LAP is “just another tool that might eliminate the possibility that someone will die in the hands of domestic violence,” he said.

Sgt. Reeves agreed, saying that domestic violence is called a “hot button issue” but has been a problem since the beginning of both his and Lt. Cochran’s careers as police officers.

“It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s going to be here, unfortunately, forever, but hopefully using a program like this we can find a way to bring those numbers back down.”

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