Writing reports that work for victims of DV: Tools for measuring risk for DVH

There were times that at the end of a midnight shift in Westbrook, Maine, outside Portland, and New Braintree PD, in Massachusetts that I had reports to write for incidents I had been assigned during the shift. More than once, I snuck out of the patrol office and went home – too tired to write. And more then once, the sleep I so wanted was disturbed by the day sergeant or court officer looking for my report. Or sometimes, when I did stay, my writing was not my best effort because I was tired. Report writing is an art and is now a large part of both the academy training and field training programs. Law enforcement officers are better trained and more highly educated than ever which is essential in these times where every word is public property. The media, the citizenry, and the police hierarchy are all slicing and dicing every paragraph of today’s reports looking for your mistakes, it seems. The reason I write this is that police reports have consequences and if important statements, or officer observations, or photographs are omitted, cases may be lost. It is essential that report writing be taken seriously because, in the setting of domestic violence, lives depend on it.

Just like any report document that is to be handed out to anyone who might request it, particularly underpaid defense attorneys who swim in circles, like sharks looking to devour a poorly written report and its author. Report writing needs to be concise and laser focused. Particularly important is the reason for the call. Why did this victim call today? We know that the abuse tends to escalate successively. Sometimes, it is only when children become involved that a victim will move to stop the violence. In Vermont, a teen boy shot and killed his father when the man drunkenly waved a pistol threatening the family. And in Maine, a 13 year old boy was found to be hiding a 20 gauge shotgun and ammunition on the day he and his family were murdered by his father Steven Lake.  Our analysis of the Maine case led us to understand that the boy was likely intending to defend his mother and sister against a violent and unpredictable father.  He may have been seeking to load the weapon when his father snuck into the unlocked house and overpowered the family. 20 gauge shells were found in the child’s bed and under his pillow.

Image from Mobile ODT
When conducting assessments or forensic exams with a victim of domestic violence (DV), any reported history of strangulation places the person at a higher risk for more serious violence or homicide by the hands of their intimate partner. By recognizing signs of strangulation, healthcare providers can help to mitigate long-term damage, properly document any evidence of abuse, and provide referrals for seeking safety assistance. Sara Vehling 2019

Risk assessment tools provide quantifiable data that may be used to develop actuarial projections as to degree of risk and dangerousness. Report writing now should include assessment tools that uncover potential risk to victims. Jacqueline Campbell, RN has a valid risk assessment tool for determining whether there is high risk to potential victims that can be living in the home while officers are still on scene. Campbell’s work is readily available in the DV literature and known to most of us. The Ontario group in Canada also has a reliable tool – ODARA used by law enforcement agencies across the country. In my agency we adopted both tools after the research was complete from The Maine homicides. The national leadership includes Lenore Walker, in addition to Campbell, who both have published a good deal over 25 years on DV and its cycle. Walker believes that women and families are exposed to great harm when the abuser is out of jail only hours after terrorizing his family. It rarely mitigated the next beating. 

I propose holding the abuser until his first arraignment perhaps as long as 2 days. This allows for a cooling off period. Minutes are like hours while sitting in a municipal cell block often eating fast food 3 times a day. But the 8th Amendment of the Constitution guarantees that bail shall not be unfairly denied or excessively harsh. In truth, the modification of bail conditions in some instances must be done in real time to account for the severity of individual cases of DV and unique red flags. Experts have said that when a victims says ”I know he is going to kill me” then there is a greater likelihood that she may be correct and a protective, safety plan should be put in place. On the continuum of risk, expecting to be killed is only slightly less dangerous as physical attempt to kill or maim. In these most dangerous cases, there are tactical measures that must be written into protective orders such as GPS monitoring, forfeited bail and remand to custody for violation of protective orders, social media restriction, no contact with victim and children, no contact with victim’s family or friends, and supervised visitation, when only appropriate. It is these cases where the police officer’s report must be first rate and bullet proof.

A period of being held in custody until initial arraignment will enhance public safety and public trust in the short run. If applied to all persons arrested because of domestic abuse, then it would not unfairly impact only the poor or disenfranchised. Abuser’s should not be able to buy their way out of jail nor should they be free to wander their communities stalking their supposed loved ones. Steven Lake who killed his family and himself in Dexter, Maine posted his love for his children nightly and had piteous social media “friends” encouraging him to “fight for his children”. Little did they know he was planning the onerous events that would end the Lake family timeline forever. The Maine Law Review in 2012 reviewed changes in conditions of bail and cited our research over 12 times in its review of conditions for the release of persons in jail for domestic violence. Protective factors include the abuser having full employment and a substance free environment.

As the reader begins to understand report writing requires a visceral response and poignant understanding of this hidden social maelstrom. There are legitimate reasons for seeking “no bail” holds on some people arrested for domestic violence when high acuity and high risk exist together. These have been posted by me in the Human Behavior blog.


Campbell, J. (1995). Assessing dangerousness. Newbury Park: Sage. Nicole R.

Bissonnette, Domestic Violence and Enforcement of Protection from Abuse Orders: Simple Fixes to Help Prevent Intra-Family Homicide, 65 Me. L. Rev. 287 (2012). Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol65/iss1/12

Ronald Allanach et al. (2011) Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Vehling, S. (2019) Taking your breath away – why strangulation in domestic violence is a huge red flag. Blog post https://www.mobileodt.com/blog/taking-your-breath-away-why-strangulation-in-domestic-violence-is-a-huge-red-flag/ taken March 15, 2022

Mac Walton. (2019) Bail Reform and Intimate Partner Violence in Maine, 71 Me. L. Rev. 139. Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol71/iss1/62

Domestic Violence Homicide: crafting protective orders with teeth and laws to support victims in fear of being murdered

Domestic violence homicide shares common red flag warnings that are discernible when prosecutors take time to connect the dots.

