Domestic violence and the importance of red flag warnings for preventing homicide

Steven Lake murdered his family on
June 12, 2011 in Maine

Red flag warnings exist in most cases of domestic violence homicide. Just as in the case of Steven Lake, seen in his well-circulated arrest photograph, domestic violence has predictable consequences that afford law enforcement a window into the risk of escalating DV. By examining red flags, police have the opportunity to foresee the escalation of intimate partner violence. The timeline of domestic violence and the red flags that are present such as strangulation, any use of a firearm or forced sexual behavior are most common in the most high risk cases. The first given understanding is that DV is a secret, coercive and menacing problem that underlies many relationships, even those of law enforcement officers themselves. Advanced investigative prowess is crystal clear in hindsight. Lenore Walker has said that most family violence goes unreported and is cyclical. Police respond to the cycle after approximately 7 rounds of physical and emotional abuse when victims fear the safety of their children, according to Walker, a psychologist and expert on intimate partner abuse. When a potential victim is sure that her husband or family member will attempt to kill them than one may anticipate a higher level of risk than in a case of DV with physical abuse alone. The spontaneous disclosure of the expectation of death or being fatally beaten is a bold red flag – even higher than cases of pathological jealousy without mention of the fear of one-day being killed by a partner. Similarities exist such that tracking red flags will allow LEO’s on the scene to see for themselves the prevalent danger in many families and arrest men who are most abusive.  Having couples separate until cooler heads prevail does not work in lowering risk – in fact, it raises the level of danger in dysfunctional systems.

The police in Austin, Texas, here in the United States, are dealing with a horrific case of domestic violence homicide just this week in April 2021. A former Traverse County sheriff’s detective killed three members of his family while picking up his son for a monthly supervised visit. Stephen Broderick shot and killed his former wife, step-daughter and the girls boyfriend. He did this all the while he was coming to visit the 9 year old boy. Broderick fled the murder scene was captured 20 hours later. That Broderick was a police officer made this case of special circumstance.

The 16-year old child, who was among the victims, begged for a more restrictive supervision from her step-father who had been released from jail on lower bail and was not required to wear an ankle bracelet after a period of 3 months. The order of protection was brought against former police detective who was now unemployed. In spite of the protection order being in place, even the teen knew that orders of protection were often violated and difficult to monitor. It is reported that when victims believe that they will one day be killed by an intimate partner then the danger is real and should be considered a red flag. Having a child unrelated to the abuser In the household is another significant red flag. The analysis of any case of DV, that is heading toward a terminal event (domestic violence homicide), requires a careful review of symptomatic and behavioral research and observations of cumulative pre-incident indicators exhibited prior to the referenced homicides and suicide. In this case there was none offered.

“In the year that Amy Lake’s protection from abuse order was active against Steven, he violated that order at least five times but spent fewer than two days in jail for those violations, the report found. He also stalked her on Facebook, according to Diane Bowlby of the Bangor Daily News who was at the scene shortly after homicides.

Now nearly 10 years on, the psychological autopsy conducted in 2011, looked at the red flag warnings that are common to DVH everywhere. some I have described above. What brought my attention to the case in Maine was the purported prosecutorial impotence demonstrated by the district attorney Christopher Almy provided to local television. Almy said there was “nothing that could have been done” to protect the victim, Amy Lake and her two children, from her estranged husband Steven Lake. By saying there was nothing that could be done to protect the Lake family, the DA inadvertently undermined not only the police but the many agencies and medical professionals charged with drafting safety plans for victims of intimate partner abuse everywhere. In a similar way, newly elected county DA Jose Garza said he was “confident police did all they could to protect this family and he was incredibly proud of the officers” for the way they handled the Broderick case. More than one citizen comment in the newspaper questioned how anyone can be proud of a situation resulting in the deaths of 3 human beings? Given the outcome in both cases, and countless others, comments such as these strain credulity and fail to inspire.

On June 12, 2011, Mr. Lake snuck into the Amy’s rented home 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 – ending the Lake family timeline forever.

In an article on contingencies for bail in cases of domestic violence, attorney Nicole R. Bissonnette writes in the the Maine Law Review about the importance of thoughtful conditions of bail, especially among men who are found to have violated these conditions often by texting, stalking and using social media to intimidate and contact potential victims of extended family members. Her published paper adds that failure to relinquish all firearms must be reported to the federal database. Ms. Bissonnette cited our work over 12 times as it pertained to “red flag” warnings and bail reform. Bissonnette raised questions about protection orders and the need for added tools of enforcement for men who violate the protection from abuse orders (PFA) often called restraining orders.

In Maine, men who violate orders of protection are often released from custody with low bail or no bail. Steven Lake was twice released from jail on two thousand dollars that was paid by his father. We proposed increasing bail by a factor of ten on any violation of the stay away order and that a comprehensive review of possible high risk warning signs and psychological history be undertaken prior to release. Using a firearm in the commission of a domestic violence incident is defacto evidence of dangerousness and no bail shall be permitted until such time as all firearms are collected and a viable safety plan is in place for potential victims including police protection. The judiciary must sign on for this and understand the system of bail cannot be linear by assigning bail on the basis of criminal history alone.

