Exhausted after work, Jean* took a sleeping pill and headed to bed around 11. She was starting to drift off when her ex-boyfriend, Burt,* came into her room and began kicking her. Burt, who had been staying in her Mt. Lebanon residence, then punched her, gagged her by stuffing her pillow into her mouth and pinched her nose shut so she couldn’t breathe.
“I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you!” he repeated. He kept talking about her expensive looking ring and asking who bought it. Jean ended up on the floor, Burt on top of her, blocking her breath with the pillow and his weight on her thorax and torso. “I couldn’t defend myself,” she said.
Struggling to get free, Jean squeezed Burt’s testicles and wriggled away. As he went to the kitchen to get a knife, Jean jumped out a window, landed 10 feet below onto concrete and ran down a public street before he caught up with her and put the knife to her ribs.
Burt wanted to know why she was screaming. Was she trying to attract attention? “I wasn’t going to call the police,” she said. “I didn’t want any trouble.” He grabbed her arms and demanded information about the ring. “I just want to talk to you,” Burt said. He yanked her head by her hair and bashed her head against a wall. Jean relented and went back inside the home. Not being able to take any more, she finally tumbled into a sleep. The next day, Jean went to St. Clair Hospital for what she told doctors was “an accident.” St. Clair evaluated her concussion, damaged vertebrae and fluid around her heart and lungs and sent her to Allegheny General Hospital for more treatment. The next day, she was discharged, and after discussing the situation with a relative, she called police.
That was the testimony Mt. Lebanon District Judge Blaise Larotonda heard this summer before he held nine counts for trial, including the most serious: one count of criminal attempted homicide. Felony aggravated assault and strangulation, and misdemeanor terroristic threats, reckless endangerment and unlawful restraint were among the other charges. Burt pleaded not guilty.
Burt’s public defender, Steven Tehovnik, argued against the attempted homicide charge, saying if Burt had wanted to kill her, he would have. Assistant District Attorney Sarah Krolikowski disagreed. “He was actively trying to kill her. … He made it so she could not breathe.”
Tehovnik conceded it was “a very violent act.”
It’s rare for domestic violence cases to rise to attempted homicide. Most arrests are simple assaults, says Deputy District Attorney Mike Sullivan. Sullivan, a Mt. Lebanon resident, is the supervisor of District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.’s domestic violence unit, which has five attorneys, one paralegal and several interns. His office brings 800 to 1,000 cases to trial each year, a number that’s been steady over the last seven years. In most cases, the perpetrators are men. Some victims are males but 90 percent are women. (For the purposes of this story, we are using male pronouns for the batterer and female pronouns for the victim, for simplicity only.)
Many agencies are getting away from using the term “domestic violence,” preferring instead to call it intimate partner violence (IPV), defining it as physical, sexual or psychological harm by current or former partners or spouses.
Odds are someone you know is a victim. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey says one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime. Last year, nearly 50,000 people in Allegheny County were victims of domestic violence, according to the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. In 2016, seven victims and two perpetrators died in Allegheny County as a result of domestic violence, second in Pennsylvania to Philadelphia County, with 19 fatalities.
Yet there is hope. Mt. Lebanon police in October became among the first suburban departments trained in using the Lethality Assessment Program, created in Maryland in the early 2000s by a group of police, nurses and researchers. Police responding to calls involving intimate partners ask the victim a series of 11 questions. Answers could lead to an immediate call to a crisis center in hopes of intervening before things get violent.
Allegheny County also is improving its records system, which would allow integration between 911 calls and incident reports to better track IPV calls. Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Aaron Lauth says he expects the new system in the second quarter of 2018.
Additionally, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is working with state representatives to pass legislation to strengthen penalties for domestic violence.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
We don’t have statistics on how many partner violence incidents happen in Mt. Lebanon because the reporting system is fragmented. The county’s 911 system categorizes calls as they come in, but some domestic cases come in as fights, arguments, “unknown trouble” or even ambulance calls. If police make no arrest, they usually do not complete an incident report and they are not able to go back into the county system to mark the call as domestic violence.
But Lauth says the county’s new software will help define the problem by facilitating better record keeping. Patrol car laptops will permit officers to write quick reports that help clarify 911 call records.
Domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous for police. Nationally, more officers were killed from 2010 to 2014 responding to domestic violence calls than in any other dispatched call for service, including robbery and burglary, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
In 2002, Mt. Lebanon Police Officer Daniel Rieg was shot while he and officer Jeff Kite responded to a domestic violence call on Piper Drive. Carnegie Mellon University professor Edward W. Constant II pleaded guilty to attempted murder and spent more than a decade in jail. After recovering from his injuries, Rieg returned to work but has since retired. Cpl. Kite is still on the force.
“By the time that we are called, it’s risen to the next level,” Lauth says of the tension during an incident. “It’s risen to the point of almost no return.” Emotions make the scene unpredictable and unstable. Police may have little to no history on the relationship. The batterer may be spun out of control and aggression that was directed at one person now could be directed at anyone approaching.
The officers’ immediate goal is the safety of everyone involved. They first separate the parties. They also look for evidence and check all stories, including those of witnesses. If the people involved have had an intimate relationship and there is evidence of physical injury such as bruises, cuts or a recent-appearing wound, the police must make an arrest, even if the victim is reluctant. “[Police] decision to arrest will never be at the will of the people involved,” Lauth says. It’s all about the evidence.
Mt. Lebanon police are well trained in domestic violence issues. The state curriculum taught at the Police Academy covers it. Police also use partner violence examples in their scenario training drills. They learn how to de-escalate situations and when to use force.
In October, the police were trained in the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP), a screening tool Lauth learned of earlier this year. He researched it and liked what he saw: a checklist of questions that can indicate the potential for a lethal outcome, whether an arrest is made at the scene or not.
The Center for Victims, a local nonprofit victim advocacy, education and violence prevention agency, has been in charge of LAP in Pittsburgh since 2014. Ashley Deiuliis, who supervises five advocates for 19 magisterial districts in the area, teaches LAP to police, in cooperation with Sgt. Eric Kroll of the City of Pittsburgh police. LAP started in the city, then came to Castle Shannon and Swissvale. Since then, it has rolled out to eight other suburban departments including Mt. Lebanon. The training, which takes less than two hours, introduces officers to the questions they must ask in order to determine the severity of the situation. Depending on the answers, the officer may call the Center for Victims 24-hour crisis line, where the victim gets instant counseling. The officer stays present throughout the call and may assist with the victim’s resulting safety plan, such as collecting important items and going to a shelter.
Among the questions: “Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?” “Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?” “Has he/she ever tried to choke you?” A “yes” response to any of the serious questions signifies “high danger” and triggers a call to the crisis line, while positive responses to four of the less serious questions also trigger the call. A third chance for intervention could come after the answer to the open-ended question: “Is there anything else that worries you about your safety?”
“I like checklists,” Lauth says of the LAP. “I like that you make sure you’re asking the right questions every time. I like that these are vetted questions by professionals in this field.”
The call to a crisis center constitutes what Lauth calls “a warm handoff.” It’s better than giving someone who may be fearful or in denial a pamphlet, leaving and hoping she makes a call later. Not only is the tool consistent, but Lauth believes it may actually convince victims, after hearing their own answers, that they do need intervention. “We’re still limited in that we’re not counselors,” he says.
Although Lauth says his department has always handled domestic violence situations with the level of concern they deserve, he expects the LAP to improve their ability to help. “I think it will allow us to do an even better job.”
Deiuliis says it’s too early to tell if LAP has been successful in preventing deaths in Pennsylvania. “What statistics do show is victims who are screening in high danger are getting into services,” Deiuliis says. Her presentation to police notes that LAP results in fewer repeat calls to police, and victims are more likely to attend hearings.
Sullivan, who has been in charge of the DA’s domestic violence unit for more than a year, has spent more than 12 years in the unit. “We have a zero tolerance policy,” he says, explaining that his office has a duty to prosecute cases, and it will not step back from that, even if a victim does not want to prosecute or refuses to testify.
