Article by: KEVIN GILES
It seems simple, really, but saves lives.
Immediately asking 11 standard questions of domestic abuse victims -- generally women slammed around by men who profess to love them -- has changed Washington County's handling of such cases to the point that Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., came to hear about it.
"It's one of the greatest things we've seen in domestic abuse in a long time," County Attorney Pete Orput said of the Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP), that list of questions police ask of victims in intimate relationships that could head off more beatings -- or even homicides.
Prosecutors, police chiefs, the county sheriff, district judges, probation officers and victim advocates convened at the Washington County Government Center in Stillwater on Thursday to review the novel LAP program that now involves all 10 of the county's law enforcement agencies. The consensus: 300 assessments were accomplished in the first quarter of this year.
"I think we can see a real benefit to asking these questions on the streets," said Sandy Hahn, Washington County's deputy community corrections director who introduced LAP locally in 2010. Her department oversees people on probation for various crimes -- and many of them in trouble for abusing their intimate partners.
The top three questions that police officers ask concentrate on the likelihood that dangerous offenders will escalate violence. Was a weapon used or threatened? Do you think he might kill you? Has he made threats against you or your children?
Klobuchar, a former chief prosecutor in Hennepin County, said domestic disturbances are "fraught with emotion" and the LAP program helps bring a clear-sighted approach to defusing further violence. Victims who score high on the questions -- meaning they're at high risk -- could be taken to a shelter for immediate protection. Various criminal justice agencies, including courts, share the findings.
Police Chief Bill Sullivan of Oakdale told Klobuchar that of 51 LAP assessments made in his city, only one required further police intervention. In most domestic disturbances when nobody is arrested, he said, the situation settles down after police intervene.
"I think we have a far greater concern when there is demonstrable violence that has occurred and an arrest is made," he said in an interview Friday. "The suspect will ultimately be released from jail at some point and we can never accurately predict the suspect's reaction to being arrested after they return home. ... Any tool that we can use to try and help assess potential future violence is very important."
Oakdale and the Washington County Sheriff's Office were the first agencies to start LAP.
Karin McCarthy, a Washington County assistant attorney, said prosecutors can use LAP findings to ask judges for higher bail for abusers, or to successfully argue for tougher release conditions. And victims who have been placed under protection of the domestic violence agency Tubman have shown more willingness to help prosecutors, he said.
In Ramsey County, law enforcement agencies now are being trained for a similar lethality assessment program, said County Attorney John Choi. Adapted from the program "Blueprint for Safety" that Choi started in his previous job as St. Paul's city attorney, the county initiative aims to ensure victim safety and offender accountability.
Quicker intervention in domestic abuse cases means a higher likelihood that defendants can be held accountable because victims are less inclined to become intimidated, Choi said. The program also means more urgency directed at the most dangerous cases, he said.
Washington County District Judge Elizabeth Martin said the LAP program can't save all victims in Washington County from further violence. But the quick sharing of information in dangerous cases, she said, guides judges in their responses to the most troubling offenders.
"One of the things we know about these folks is that they violate, frequently, the conditions of their probation," said Tom Adkins, who heads Washington County's community corrections department. "This is one way for us to say, 'This is one we really need to pay attention to.'"