The argument made by defense lawyers is invariably, that the lack of a criminal history defies precedent for holding men on large amounts of bail. This is illogical given the numerous red flags that were present in this case and Lake’s disregard for the law. In truth, Mr. Lake had never been arrested for his history of sexual crimes during the marriage, verbal threatening or anything until his final meltdown began. Tension boiled over on June 14, 2010, at the family home at 9 Brighton Road in Wellington when Steven allegedly brandished a gun in front of his family, threatening Amy and the man he accused her of having a relationship with, as reported in the Bangor Daily News. After that event, he was arrested and charged with criminal threatening for which he was heard to say that “he would never serve a day” in jail and that “the price of divorce is 28 cents – about the cost of one bullet.”  A comment that a court appointed psychologist might have wanted to better understand.

Lake slept with a pistol and holster hanging on his bed post. He posed with a rifle in his high school year book.  Steven was a gun guy and owned over 20 firearms. The criminal threatening occurred one year before he killed them all as the trial for criminal threatening approached and as the countdown to his divorce from Amy began ticking louder in his brain. None of his weapons were inventoried by police. Had he been held on high bail for each of the PFA violations and been properly assessed for his proclivity toward violence, he would have been unable to kill them one year down the road in 2011. Yet he had time to scribble over 10 suicide notes blaming everyone but himself for the deaths including the judge and his father-in-law, whom he promised to “see in hell.”  His father told us for the final report that if the judge had only let Steven see his 2 children for the 8th grade celebration, this could have all been avoided. Like his son, the senior Mr. Lake looked to redirect blame away from his son. Aside from visiting the school where Amy taught, the 2 hours we spent with Steven Lake’s parents were perhaps the most unsettling and sad of the nearly 200 hours and over 60 people who agreed to be interviewed. 

Fast forward 10 years. The setting is north central Texas. On Sunday morning April 18, 2021, in northwest Austin, law enforcement officials say Stephen Broderick shot and killed his step-daughter, Alyssa; her mother and his estranged wife, Amanda Broderick, 35; and Alyssa’s boyfriend, Willie Simmons III, 18. The 9 year old biological child was not harmed. 

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Stephen Broderick booking photo 2021

It is common for former intimate partners troll the social media accounts of family members in an effort to locate estranged spouse and her children who may be in hiding. Both Amy Lake and Amanda Broderick, the Texas mother of 3 expressed an interest in having children remain in contact with extended family, in spite of pending felony charges. Amy was keen to have her children see their grandparents (Steven’s parents) and have supervised visits with Steven.  A continuum of interagency cooperation is needed to effectively measure risk and understand the pre-incident red flags that are common manifestations of abuse and often forecast terminal violence, all of which occurred in the 2 cases in this report. As the totality of these red flags comes into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action on behalf of those most at risk just as we are mandated to do in cases of child and elder abuse. Amy communicated with her in-laws regularly via social media showing photos and posting life without Steven that he saw while trolling her account. In a similar way, Amanda Broderick wanted her son to maintain contact with his father Stephen.

Meanwhile, Ms. Broderick was said to have been sent over 30 text messages with a variety of intimidating sentiments about the upcoming trial yet she okayed supervised visits with their son, age 9. Any contact like this is a violation of the protective order and should have landed Broderick in jail. And they were sure to open up possible access to the jealous perpetrator to clues about current living arrangements, employment, after school activities, and other potential clues that raised the risk of further domestic violence and ultimately DVH. There were messages of deep felt sorrow and remorse as well, that are common in the cycle of abuse.

While awaiting adjudication of felony charges there must be no contact between children and violent perpetrator whatsoever. 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 rape charges brought forth by the 16-year old step daughter who rightfully feared for her life. Amanda Broderick saw this as being in the “best interest of the child”. This remains a weakness in the overall safety plan and should have been denied by the family court.  It was unjustified given the fear expressed by the victims in this case, which ultimately were quite valid.

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 raising the specter of possible psychological analysis of his motives making the two cases very different at this level. To what extent Texas authorities will endeavor to understand the events that preceded the murders remains unclear. However, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the red flag warnings in this case is highly recommended and will add to the body of literature on domestic violence.

A court-sanctioned visitation agreement required them to maintain some contact to allow Broderick time with his son. In the application for a protective order, Amanda wrote that Broderick called her some 30 times after she left home to intimidate. She feared he would come after her and the children, she said, “because these allegations have come out and he may lose his career.” He could be dangerous, she warned. So why was the visitation permitted in the order of protection?