In Maine, Texas, and across America, the criminal justice system – including prosecutors, too often fail to protect victims of domestic and family violence from their abusers — even when the “red flag” warning signs are obvious as they were in both these cases. In this post, and the March 15 post, I talk about the importance of report writing and truly  understanding DV on a visceral or gut level. To truly understand what is going to happen requires a realization that just below the surface may lie a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

In early 2021, the police in Austin,Texas were beset by a horrific case of domestic violence homicide. On April 18, 2021, a former police officer killed the family while picking up his son for a monthly supervised visit. The child’s mother encouraged these visits as important to the boy’s development and relationship with his violent and sadistic father. While exchanging pleasantries, the child’s father shot and killed his former wife and step-daughter.  And he killed his daughter’s young boy friend and immediately fled. Detective Broderick was captured 20 hours later and is being held. Yes, the abused was a former law enforcement officer. 

Common sense look at facts

Police need broad discretionary authority in dealing with any violation of orders of protection including no bail holds and danger risk assessment

Following the 2020 arrest for sexual assault of a child, Broderick resigned from the Travis County Sheriff’s Department. He was initially held on $100,000 bond. A family friend remarked, “I kind of had a feeling that this is where he was going, because he was lost,” she explained. “He lost everything. He lost his family. There was a protective order for a reason.” He was lost?  That gives him the right to violently kill his former wife, adopted daughter, and her male friend? Many in our society are lost and do not go on to commit violent homicide.

The 16-year old child, who was among the victims, begged for a more restrictive supervision of her step-father who had been released from jail and was not required to wear an ankle bracelet after only a period of 3 months. An order of protection was brought against former police detective. There was a protection order in place but even the teen knew that orders of protection were “not worth the paper they were written on.” 

“Because Mr. Broderick committed this heinous crime after he paid a money bond to be released on charges related to sexual assault against a child, Texas law permits his detention without bail.” Wes Wilson, KXAN television Austin, TX

There is a case to be made for careful analysis of behavioral health functioning of abusers. That seems to be common sense right? But this sometimes does not occur. As a law enforcement officer in Massachusetts, I made an effort to introduce risk assessment tools to quantify a subject’s dangerousness. This is important but is not yet universally adopted here in Massachusetts. Nearly 10 years on, the psychological autopsy conducted in 2011, looked at the red flag warnings that are common to DVH everywhere – including the case in Austin. What brought my attention to the case in Maine was the purported prosecutorial impotence argued by Christopher Almy, the county district attorney, that there was “nothing that could be done to protect the victim, Amy Lake and her two children, from her estranged husband Stephen Lake. That statement was inspiring. Imagine if you and your family were depending upon the police to protect you as Amy Lake was? Everything that could be done was in place. But the protection order had no teeth. So Steven Lake snuck into the Amy’s home at 5 AM and staged a despicable murder scene, ultimately killing the children he claimed to love while Amy was forced to watch. Ending with her shotgun murder and is own death by suicide. 

“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger the emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” Michael Sefton (2016)

In an article on the 8th Amendment regarding bail in cases of domestic violence, the Maine Law Review, first in 2012 and an updated second publication in 2017, cited the importance of carefully crafted conditions of bail especially among men who are found to have violated the conditions often by stalking and using social media to intimidate and contact potential victims also by trolling family members in an effort to locate estranged spouse and her children who may be in hiding. Both Amy Lake and Austin, TX mother of 3 expressed an interest in having children remain in contact with extended family in spite of pending serious criminal charges. This opened up access to the perpetrator to information about current living arrangements, employment, after school activities, and other potential clues that raised the risk of further domestic violence and ultimately DVH. In Austin, the victim expressed a wish to allow her estranged husband to have contact with the little boy – his son in spite of pending felony charges brought forth by the 16-year old step-daughter who rightfully feared for her life. Why was her fear ignored or minimized given her history of having been sexually assaulted by her adoptive father and his animosity toward her for reporting the abuse to law enforcement. He blamed her for his loss of career and status as a local detective with the Travis County Sheriff’s Department.

Firearms are a major cause of DVH and in every state are required to be taken from men with active protection orders in place. This was the default expectation in the two cases described here but in the case of Stephen Lake his arsenal of 22 firearms were not removed from his possession in spite of court orders.  Similarly, the Austin killer was left with at least one firearm used to kill his family.  Lake left 9 suicide notes many of which were rambling, angry tirades toward his wife and in laws.  The Austin killer did not take his own life and was captured. This is atypical especially among law enforcement officers raising the specter of possible psychological analysis of his motives. This make the two cases in this post very different at this level. To what extent Texas authorities will endeavor to understand the events that preceded the murders remains unclear although, like the Aurora theater shooting, having a bad guy to study is rare. This means nothing, aside from an opportunity for personality and psyhopathology to be brought up at trial perhaps allowing Mr Broderick to avoid death row.  There is not much in the public media since the crime and his capture. However, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the red flag warnings in this case is recommended and will add to the body of literature on domestic violence. Why he chose not to kill himself is itself a mystery. 


Domestic violence homicide risk factors

  1. Threatens to kill spouse if she leaves him – pathological jealousy
  2. Actual use of firearm or other weapon anytime during domestic violence incident
  3. Access to firearms even if he never used them – veiled threats
  4. Attempt at strangulation ever during fight
  5. Forced sex anytime during relationship
  6. Unemployment of perpetrator
  7. Stalking via social media – one or both spouse use social media to intimidate or garner support
  8. Presence of unrelated “step” child in home
  9. Spouse finds new relationship soon after separating
  10. Low bail release from custody – high bail holds are essential in DVH mitigation