Reading over the Keizer Police Department’s (KPD) Domestic Violence Assessment form is a quick, harrowing descent into the dark side of humanity.
Any document that identifies victims and suspects at the outset makes its intentions known quickly, but the questions that follow only get more troublesome. These are just a few:
• Has the suspect ever threatened you or used a weapon against you?
• Has the suspect ever choked, strangled or restricted your breathing?
• Has physical violence increased in severity or frequency?
• Does the suspect control your daily activities?
• Has the suspect forced you to have sex?
Whenever Keizer officers run on a domestic violence call, they attempt to have the victim complete the form. The more a victim answers questions in the affirmative, the more concern grows. The questions arose out of a statewide Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team that regularly reviews domestic violence incidents that end in death. It might be a traumatic form to read and complete, but Lt. Andrew Copeland is certain it’s saved lives.
“There’s been a couple times that I was certain that a particular guy is so power and control hungry that is soon as he loses it, he’s going to kill the family,” Copeland said.
The portion of the questionnaire that addresses personal safety has a grim name – the lethality assessment – but it can be critical to making sure “the correct resources hit at the right time to surround these people and get them safe,” said Cara Steele, KPD’s crime analyst.
Completing one more form might not seem like a cutting-edge, crime-fighting tool but, for a crime that thrives under a cloak of shame and guilt, KPD officers are doing their best to make it an effective one.
Domestic violence incidents are not something a casual reader could easily pick out of Keizertimes’ weekly reports on police activity. The specific incidents might register as charges of assault or strangulation, far more won’t yield any charges, but many originate as calls to 9-1-1 reporting domestic disturbances.
Copeland is aware that incidents of domestic violence are likely as underreported in Keizer as they are elsewhere in the country. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that roughly half of domestic violence incidents go unreported.
The kid gloves with which the newspaper treats these incidents is, at least in part, a reflection of the caution police use when approaching the scene of a domestic disturbance.
“There’s a lot of fear for either the man or woman calling in that they’ve been assaulted by their spouse. Once the cops get involved, the courts get involved and it could mean a complete family break-up,” Copeland said.
For that reason, and others, KPD officers try to respond to domestic violence calls in pairs. Unlike a confrontation between two strangers in which victim and aggressor might be more clear-cut, the victim can just as easily become aggressive toward police if an arrest threatens to upend their world.
In some cases, charges can be pursued even if no physical contact was made. However, if a victim was physically assaulted in any way, an automatic arrest is triggered. That might seem like painting with a broad brush in terms of consequences, but Copeland is grateful for the law that requires it.
“It takes the decision to arrest away from the officer and away from the victim. It also makes it easier for the victim to come back to the suspect and say, ‘I didn’t want you arrested,’” Copeland said.
After interviewing the parties at the scene, Steele looks over the call logs to make certain the domestic violence assessment has been completed. If it hasn’t, she might request the responding officer return to the home and have the victim complete one. If it has been completed and Steele can track previous reports from the same address, she consults with KPD Det. Arsen Avetisyan. Avetisyan can call on the address and try to find out whether there are more serious charges that can be pursued that might keep a victim safe for a longer period of time while the suspect cools their heels in jail.
“There is also a countywide threat assessment team that I am part of where we get together around a table and talk about the cases where additional threats have been made and what we can do about it,” Avetisyan said.
In the most severe cases, a few extra hours or days can be invaluable to a victim.
“What the victim needs is time and the courage to break the cycle with help from other community resources,” the detective said.
For the victim, Avetisyan said, being struck by a partner is a life-changing event.
“It goes from that emotional moment of, ‘Oh my gosh, you hit me. I’m calling the cops,’ to one of facing the reality that they may not know where they are going to eat tomorrow. In a lot of situations, the offender is the breadwinner.”
Using the assessments, the context and history they provide, allows the police to see increases in frequency and severity as they develop and hand over a more solid cases to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.
Keizer has been spared some of the ugliest outcomes. The three officers who participated in the interview with the Keizertimes recalled only two incidents in the past 21 years where domestic violence led to a fatality. The most recent involved Peter Zielinski who was convicted for a second time this year of killing his wife. The other one, in 1998, still sticks with Lt. Bob Trump.
“She did absolutely everything she could do under the law to protect herself. If doing a little more paperwork on our end spares one of our current detectives a memory like that it’s well worth it,” Trump said.