Why would a court order that an abused family be required to allow an accused rapist to have visits with a 9 year old child? It cannot be in anyone’s best interest to have forced visitation with a suspected violent and angry abuser. Did no one grasp these red flags? 

One could argue that the killer in Austin, Steven Broderick shared most commonalities with the Maine case ten years previously, including sexual violence, coercion, threats of death, pathological jealousy, violation of the order of protection, trolling social media and refusal to surrender his firearms. He was a cop. Broderick was a SWAT trained police officer who resigned his position after being arrested for sexual assault on his step daughter. He should not have had a firearm pending the outcome of his case. He was released from jail on partial bail because he did not have the funds for the bail that was set by the court. He should not have been permitted to visit with his biological son. The risk of violence as was easily foreseen given past behavior. In the same manner, Stephen Lake would never stand trial, and had a cheap divorce in mind early on. 

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

  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
  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

If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7234)

Sefton, M. (2016) Blog post: DVH in MA: 4 year old child begs his father.  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/dvh-in-ma-4-year-old-child-begs-father-not-to-murder-his-mother/. Taken 4-25-2021

Allanach R. 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.

Michael Sefton

The Psychological Impact of Pandemic: The best and worst of human behavior

On November 11, 2020, I presented a program on the Psychological Impact of Pandemic sponsored by Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital.  It was well attended with a mix of nurses, midlevel practitioners, social workers, and nonclinical participants. The program was presented on the zoom platform. I am now going to put to paper my perspective narrative espoused in my 90 minute presentation.  I had also invited members of law enforcement with whom I have regular contact as the information was drawn from the growing literature on mental resilience and its positive impact on coping with exposure to trauma.

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According to the PEW Research Group, 4 in 10 Americans know someone who has either been afflicted with Coronavirus or someone who has died from the virus. My mother was infected with the Coronavirus in mid April in the same nursing facility where I lost my 93-year old aunt in the first wave of the virus in May, 2020. My mother survived the virus but it has taken a significant toll on her physical and cognitive well-being. We were not permitted to see my mother during her illness and my aunt was alone on May 1 when she succumbed to the virus. Both living on a nursing unit that was doing its best to render compassionate care under extraordinary conditions, in some cases with nurses, aides, and therapists working round the clock. Both of these loved ones received extraordinary care. Nursing units across the country suffered unimaginable loss of life including over 70 elderly veterans at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  We all saw the images of refrigerated trucks holding victims in expiated purgatory hidden behind hospitals. It may bring horror to those who lost loved ones and never saw them again.

I saw my mother on November 12. She looked frail and disheveled.  The nurse practitioner had ordered a blood draw out of concern for her physical well-being. She is 92 and may have a blood disorder. They had three staff people hold her in place to obtain the small sample of blood which took over and hour.  She has always had difficulty having her blood drawn and this has gotten worse as she has gotten older. She fought and screamed from pain, and fear, I was told. It was torture for all those involved, including me.

Little did anyone realize the extent of disease, contagion, and trauma this pandemic would bring to the United States and the world. We waited in February and March with curiosity and vague forewarning from our leadership. We were led to believe the virus would dissipate once the weather became warm and it would essentially vanish in the heat of summer. This did not happen and public health officials at CDC and WHO were spot-on in terms of the contagious spread of covid-19 and the deaths it would bring.  Now with the approach of winter our fear borders on panic.

This virus poses significant stress and emotional challenges to us all. It raises the specter of both an overwhelmed medical system as well as increasing co-occurring emotional crisis and a collapse in adaptive coping, for many. Sales of alcohol went up 55 percent in the week of March 21 and were up over 400 percent for alcohol delivery services. Americans were in lock-down and many made poor choices. The link between stress and physical health and well-being is well documented and will be a factor as American’s find their way free from the grip of Covid-19. 

“The human mind is automatically attracted to the worst possible case, often very inaccurately in what is called learned helplessness”

Martin Seligman

Whenever human beings are under stress they are going to utilize skills they have learned from other times when they felt under threat. Chronic stress has been shown to have negative effects on health including autoimmune functions, hypertension, inflammatory conditions like IBS, and pain syndromes. Many find it impossible to think about anything but the worst case scenario. Marty Seligman described the concept of “catastrophizing” that is an evolutionarily adaptive frame of mind, but it is usually unrealistically negative.” This leads to a condition known as learned helplessness. In another book, Dr. Seligman writes about learned optimism published in 1990. His cognitive strategies hold true today.

So many use the same coping mechanisms over and over, whether they are effective or not like drinking or gambling to let off steam. These things may help in the short term but can cause further health and social problems later on. They are not adaptive strategies. Stress is unavoidable and the best thing we can do is to understand its physical impact on us and adapt to it in healthy, adaptive ways. Stress raises the amount of cortisol and adrenaline in the body activating the fight-flight response. For many, that meant an uptick in the procurement of spirits in late March to help bring it down. Others think differently. Many began a routine of walking or running or cycling. Regular exercise contributes to reducing stress and when kept in perspective, is an adaptive response to the threat of coronavirus.

