In the sea of men accused of domestic violence, Schenectady police are using a new checklist to pick out suspects who might try to kill their victims.
The new “lethality assessment” helped police begin searching Friday for 12 men who had warrants for their arrest on domestic violence crimes but had not turned themselves in. Unlike many others with similar warrants, these 12 were deemed “high risk.”
“These are the worst of the worst we’re looking for,” said police spokesman Lt. Mark McCracken.
They found three of the 12 immediately, and one victim still living with a suspect.
They are still searching for the other nine suspects.
The lethality assessment is a new method in prioritizing domestic violence, where the big question in every case is whether the person will attack again — and far more violently — if released on bail.
For the past two years, a city task force has tried to answer that question, using the assessment designed in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The task force has picked out 33 “high risk” people, using measures ranging from strangulation to suicide threats. (Suicide can indicate the person is planning a murder-suicide.)
“This is an absolutely amazing pilot program,” said YWCA Executive Director Rowie Taylor. “We have been very, very pleased. It’s all about how to protect the victim and prevent further domestic violence from occurring.”
Years ago, police shifted to a pro-arrest policy, in which they always arrested the aggressor at domestic violence calls, even if the victim did not want to press charges.
But that did not lead to an arrest in every case.
Sometimes the aggressor was gone when police arrived, McCracken said.
“Sometimes these are walk-ins into the station,” he added.
In those cases, a warrant is filed.
Then the task force meets to review all the arrests and outstanding warrants.
They’re looking for clues that a one-time incident could escalate into a murder.
“Stragulation, harassment that may be getting worse, the frequency of the crimes, the escalation of the crimes,” said High Risk Advocacy Coordinator Wendi Gapczynski-Bekkering. “The threat to kill, the use of a weapon. Strangulation — that’s a real power and control [move]. Perpetrator unemployment, that’s a huge risk factor.”
In the cases so far, task force members have advised prosecutors and judges when they determined a suspect was at high risk of committing more violent crimes. That could be used to ask for higher bail. The task force has also reached out to each victim, trying to ensure their safety by offering shelter, help with custody issues and assistance filing an order of protection.
Of the 33 people deemed high risk, 17 have pleaded guilty in connection to domestic violence. Those charges can be minor — harassment or criminal mischief, for example — so the task force does not drop the victims once the case is resolved.
Six cases are considered closed, either due to a long jail sentence or the victim moving far enough away that he or she is considered “completely safe,” said Kim Siciliano, the YWCA’s women and family services director.
But, she added, those cases could be reopened quickly.
“The criminal case is closed but we’re still keeping a close eye on them because they just got closed,” she said.
Another five cases are inactive, because the perpetrator is in jail, she said.
Two did not have enough evidence to go to trial, she said.
When police went out Friday to search for the 12 men who were added to the high risk list, Gapczynski-Bekkering went along in hopes of finding the men’s victims.
They found one victim who didn’t dare leave while her alleged abuser was there, Gapczynski-Bekkering said.
“The victim was hoping she could get services,” she said, adding that she can authorize immediate transport to a shelter or whatever else the victim needs.
“We can get them services right away,” she said.
The task force was funded by the state for 2013 and 2014; the YWCA and other partners have found alternative funding this year, because the state grant ended.