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

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