SALT LAKE CITY — Deaths related to domestic violence went down in Utah for the first time in more than two decades last year, data compiled by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition shows.
There were 36 fatalities tied to domestic violence in 2018, down from 44 in 2017 — the first drop in 22 years. Those numbers include both homicides and suicides tracked by the coalition.
It’s too early to call the downtick a trend, and there may be additional fatalities that weren’t included in the report, the coalition notes. But local domestic violence advocates say they’re encouraged by the progress the state has made when it comes to recognizing and addressing intimate partner violence, and hope the 2018 statistics are the start of a downward pattern.
It’s a hopeful sign for a state that has rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking that are higher than the national average.
The conversation around domestic violence in Utah has undergone a dramatic shift in tone since 2015, when the Domestic Violence Coalition first began its campaign to publicize and address domestic violence homicides, coalition director Jenn Oxborrow said.
“We’re a state that really prides itself on being safe and family-focused,” Oxborrow said. “To acknowledge that we have a serious problem statewide was a painful reality for people to embrace.”
Four years later, Oxborrow continued, “I think with quality data and a commitment to partnerships and some real solutions, we have people on all sides of the issue coming together to work on things.”
One in 4 women nationwide have experienced domestic violence, sexual violence or stalking in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Utah, that number is higher: 1 in 3 women, according to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. Domestic violence-related homicides have accounted for 42% of all homicides in Utah over the past two decades.
There isn’t one fix-all solution to bringing down domestic violence deaths, said Ned Searle, director of the Utah Office on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Lowering the rate in a significant, long-term way will most likely require a combination of efforts in the Utah statehouse and on the ground.
“There’s just a whole bunch of little things that I think will drive down that rate,” Searle said. “We’re getting there.”
How Utah police are assessing domestic violence danger
More often than not, intimate partner homicides are preceded by a history of domestic violence. A study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that in 67% to 80% of intimate partner homicides, the man had previously physically abused the woman.
Being able to recognize which domestic violence victims are most at risk has become a priority for a number of law enforcement agencies across Utah in recent years. That’s where the Lethality Assessment Protocol, a model that was developed in Maryland in 2003 and has since been implemented in more than 30 states, comes in.
The Lethality Assessment Protocol — known as LAP — first came to Utah through the Woods Cross Police Department in 2013. Then-Chief Greg Butler had heard of a similar program while working in Idaho, and wondered whether the Maryland model could help his small department better serve domestic violence victims.
The Woods Cross department applied for a grant to bring instructors out to Utah for a training session with officers, community organizers, and others working in the criminal justice system.
“Everyone said, ‘This is a wonderful program, and why haven’t we been doing this sooner?’” Butler recalled.
The Lethality Assessment Protocol includes an 11-question assessment to help law enforcement determine how much danger a domestic violence victim is in. If the assessment shows the person is in significant danger, police immediately connect them to community-based victim service providers.
Since Woods Cross, more than 70 law enforcement agencies and 800 officers across Utah have undergone LAP training. Among the most recent is the University of Utah Police Department, which adopted the program this year. The training was one of 30 recommendations made by an independent review team after the on-campus murder of student Lauren McCluskey by ex-boyfriend Melvin Rowland.
“It’s great because it gets us all on the same page,” Oxborrow said of the program. “We’re all kind of speaking the same language.”
In the years after Woods Cross police implemented the program, domestic violence cases dropped more than 60% in Woods Cross, according to Butler. He attributes the statewide decline in domestic violence deaths to the protocol as well.
“I think it’s absolutely because of the program,” Butler said. “But it’ll take some more time to know for sure.”
If the program has contributed to the drop, Utah wouldn’t be the first place to see results from the Lethality Assessment Protocol. A 2014 study found that the program appeared to significantly reduce the severity and frequency of the violence that domestic violence survivors experienced.
“I don’t know that it’s correlated, but I’m really hopeful,” Oxborrow said.
How are Utah lawmakers working to prevent domestic violence homicides?
While Utah law enforcement hones and expands its approach to preventing domestic violence homicides, discussion of other potential solutions has grown louder in the statehouse.
The state Legislature this year passed a bill to increase the window in which a repeat domestic violence offender can be subject to an enhanced penalty; the bill expanded the period from five years after the first domestic violence conviction to 10 years.
Another Utah bill passed in 2017 made attempted strangulation — the act of impeding a person’s breathing or circulation by choking them or otherwise obstructing their airways — a felony. Supporters of the bill at the time pointed to research showing that 43% of women who were choked during an abusive relationship were later murdered.
As the 2020 legislative session approaches, a priority for the Utah Domestic Violence Council is passing a bill allowing extreme risk protective orders — known colloquially as a “red flag” bill. Extreme risk protective order laws let family members or close friends ask a judge to temporarily confiscate the guns of a person who poses a threat to his own safety or the safety of others.
Such laws, which have been enacted in 17 states and the District of Columbia, are most often considered in the context of preventing suicides or mass shootings. But there’s significant overlap between suicide and domestic violence, noted Carrie Butler, policy director of Action Utah, at a recent Domestic Violence Council meeting.
Versions of the bill have been unsuccessfully introduced each year by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, since 2017. Handy plans to introduce the bill again this coming session.
When he first drafted the bill, Handy said he primarily had suicide prevention in mind.
“But that also translates into domestic violence,” Handy said. “The news stories are just full of these terrible things that happen, and I know some personal stories in my own neighborhood.”
Critics in past years have argued that Handy’s bill infringes on Second Amendment rights, describing the measure as a “gun grab.” Some supporters of the legislation are optimistic about the bill’s chances at passing in 2020 after President Donald Trump in August expressed support for so-called “red flag” laws. But the president’s support doesn’t necessarily translate into support from the Utah Legislature, Handy noted.
Searle attributes the increased political attention on domestic violence to a broader growing awareness of the issue. As discussing domestic violence becomes less taboo, he believes, Utah legislators like Handy are more likely to know that a friend, acquaintance or loved one has experienced it.
“I think it was so far underground that nobody talked about it 10, 15 years ago,” Searle said. “Now people are beginning to have a conversation.”