Many people in our hospital were afflicted with the virus or some other health concern and became immersed in loneliness and isolation that can lead to disconsolate sadness. It is hard not to be affected by this suffering. Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger, according to Brooks, et.al. Lancet 2020. At Whittier, we had many cases of ICU delirium where patients became confused and frightened by healthcare providers wearing PPE including face shields, masks, and oxygen hoods. Many thought they were being kidnapped or that the staff were actually posing as astronauts. This made it hard to help them feel safe and to trust the core staff including doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation therapists.

Michael Sefton

We have had some very difficult cases including a man who found his wife on the floor without signs of life. He fell trying to get to her and both lay there for over 2 days. He was unable to attend her funeral because of his broken hip. We had another man who pushed us to be released from the hospital. He worried about his wife who needed him to assist in her care at home. She has Parkinson’s disease. He was discharged and died shortly after going home. His wife fell while getting ready for his funeral and is now in our hospital undergoing physical rehabilitation and receiving support from our psychology service. The table below is a list of observations from recent admissions:

  • Anxiety – what will my family do while I am here?
  • Deep felt sense of loneliness
  • Depression – loss of support; loss of control 
  • Exacerbation of pre-existing conditions i.e. sleep disturbance, asthma, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension
  • Slower trajectory toward discharge
  • Debility greater than one might anticipate to diagnosis
  • Subtle triggers to prior trauma – changes in coping, regression, agitation, sleep and mood

What is left for us to do? Have a discussion about what it means to be vulnerable – talk about family members who have been sick with non-covid conditions like pneumonia or chronic heart disease, COPD, etc. It is important to be ready to work from home again such as when schools switched to remote learning this spring and when governors’ call for closing things down. Consider the return of college kids as campus dorms everywhere are likely to close this winter.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide. 500 million people were infected with the virus that lasted 2 years. The virus was said to have been spread by the movement of troops in WW I. The website Live Science reported that there may have been a Chinese link to the Spanish flu as well due to the use of migrant workers and their transportation in crowded containers leading to what we now call a super spread event. We know a lot more about this virus than we did in March 2020 when it first took hold but we need to understand the eradication will be a herculean task driven by science.

“The coronavirus has profound impact on the emotional stability of people around the world because of its unpredictability and lethality. It evokes fear, and uncertainty as it spreads unchecked. Later, the virus can serve to trigger long hidden memories in a way that can sabotage healthy human development leading to vague anxiety, physical symptoms, loss, and deep despair” said Michael Sefton, Ph.D. during a recent Veteran’s Day presentation. People must have resilient behaviors that foster “purpose in life, to help them survive and thrive” through the dark times now and ahead, according to police consulting psychologist Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. at Direct Decision Institute in Worcester, MA.

 

Harlem domestic violence homicide calls for transparent psychological autopsy

The psychological autopsy is an individually designed case study that elicits a broad range of factual data regarding the behaviors of a decedent in the immediate day or days leading up to domestic violence homicide. The study is especially important when first responders and essential workers are involved all the while a pandemic ravages the city in which they live. Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Direct Decision Institute, Inc.

The recent domestic violence homicide in Harlem raises the specter of an essential city worker who killed his sister-in-law while his wife called for help. The police stopped the attack resulting in the death of Ubaldo Gomez but not before he shot and stabbed a women in the head with a kitchen knife. The fact is that domestic violence has increased during the pandemic as it does at other of life’s stress points. Did the fact that the alleged murderer was an MTA employee considered to be “essential personnel” have an impact on his mental health that may have been foreseen? What role, if any, did his role as an auxiliary police officer for the NYPD have in the terminal event? A psychological autopsy would answers these questions and establish a worst case scenario of frontline exposure to trauma and possibly offer insight into underlying history that may have been anticipated and stopped. Certainly the hierarchy at 1 Police Plaza will have an interest in this case. The Corona virus has added to risk of DV and DHV.

For too many women who are abused repeatedly during times of crisis there is no place to run and no one to keep them safe. Orders of protection are ineffective and without GPS monitoring and they are nearly impossible to enforce. In a 2011 domestic violence homicide in Maine, the protective order was violated 4 times by Steven Lake who killed his wife and children in Dexter before killing himself in June 2011. That alone was grounds to hold Lake without bail. No police agency removed access to his collection of over twenty firearms. The scene diagrams illustrate how Lake was armed with two firearms and a hunting knife. He murdered his children while forcing his estranged intimate partner to watch. It was thought that he planned a murder spree and he left 9 suicide notes. The final despicable act, as police arrived, was to attempt to light the bodies on fire.