Many of the cases start out the same way. The perpetrator will start with a grooming process. The batterer may show his best side but then start to assert power and control. He might use male privilege, treating her like a servant. He might control the money, making it so she can’t work but giving her an allowance. He might isolate her from family and friends. Then he progresses to making threats. Sullivan says when it escalates to battery, the abuser will feel bad and apologize. He may produce gifts and say, “I’m going to get better.”
The cycle repeats over and over. “It takes a victim seven times before they’re ready to leave their abuser for good,” Deiuliis says.
Victims have a number of reasons they don’t call police, back down when the police show up or fail to appear at the hearing. She may have emotional ties to the batterer, remember the good times and think he could go back to the way he was. They may be married, and she feels a commitment. She may be economically dependent on him. She may not have friends or family to reach out to. She may want to stay together for the children. And most simply, she may be afraid to leave him. “Some would rather stay there and take the punch to the face than face increased wrath,” Sullivan says.
In many cases the batterer tells the victim she is worthless. “After a while, they start believing that,” Sullivan says.
If a homicide is going to happen, the riskiest time is after the couple breaks up. Sullivan’s unit conducts intimate partner fatality reviews when a murder occurs, even if the police were involved only after the incident, to see if law enforcement can learn from it.
Sullivan encourages victims to get a protection from abuse order (PFA), a court order that protects a victim and children for up to three years. The document contains things the abuser must (or must not) do in regard to a victim. For example, a PFA can forbid contact. It can order the return of house keys and important papers. Criminal charges can be filed, if the abuser violates the order.
Mt. Lebanon police served 70 PFAs last year, meaning they went to houses or places of employment and presented paperwork to the abusers. Lauth says it’s also important for victims who live or work here to give Mt. Lebanon police a copy of the PFA, so if the victim calls police it’s on file.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association expects to see legislation proposed that will increase jail time for offenders. Most simple assault arrests are second degree misdemeanors (M2), punishable by a maximum penalty of up to two years incarceration. “The key word there is maximum,” says Sullivan. “It could be two years of probation, or a combination of a short jail sentence with parole/probation following. Whatever the sentence, it can’t be more than two years total for any M2.” Proposed legislation would make simple assault an M1, increasing the penalty to a maximum five-year sentence. And, if there is a PFA between the parties, or if the defendant has been previously convicted of domestic violence against the same victim, the simple assault would rise to a third degree felony with a max sentence of seven years.
If jail is not the answer, Sullivan says his office can send offenders to programs to help correct the abusive behavior. “We want the defendants to be successful in rehabilitation, so we never see them again,” he says.
One of the most common misconceptions about intimate partner violence is that it is a family issue and should be solved privately. Friends, co-workers or even casual observers may suspect someone is being abused but do nothing about it. “People don’t want to get involved. They think it’s a personal issue,” Deiuliis says. “They think someone else will do it,” or it’s not serious because the victim’s not doing anything about it, so she must be OK.
But people can be lifesavers by calling 911. Callers can remain anonymous.
Medical professionals also can intervene. St. Clair Hospital staff screens patients for domestic violence, but officials there declined to discuss it, citing concerns that perpetrators could use the information against their victims. Stanford University School of Medicine suggests screening can be written or oral and could be as general as “How are things going at home?” or as specific as, “From past experience with other patients, I’m concerned that some of your medical problems may be the result of someone hurting you. Is that happening?”
Yet no matter how many other people try to help, the abused individual ultimately is the one who needs to take control. Deiuliis references “the empowerment model, where the victim is not blamed for his or her problems but he/she is responsible for generating a solution. … There has to be action in order for there to be change,” she says.
“Don’t be afraid to contact us before it rises to the level of physical danger,” Lauth says. “Don’t be afraid to get away either. Get yourself out of the situation.”
Sullivan says victims can help the prosecution of their cases by cooperating with police, taking pictures of their injuries and resisting the urge to get revenge. In return, Sullivan says his office will do everything it can to keep the victim safe. “If they’re willing to do something to break that cycle and come forward, we have some tools at our disposal.”
Judge Larotonda says he is seeing more victims of domestic violence speak up. Still, not enough people are taking that first step. “It will not go away, if you don’t report it,” he says.
In the meantime, Burt awaits his trial in jail, in lieu of $20,000 bail.
*Names have been changed since the case is ongoing