More York County police to get lethality assessment training
After Monday, officers from at least 10 police departments in York County will be trained to use a lethality assessment
By Brandie Kessler and Ed Mahon
Daily Record/Sunday News
Southern Regional Police Chief Jim Boddington said domestic violence situations can be like fires.
"They start small and get big," he said.
Because of that, domestic violence calls can be among the most dangerous for police. Boddington hopes a new screening tool will help officers better identify when something that seems small could turn worse, and help them do something about it.
Two supervisors from his department are set to get training Monday in how to use the screening tool, known as a lethality assessment. It's aimed at identifying alleged victims of domestic violence who are at the highest risk of being killed or seriously injured.
Southern Regional is among five departments scheduled to be trained to use the assessment, bringing the total to at least 10 York County police departments that use it. There are more than 20 police departments countywide.
The move comes as York County has seen a spike in domestic violence-related fatalities this year, including four murder-suicides that left 10 people dead. Rick Azzaro, chief services officer for YWCA York, said there are several other deaths that were domestic-violence related, including that of 36-year-old Jennifer Liszewski, a New Freedom woman who police say shot her 11-year-old son and herself in April. Her son survived, but she later died at York Hospital.
Including those cases, York County has hit a record-high number of domestic violence-related deaths this year, Azzaro said.
York County had seven domestic violence-related fatalities in 2014, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
A prevention tool
As part of the 11-question lethality assessment, alleged victims of domestic violence who answer yes to a particular number of questions on the assessment "screen in," or become eligible for the police officer to call someone who is trained to help. For example, ACCESS-York can provide victims' services, such as counseling, emergency housing, and help with requesting a Protection From Abuse order.
"We want to try to prevent things from escalating," Boddington said.
York Area Regional Police Department will host Monday's training session for six police departments, five of which will begin using the assessment for the first time. One, Penn Township, will attend for a refresher course on the assessment.
Northern York County Regional, Carroll Township, Springettsbury Township and DLA Distribution police departments are also scheduled to participate in the training.
The two supervisors from Southern Regional who get the training will then train others in the department. Boddington said police officers are used to hearing about new programs.
"This one apparently has a track record of being effective," he said. "...If something works, word spreads."
The Lethality Assessment Program was created in 2005 by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
York Area Regional Police Chief Tom Gross said his department was among the first in Pennsylvania to use the assessment as part of a pilot program. The department started using it in October 2012.
"It allows officers to use a very well-researched tool that I think makes sense to the officers," Gross said. "We saw, in the first year that we did it, that we had a huge number, bigger than we expected, who screened in."
Gross said responding to domestic violence calls is nothing new, but using the assessment changes the way police are able to help. It used to be that police officers handed alleged victims of domestic violence a packet of papers with information about services. Now, if someone screens in, the officer makes the call for them and puts them on the phone with victims' services then and there.
Gross said the training for police departments benefits the entire community.
"The benefit is to a potential victim," Gross said. "There's no guarantee for anyone that they're not going to find themselves in a dangerous situation" or that someone they know won't find themselves in a dangerous situation and be in need of help.
Help in a difficult situation
Although the Lethality Assessment Program is designed to put alleged victims of domestic violence in touch with services, District Attorney Tom Kearney, who sits on a county domestic violence task force, said the assessment also helps law enforcement.
Getting a victim to services could prevent future incidents for which police would otherwise be called, he said.
Kearney said he is very concerned about the increased number of domestic violence-related deaths in York County this year. He doesn't know what's bringing them about, he said, but the assessment could help get people out of difficult situations and get them connected with someone who can help.
Hanover Borough Police Chief Dwayne L. Smith said his department started using the assessment in July 2013.
"Lethality doesn't respect borders," Smith said. "And York County was one of those counties where lethality was very high. We wanted to do what we could to be part of the solution of reducing fatality."
Gross noted the record number of domestic violence-related fatalities in York County this year.
He said the assessment "is not a guarantee, but it has worked to increase the number of people we've identified as being in danger, and the number of people who were put in touch with victims' services went up."
The assessment is a tool he thinks every police department should use.
"If you have a set of handcuffs and a Taser, you should have a lethality assessment," Gross