In general, there is little interest in such a comprehensive post hoc psychological examination because there is no pending prosecution. Nevertheless, a psychological autopsy conducted on Lake in the Fall of 2011 revealed a clear timeline littered with red flag warnings that were missed or ignored. The research conducted in 2011 was done pro bono. It undertook over 200 hours of interviews and presented the Domestic Violence Review Board with over 50 recommendations for reducing high rates of domestic violence homicide in Maine (Allanach et al. 2011). The medical autopsy editorialized the case in its final report:

“Despite receiving some mental health counseling it is apparent, in retrospect that the degree of violence and anger possessed by the abuser was not realized.”                                                            Chief, Maine State Medical Examiner

This latest case in point involved an estranged wife, her sister, and the building manager in Harlem. The three were having dinner when someone armed with a firearm broke into the apartment. It was the estranged husband of one of the women. He was wearing his Metropolitan Transportation Authority uniform, and he had a gun according to the NY Post reports. In the meantime we have been told that the perpetrator was an auxiliary police officer and was licensed to carry a firearm. What triggered this paroxysmal violence? If it was foreseeable, then Mr Gomez should not have had access to his firearm.The psychological autopsy will address prior history of intimate partner violence, protection orders in place, work-related stress, recent health concerns related to the corona virus and Mr Gomez trauma exposure history, and his mental health in the days before the murder. 

Police officials said the transit worker, Ubaldo Gomez, shot his sister-in-law and stabbed her in the head with a knife, while his wife reached out for help. When Gomez refused to drop a 12-inch kitchen knife and tried again to stab the man, a police sergeant opened fire, killing him. In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. A family member of Gomez suggested “he had some mental issue, something happened. He was always working day and night. He barely slept. He worked.” as quoted in the NY Post. Whether this duplicity and denial stems from cultural beliefs about the supposed “privacy” of DV, society must change the way in which law enforcement manages these cases. The buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and the public-at large needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work. Many states across America are planning to enact “red flag” rules that will remove weapons from individuals with a known history of domestic violence e.g. choking spouse during fight (Sefton, 2019).

Family members who may be in the crosshairs of these insidious events often see but lack the knowledge to stop the emotional and behavioral kinetics once they start. The fear of being murdered by an intimate partner creates emotional paralysis. In a large percentage of DV occurrences, financial and self-image influences as well as outright fear of the abuser by the victim limit moves toward safety. Therefore, a continuum of interagency cooperation is needed to effectively measure risk and understand the pre-incident red flags that are common manifestations of abuse and often forecast terminal violence, all of which occurred in this case. As the totality of these red flags comes into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action to prevent domestic violence threats from becoming reality (Allanach, et al. 2011).

It would seem to be vitally important that a transparent psychological autopsy be initiated to gain an understanding of the factual behavior that was observable and measurable in the days leading up to the murder especially given the likely unintended victim. Preliminary reports described Gomez as having a pattern of pathological jealousy and victim stalking. For her part, Gomez’ wife Glorys Dominguez called for help in the weeks prior to the terminal event seeking help.

Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011

Sefton, M (2019) Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm. Blog post https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/msefton.wordpress.com/5012 taken May 23, 2020.

Sheehan, K, Moore, T. Woods, A. NY Post May 21, 2020 https://nypost.com/2020/05/21/man-killed-in-nyc-police-involved-shooting-was-auxiliary-cop/?

Positive Policing and Purpose in Life

Purpose in life has been introduced as benefiting people, including law enforcement officers, to find a positive sense of purpose and personal satisfaction in their work product and in their lives. It was originally espoused by Viktor Frankl in 1946. Frankl, a physician, survived the German concentration camps and the deliberate extermination of 6 million Jews during WW-II. His wife and entire family were killed at Auschwitz and Dachau. How could he possible find purpose and meaning in life after this horrific experience. In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, Victor Frankl shares the experience of seeing hundreds of people herded off to their extermination. People and members of his immediate family were horrifically gassed and sent to mass graves. Frankl’s theory holds that “there are three primary human capabilities, or, in his words, noological possibilities: self-detachment, self-transcendence, and the ability to “spiritually be in touch” with something or someone independent of spatio-temporal dimensions” according to McGann (2016) who reviewed Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Officer well-being is essential for career longevity. It becomes apparent that police officers grow and remain productive in an environment of support: both within the organization and within the community in which they serve. These attributes build a sense of personal meaning and career purpose. Leo Polizoti, Ph.D.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl described the daily demoralizing prisoners underwent both physically and psychologically. Survivors of the horrific images at concentration camp Auschwitz began to find meaning in their forced labor – even humor along with camaraderie. Many of us glean a significant sense of well-being from what we do personally and professionally. Most cops derive great personal meaning and purpose from the job of police officer at least for the first 3-5 years. Law enforcement officers’ derive much of their identity from the work they do on a daily basis and can experience wide ranging stress from call to call. As such, it has become well-known that police work requires special understanding of one’s community and a positive sense of personal responsibility, well-being and resilience for career success and hardiness (Polizoti, 2018).
Our tour guide at the West Bank in Israel in 2019 – Rami Nazzali found great purpose in teaching visitors about the plight of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip – He strongly believes the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are fighting for purpose and meaning in their lives. Rami Nazzali writes for The NY Times.
Purpose in life refers to an underlying belief that what you do for work has importance and purpose on a larger scale. Moreover, to diminish oneself as a result of career embitterment runs a risk of the erosion of purpose and loss of group membership. That is when one becomes marginalized and loses his purpose and the “why” for living. Viktor Frankl believed that once gone the purpose of life and the will to live cannot be restored. Mark Dibona previously was a patrol sergeant for the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in Florida, where he supervised nine officers, but the memory of the June morning where he was called upon to resuscitate and dying infant still haunts him. “Other stressful situations include, but are not limited to: long hours; handling people’s attitudes; waiting for the next call and not knowing what the situation will be; and even politics within the department. Then, on top of it all, officers are frequently criticized, scrutinized, and investigated for decisions they make” said Michelle Beshears on the faculty at American Military University. Among police officers between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population. A colleague and friend, Sergeant Mark DiBona retired from law enforcement in 2019 has had some difficult times on the job in Florida that effect him in a profound way. He is an strong advocate for law enforcement mental health and suicide prevention. “Until this day,” said Dibona, who admits to having contemplated suicide several times before he began counseling, “I can feel the warmth of that baby on my arm.” A child Mark believed he could save.

