Verbal domestic violence more serious than name indicates

Several years ago, local law enforcement officers responded to a domestic violence call for service: the wife had left the husband a month prior to this call, and had returned to the home to gather personal items for herself and their child. The husband was refusing to turn over some of the wife’s personal items, and she didn’t want to leave the home without them.

The police officers followed protocol, and separated the wife and husband to interview them about the incident. The husband stated that the wife was free to go, and that he had not physically harmed her that evening. The wife agreed with this statement, but also shared with police that her husband had been abusive throughout their relationship, using tactics of domestic violence including controlling and manipulative behavior, stalking and physical assaults. She stated several times that she was afraid that her husband would kill her.

The police officers believed the victim, and, worried for her safety, arrested the husband for disorderly conduct. However, since the husband had neither committed a physical assault, nor made any specific threats, he could not be arrested for or charged with a domestic violence crime. He was released from jail the next day; several weeks later, he killed his wife.

Though the outcome of this domestic violence incident is more extreme than most, the basic facts are common.

Eight calls per day

New data released last month shows there were nearly 3,000 domestic violence calls for service to Whatcom County law enforcement agencies in 2013, an average of eight calls for help per day. More than half of these domestic violence calls (1,608) were domestic violence “verbals,” which are defined as domestic violence incidents where law enforcement determines no physical assault or other conditions that warrant arrest have occurred.

According to Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, “Verbal domestics are more serious than their name indicates. They are often a sign of the presence of domestic violence, which includes emotional abuse, manipulation and coercive control, and all too often leads to physical assault and, in some cases, much worse.”

Partner homicides

The Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission Against Domestic Violence recently convened a multi-disciplinary fatality review panel to examine intimate partner homicides in Whatcom County. In two of the three homicide cases reviewed, law enforcement had responded to domestic violence verbal calls for service shortly before the murders occurred, but the abusers were never arrested for or charged with domestic violence assaults in any of the three cases reviewed. The panel identified verbal domestics as an extremely important opportunity to identify seriously dangerous domestic violence abusers, and to connect victims to advocacy services.

To reduce the potential lethality in domestic violence calls, including verbal domestics, all Whatcom County law enforcement agencies have recently implemented the new lethality assessment program. Using this program, law enforcement officers ask questions to determine the victim’s level of risk for serious injury or homicide. If the victim screens in as high risk, the officer connects the victim by phone to a domestic violence advocate for immediate safety planning and on-going advocacy services.

“In the first 9 months of 2014, our officers identified 16 victims of domestic violence as high risk; this includes victims who have experienced verbal domestics,” noted Chief Michael Knapp of the Ferndale Police Department. “Victims, their children, and our community are safer because we take all forms of domestic violence seriously.”