Metro-East News

Lethality assessment aims to save lives of domestic violence victims

Stopping deadly domestic violence with a few questions

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, Sheriff's Sgt. Frank Bennett and Violence Prevention Center legal director Lisa Chilton discuss how 11 questions asked of victims can help stop a domestic dispute from ending with someone's death.
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St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, Sheriff's Sgt. Frank Bennett and Violence Prevention Center legal director Lisa Chilton discuss how 11 questions asked of victims can help stop a domestic dispute from ending with someone's death.

Police officers did not ask Michelle Rowling the 11 questions that might have saved her life.

If they had, Rowling, of East St. Louis, might have told them that she was afraid of Montrell Cooper, the man who was charged with slitting her throat in a fit of jealousy in February 2012.

Rowling, who survived the attack, might have shown up in court to get a court order that may have kept him away. Instead, she failed to show up in court to testify against Cooper, who was charged with aggravated domestic battery and aggravated battery. He received 30 months probation.

If they had, Rowling may have understood much earlier how much danger she faced. She may not have opened the door and allowed Cooper into her home on Dec. 5, 2013. But none of that happened. Now, Cooper is awaiting trial on murder charges, accused of dragging a knife across Rowling’s throat a second time and killing her.

No one can know what Rowling would have told the officers if they asked those 11 questions. But police, advocates and prosecutors are hoping the questions may head off potential homicides or serious injuries in domestic violence cases.

It’s called the Domestic Violence Lethality Assessment. It was created in 2005 by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence to identify domestic violence cases that potentially could escalate to serious injury or death. St. Clair County sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors and domestic violence advocates began using the assessment program last month.

We can show them that based on the factors and the evidence collected and the information provided by the victim, the outcome is very, very dangerous.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly

“We can use this tool to spell out to (a victim) that this isn’t just a bad relationship, that it isn’t just one bad night,” said St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly. “We can show them that based on the factors and the evidence collected and the information provided by the victim, the outcome is very, very dangerous.

“We can use it as a way to motivate a victim to do what they need to do to protect themselves and to do what they need to do to help us prosecute someone we believe poses a serious threat to the safety of the victim and well as others.”

The process is simple. An officer arrives at a domestic violence call, separates the victim and the suspect, then asks the questions, which generally require only a simple yes or no answer.

If the victim answers yes to any of the first three questions, the officer immediately calls a domestic violence advocate who will encourage the victim to leave, identify obstacles to leaving, schedule counseling and legal serves and develop a safety plan.

If the victim answers no to the first three questions, they are followed up by eight more questions.

“These questions go into a little of the history of the couple and give you a more accurate picture of what is going on with the couple, not just what happened during that episode,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Frank Bennett.

Drugs are the biggest motive for homicides in the county, but Bennett said domestic violence is a close second, according to Bennett who regularly works domestic violence cases for the Sheriff’s Department.

33% of victims contacted police after abuse

There were two recent cases in the metro-east of domestic violence that ended in murder:

  • Alvin Harris, 38, of East St. Louis, is accused of coming to the Swansea apartment of his girlfriend, Sharetta Day, 38, and fatally stabbing her and wounding her 9-year-old son, Nicolas Day, on Aug. 31. Harris is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery of a child.
  • A week earlier, when Toni Hannon went to her ex-husband’s home on Aug. 24 in Columbia to pick up Christmas decorations and other items she won in their divorce, he met her with two loaded handguns, according to Police Chief Joe Edwards.

When officers arrived, they found the couple, the parents of three grown children, lying in the street suffering from gunshot wounds. John Hannon, 57, was dead from a shot to the head, apparently self-inflicted. Toni Hannon, 53, was clinging to life. She later died at a St. Louis hospital.

44% of abusers were arrested in the year prior to a homicide

“Every murder case that we have had in Columbia during my time here has been related to domestic violence,” Edwards said. The most famous was the killing of Sheri Coleman and her two sons by her husband, Chris Coleman.

The Sheriff’s Department is the first law enforcement agency in St. Clair County to use the lethality assessments, but Bennett said he hopes to train more officers to use it soon.

“It takes away some of that apprehension working these kinds of cases,” Bennett said. “It isn’t a crystal ball, but it is a more-accurate predictor of escalating violence.”

Lisa Chilton, director of legal advocacy for the Southwestern Illinois Violence Prevention Center said the questions can help determine which cases are one-time incidents that need to be addressed with counseling and anger management and which may escalate into dangerous, even fatal, situations. Though officers have only started giving the assessments about a month ago, Chilton said 12 victims have already been screened as in highly dangerous situations.

“It’s an evidence-based tool that gives us a way to predict and prevent violence,” Chilton said. “It gives us an idea about the level of intervention that may be appropriate in a particular situation.”

4% of abused victims used hotlines or shelters the year prior to being killed

The violence prevention center provides the counselors and advocates after a police officer calls. Since the program began, about a dozen advocates have been sent out on local domestic violence cases, Chilton said.

Intervention by professionals can help a victim take steps to protect herself and other potential future victims, Kelly said.

“The lethality assessment process is a way to spell out to the victim why it is necessary to take action, why it is necessary to follow through in terms of showing up for court, being willing to testify and cooperate with police and prosecution,” Kelly said.

It takes away some of that apprehension working these kinds of cases. It isn’t a crystal ball, but it is a more-accurate predictor of escalating violence.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Frank Bennett

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer

11 questions that may save a life

Here are the questions a police officer asks a victim at a domestic violence scene:

▪  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?

▪ Do you think he/she might try to kill you?

If the victim answers yes to any of these three questions, the officer immediately calls a domestic violence advocate who will encourage the victim to leave, identify obstacles to leaving, schedule counseling and legal serves and develop a safety plan.

If the victim answers no to the questions, the officer goes on to ask eight other questions. The questions are:

▪ Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?

▪ Has he/she ever tried to choke you?

▪ Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?

▪ Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?

▪ Is he/she unemployed?

▪ Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?

▪ Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?

▪ Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave threatening messages?

If the victim answers yes to four or more of those questions, the officer then makes a call to the domestic violence advocate and the same process is followed.

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