Gender in peril

There are places in the world where intimate partner violence is pervasive. so pervasive that it Places the opposite gender in peril for 50% of the poor Places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt, and the United States have excessive rates of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide. This week in Russia, three sisters await trial for the murder of their physically and sexually abusive father. He was murdered while he slept. In spite of having first-hand audio of his abuse the three young women face over 10 years in prison for the crime

While France has a progressive reputation and pushes for women’s rights around the world, it has among the highest rates in Europe of domestic violence, in part because of poor police response to reports of abuse. Many of the women killed this year had previously sought help from police.

Violence against women is a costly and pervasive public health problem and a violation of human rights according to a 2010 paper by the Population Research Bureau. “In Egypt, a third of women are physically abused by their husbands,” according to the 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (DHS). “Most victims suffer silently and don’t seek help to prevent or stop the violence because they think it is part of life or they are embarrassed by the abuse.” 

It is like that here in the U.S. as well. Victims undergo unbearable pressure to anticipate what triggers the violence they experience. Substance abuse adds to the unpredictable nature of the perpetrators. In some rural communities in Egypt and elsewhere, honor killings remain taboo and are often minimized as a “family matter”. When a woman falls in love with a man of a different religion she may face honor killing by her father or oldest brother who feels duty bound to revenge the dishonor brought by such behaviors. This is a significant problem here in the United Stages as well. In a recent article, a man in his taxi cab ran over his wife because he had a dream she was being unfaithful to him. There are over 25 honor killings estimated annually here in the U.S.

These are not isolated incident from third world countries. While I was working in law enforcement, one victim said to me that “she was beaten by her jealous husband for taking too long in the voting booth.” It was unacceptable to him that she visit with friends and neighbors she encountered while in line to cast her vote. He called her on the cell phone three times in 30 minutes which illustrates the coercive behavior and control seeking put upon victims of intimate partner abuse.

In the French Republic, French film and TV stars joined abuse victims and activists calling for an end to “femicide.” Many held banners reading “Sick of Rape.” Like many developed countries there is an engrained denial and secrecy about spousal abuse including rape. In parts of Africa, including Kenya, Tazania, and South Africa, domestic violence may reach 50 percent of girls over age 15. These figure illustrate the problem of gender inequality in the developing countries alike.

The protest in the French capital came on the U.N.’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and is aimed at pressuring the French government before it unveils new measures Monday to tackle the problem. A shift in egalitarian gender roles will take generations to take hold. Meanwhile, protection of girls and women should include safety planning, early intervention in public education, greater police response to physical violence, and a zero tolerance policy for violating an order of protection.

Domestic violence is a major cause of disability and death among women worldwide, and puts women at a higher risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. An undeniable double standard exists across the world when it comes to sexual violence and male infidelity. The incidence of honor killing remains a despicable happenstance in India, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt and 5000 innocent girls annually.

The proposed intervention measures are expected to include seizing firearms from people suspected of domestic violence and prioritizing police training so they won’t brush off women’s complaints as a private affair. In late November, Time Magazine’s Angela Charleton featured a profile of intimate partner violence that is worth the read . However, countries like France, Saudia Arabia, and Egypt have a low rate of gun ownership so further study must but undertaken to understand the secret narrative that threatens an entire gender.

“…Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.

More than ever women around the globe are now shouting out in private and public spaces, regardless of the possible backlash, “I am equal!”

