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/?

Investigating domestic violence, predicting danger, and containing the anger

image_502116fc-2724-4fe0-bba0-c375c3c85c13.img_0646

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

Desperate Victim’s plea for help

DV_note B&W
Victim passed this note to Veterinarian staff – Photo VCSD

WESTBOROUGH, MA  June 6, 2018 A case of domestic violence unfolded on Memorial Day weekend in Volusia County, Florida when a female victim was being held by her live-in boyfriend. The note implores staff members of the DeLand Animal Hospital to call police because her partner was threatening her and had a gun.  These kinds of desperate measures occur occasionally and are dramatic and newsworthy. The staff at the DeLand Animal Hospital are to be commended.  But there are intimate partners everywhere who live in fear just as the indomitable victim who passed this note had been living.

“From coast to coast LEO’s are caught in this moth eaten, patchwork system that lacks resources for both the mentally ill and those addicted to alcohol and drugs.” Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018

As the story goes, her boyfriend had beaten her and was refusing to allow her to leave the couple’s home.  To her credit (perhaps life saving) she convinced the man that she needed to bring the dog to the veterinarian.  He agreed but would not allow her to go without him. Upon arrival this note was passed to a member of the hospital staff who knew just what to do.  The man is now behind bars being held without bail – manning his defense.

There is a consensus among experts in domestic violence that victims are abused multiple times – often threatened with death – before they call police for help.

As a society, more needs to be done to fill-in the holes in the system designed to keep families safe.  Safety plans and orders of protection are not enough.  From coast to coast LEO’s are caught in this moth eaten, patchwork system that lacks resources for both the mentally ill and those addicted to alcohol and drugs. The holes in the system allow for violence prone individuals to allude police and coerce victims into silence.  But every once in a while, a silent victim writes a life saving note and gives it to the right person.

Domestic violence happens in family systems that are secretive, chaotic, and dysfunctional.  This lifestyle pushes them into the margins of society – often detached from the communities in which they live.

The abusive spouse makes his efforts known within the system by his barbaric authoritarian demands.  He keeps his spouse isolated as a way of controlling and manipulating whatever truth exists among these disparate family members.  The consequence of this isolation leaves women without a sense of “self” – alone an emotional orphan vulnerable to his threat of abandonment and annihilation.

Successful intervention for these families must slowly bring them back from the margins into the social milieu. Arguably, the resistance to this is so intense that the violent spouse will pull up stakes and move his family at the first sign of public scrutiny.

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and DV.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray.  This affords them a window into the chaos and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.

Community policing has long espoused the partnership between police and citizens.  The positive benefits to this create bridges between the two that may benefit officers at times of need – including the de facto extra set of eyes when serious crimes are reported.  But the model goes two ways and requires that police return to their calls and establish protocols for defusing future events meanwhile processing and understanding the current actions of recent police encounters. When done effectively the most difficult families may be kept off the police radar screens for longer periods of time that can be a good thing when it comes to manpower deployment and officer safety.

Violence in the Workplace: Do people just “snap”?

WESTBOROUGH, MA June 2, 2018  Violence in the workplace is commonplace but has taken a back seat in the setting of recent school shootings. Research on the “lethal employee” is becoming more reliable in the aftermath of of workplace violence. Nevertheless people commit murder in their workplace more than ever.  What should people do if they are worried about a co-worker becoming violent.  There are signs that someone is loosing control and may be thinking of violence.  A list of potential factors is taken below from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security publication from 2008. The term “going postal” refers to a workplace shooter or act of violence.  It evolved from workplace violence in the U.S. Postal service in the 1980’s according to a report published in 2008.

“One theory was that the post office was such a high-pressure work environment that it drove people insane. In the years to come, other cases of murderous rages by mailmen cemented the idea in the public mind. “Going postal” became a synonym for flipping out under pressure.”