“The term femicide was first coined in the 1970s to refer to gender-related killings. Femicide is not recognized in the French criminal code, but Marlène Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said the recognition would be discussed in the coming weeks” described Laura Fourquet in a September 2019 NY Times article on the topic

PRB. (2010). Domestic Violence High in Egypt, Affecting Women’s Reproductive Health taken November 25,2019.

Investigating domestic violence, predicting danger, and containing the anger

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Domestic violence homicide results when victims decide to move on with their lives and inform a jealous, insecure spouse that they no longer want a relationship. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. The risk is greatest when victims decide to leave. At first glance one might say “Lots of people break up and do not murder their spouse and family” according to Michael Sefton shown in the photo on the left. That is a fair statement but it happens enough in the United States and elsewhere that it must be considered. Last week in Massachusetts a family was murdered because one spouse asked to be let go and people were stunned that they saw nothing to warn them of what was brewing.

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

At what point does a potential begin to wonder whether she and her children are safe? We are lead to believe that abusive intimate partners cannot be held in jail unless they are in violation of an order of protection, AKA: restraining order. Time and again, violent and abusive partners stalk and ignore orders of protection – especially using social media tracking software and trolling social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and What’sAp. It is all about control and instilling fear.

Restraining order’s are authorized by a district court judge who is on call night and day. They are not authorized unless substantial threat to the victim exists.  These orders are carefully crafted by investigating police officers whose reports highlight the exact nature of the violence and the reason the victim needs protection. “Protection orders are offered to the victim after the first sign of physical violence. It has been espoused that the police are not called until after the 6th or 7th episode of domestic violence” according to Sefton, 2016.  DV is a secret affair between members of a family who are often ashamed or embarrassed to come forward for help often until things gradually get worse – sometimes years into a pattern of violent dysfunction.

Research is clear that separating spouses for the night does not positively impact the level aggression and risk in the household as much as the formal arrest of the aggressor.  What usually happens is the police break up the fighting couple by sending the aggressor off to the home of a friend or family member – less often to jail unless there are obvious signs of abuse. Arrest is mandated by law when physical signs of abuse are apparent. It has become all too often the case that hindsight – taken seriously – may have saved a life. It is when they are attempting to leave that abuse victims are at greatest risk of death due to domestic violence as in the case of Amy Lake, a victim of domestic violence homicide whose case was carefully studied in the Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide (Allanach, et. al. 2011) that occurred in June 2011. Lake’s husband and murderer was heard to state that “if you ever try to leave me I will kill you”. 

In research conducted by this author and colleagues we learned that as soon as police leave the scene the risk for violence is increased. We interviewed a man who served 18 years for the murder of his wife and he described in vivid detail how he used nonverbal coercion to manipulate his wife while being interviewed by sheriff’s deputies in Maine. He admitted that as soon as the police were out of the driveway he strangled and drowned his wife for calling them.

In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. Whether this unwitting duplicity stems from the cultural belief that what happens behind closed doors is “nobody’s business” or the conscious result of intimidation should not change the law enforcement intervention in these cases. Early incarceration provides access to a viable safety plan for potential victims and in some cases, will instill a desire for change in the violent partner. In the meantime, substantive buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and society needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work and violent partners to be contained. 


Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011
Sefton, M (2016). https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/the-psychology-of-bail-and-alternatives-to-incarceration/ Blog post: Taken October 9, 2019

Domestic Violence Awareness October 2019

Today, as we read about another family destroyed in domestic conflict here in the Boston area, I can imagine the images seared into the eyes of those who responded to the call finding 3 children dead along with their parents.  The Abington, MA police chief described the death scene in the Boston Globe as “something unimaginable”.  Some people are better equipped to handle horrific cases where death is on public display – perhaps even today’s horrific domestic terror attack here in Massachusetts. Others become impacted by the recurring images and how they are all the same after a while. Too many calls resonate with the officer’s personal well-being and safety leaving him or her constantly on guard. But over time – even the neurosurgeon – will become harmed by embitterment when his learned craft can do nothing to fix a leaking brain and his patient dies. Perhaps he feels that with updated equipment and training he may have been able to save the life?

This is what LEO’s face.  A loss of purpose in life and the unmitigated stench of a decomposing society over which they have no control and, too often, a internal command structure who does not know what it is like to be in a lonely barn at 2 AM and see the hanged remains of someone who, after 5 hours, would leave even the most hardened of us on our knees and wanting out.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Cases such as today’s Abington murders often leave emotional tracers that can grow a database which LEO’s can utilize when investigating calls for service. Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the pre-incident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are at highest risk (Sefton 2018). Some behaviors are secretly guarded among intimate partners – as “nobody’s business”. Police officers must inquire and listen carefully to the victim who firmly believes her spouse intends to kill her. The underpinnings of her fear are generally spot on as in the case I that investigated in Maine using the psychological autopsy in 2012. For the cases with high likelihood of domestic violence homicide, greater care for victims must be initiated from the beginning before it is too late. It can be a hard sell, I know, but the reports we write must also be “spot on” when it comes to dangerousness, risk, and containment.

Sefton, M (2018) Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2018/05/20/violence-prediction-keeping-the-radar-sites-on-those-who-would-do-us-harm/ Taken October 8, 2019

What is involved in CIT and Jail Diversion?

“The important part of crisis intervention training comes in the interdisciplinary relationships that are forged by this methodology. Trust and respect between the police and its citizens builds slowly one person at a time. “

Michael Sefton, 2017

Police officers have historically been ill prepared to deal with people exhibiting signs of mental illness or severe emotional disturbance. Many were thought to be unpredictable and therefore resistant to the typical verbal judo officer’s are trained to use. The CIT programs provided training to police officers in an attempt to bridge the gap between myths about mental illness passed down from one generation of LEO’s to the next and actual training and experience in talking with citizens experiencing a crisis in their life, learning about techniques to manage a chaotic scene, strategies for enhanced listening, understanding the most commonly encountered disorders and role playing. For one thing some person’s afflicted with mental illness have difficulty following directions such as those suspected of hearing voices, paranoia or command hallucinations but this is not always the case. Many individuals CIT trained officers will encounter are normal human beings who are experiencing a high stress, crisis such as the death of a loved one, financial loss, failed marriage or relationship, or major medical illness. This adds a layer of complexity to the CIT model that officers soon experience.

Acuity increases with encounters of mentally ill who are both substance dependent and have some co-occurring psychiatric condition. The alcohol or drugs are often veiled in the underlying “mental illness” but in truth they are not mutually exclusive. The importance of treatment for substance dependence and mental illness cannot be understated as violent encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill have been regularly sensationalized. The general public is looking for greater public safety while at the same time M.H. advocates insist that with the proper treatment violent police encounters may be reduced and jail diversion may be achieved. 

5 Stages of Police Crisis Intervention

  1. Scene safety – Assess for presence of firearms – obtain history of address from dispatch – have back-up ready
  2. Make contact with complainant & subject – express a desire to help; listen to explanation of the problem – ascertain what is precipitating factor?
  3. Establish direct communication with subject – attempt to establish trust; support for taking steps toward change; “why now?”; identify any immediate threats – sobriety, weapons
  4. Pros and Cons for change – ascertain how willing  is subject to begin change process, i.e. sobriety, counseling, detoxification
  5. Positive expectations for change = direct movement toward change – hospital program; rewards that will come with positive change

“A crisis event can provide an opportunity, a challenge to life goals, a rapid deterioration of functioning, or a positive turning point in the quality of one’s life”

(Roberts & Dziegielewski, 1995)

There is a high degree of stress in any call involving a person in crisis. Repeated exposure to trauma is known to change the fight/flight balance we seek for emotional stability. Excessive autonomic arousal poses a threat to cardiac functioning and damaging hypertension. After high intensity/high lethality calls I suggest a defusing session take place immediately after the shift or as soon as possible. Excess adrenaline from an abnormal stress response can have significant health effects on LEO’s. Defusing or debriefing sessions can help reduce the impact of these types of calls. Full critical incident debriefing should wait until the normal effects of such calls wear off.

Sefton, M. (2017) Human Behavior Blogpost: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/police-are-building-bridges-and-throwing-life-savers/ taken December 10, 2017

Leadership in a time of missing or dead leaders in 2018

A good friend and co-author of our published Psychological Autopsy (2011) told me that if I “want to be a leader that I need to be more concise”. I had recently promoted to sergeant in the Police department from which I am now retired. At the time he was angry at me because I had promised him I would give my decision about travel plans we had discussed.

“If a man is solely judged on his moment of weakness there will be not leaders in the world” said a 91-year old man with skin cancer seated at a bar in Florida

Eventually, I called my colleague to say I was ‘all in’ when he let me know he had made other plans. Okay, my bad. I remembered at once him telling me that if I wanted to have followers I needed to be more concise and communicate more clearly. How true his remarks ring to this day and I hear it often from other friends and family.
He had given me a deadline and I failed to let him know of my intentions and he decided he needed to move on or risk losing air fare, hotels, etc. He was right, I was vague and noncommittal. I was hurt by his gruff response but it taught me an important lesson. If I want to have followers I need to be concise. Since then these words resonate with my belief system but I’d say I still remain uncertain when given too many choices.
“The genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see, act on, and satisfy followers’ values and motivations as well as their own” and I can fully relate to this and attribute my leadership to a model of shared responsibility and collateral command.

Institute of Medicine (US) (2004). Committee on the Work Environment for Nurses and Patient Safety; Page A, editor.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US)

Protecting the Victim’s of Intimate Partner Abuse: The aftermath of domestic violence homicide

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Victim passed this note to Veterinarian staff – Photo VCSD

“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook, Maine  police officer who is a psychologist and former police sergeant in Massachusetts at the New Braintree Police Department.

Bangor Daily News