RECOGNIZING POTENTIAL WORKPLACE VIOLENCE
“An active shooter in your workplace may be a current or former employee, or an acquaintance of a current or former employee. Intuitive managers and coworkers may notice characteristics of potentially violent behavior in an employee. Alert your Human Resources Department if you believe an employee or coworker exhibits potentially violent behavior” (2008)

Indicators of Potential Violence by an Employee Employees typically do not just “snap,” but display indicators of potentially violent behavior over time. If these behaviors are recognized, they can often be managed and treated. Potentially violent behaviors by an employee may include one or more of the following (this list of behaviors is not comprehensive, nor is it intended as a mechanism for diagnosing violent tendencies):
• Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
• Unexplained increase in absenteeism; vague physical complaints
• Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
• Depression / withdrawal
• Resistance and overreaction to changes in policy and procedures
• Repeated violations of company policies
• Increased severe mood swings
• Noticeably unstable, emotional responses
• Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
• Suicidal; comments about “putting things in order”
• Behavior which is suspect of paranoia, (“everybody is against me”)
• Increasingly talks of problems at home
• Escalation of domestic problems into the workplace; talk of severe financial problems
• Talk of previous incidents of violence
• Empathy with individuals committing violence
• Increase in unsolicited comments about firearms, other dangerous weapons and violent crimes

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2008). Active Shooter – How to Respond
Bovsum, M. (2010) NY Daily News. Mailman massacre: 14 die after Patrick Sherrill ‘goes postal’ in 1986 shootings. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/mailman-massacre-14-die-patrick-sherrill-postal-1986-shootings-article-1.204101 Taken May 19, 2018

The myths and risks to individuals with mental illness

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 8, 2018 The myths attributed to persons afflicted with mental illness need to be directly addressed and corrective programs must evolve provide enhanced understanding and awareness of mental health.  Police officers encounter citizens with mental illness daily and often are called upon to calm a volatile situation often with very little formal training. This fact is changing as more police officers are trained in Psychological First Aid and Crisis Intervention Training – 2 programs that afford front line officers with the behavioral observation skill and communication necessary to reduce risk to police and the public from highly charged persons exhibiting signs of mental health crisis.
Psychological experts believe mentally ill persons lack the higher order planning to execute the complex steps necessary for anything more than petty crime – more often associated with co-morbid substance abuse.  This is where the problem lies. “The myth is you have to be “crazy” to do something like this (active shooter). So retrospectively, you look at people and you say, wow, this obviously – that guy should have been branded – but alcohol accounts for a great deal more violence than mental illness does.” according to Joel Dvoskin in an APA interview dispelling myths about the mentally ill.
Remember it is a fact that those with mental illness are rarely violent and those who commit violence are rarely mentally ill.
Until recently,  here in Massachusetts many smaller police agencies are forced to pay overtime for police officers to sit in hospitals or outside of jail cells watching a mentally ill person who has been arrested. This policy grew from the fear of litigation if someone dies in police custody who is known to be a mentally ill person.  Specifically, if a police officer arrests a person with a known history of suicidal ideation it has been policy among many agencies to provide an officer to monitor the prisoner to assure for a safe transfer to court. If this occurs on a week end night that often means that someone must have eyes on the person in custody until the next available court date.
But is this truth or is this part of the myth associated with those taken into custody for crimes committed while suffering from a substantive mental illness? Or is the problem really associated with substance abuse?
“Pre-arrest diversion also has been shown to be successful when law enforcement and mental health professionals respond together to behavioral health emergencies. Individuals are more often referred to the services and treatment that they need, rather than enter the criminal justice system as an offender. This co-responder model has delivered great results in Massachusetts to date. Programs run by Advocates, a human services agency, in partnership with several police departments in Middlesex County and funded in part by the Department of Mental Health have generated over 4,000 diversions and $11 million in savings since 2003.” Diane Gould Worcester Telegram February 2018

Dvoskin, J. (2018) Speaking of Psychology: Dispelling the myth of violence and mental illness Episode 27 American Psychological Association

Gun-violence Restraining Orders

firearm-revolver-bullet-gun-53219.jpegWESTBOROUGH, MA APRIL 8, 2018 Restraining orders in cases of domestic violence have been around for decades or longer. At times people require formal court orders of protection from those who might bring forth violence to loved ones.  I have personally written over 50 requests for protection of a victim of domestic violence.  Most of these are temporary order issued by an on-call judge who listens to police officer statements over the telephone.  They are usually granted and valid through the next court day – generally within 48 hours.  The problem is that after the 48 hours is up the conflict between intimate partners has been long forgotten resulting in a waste of police resources and an irritated district court judge. Obviously this is not always the outcome.
In Massachusetts, the MGL 209-A covers orders of protection and its legal underpinning. Section 3B in MGL 209-A requires the removal of firearms from those with active RO’s taken out against them.  As many as 50 percent of restraining orders (RO’s) also called protection from abuse orders (PFO’s) are continued because the victim showed up at court and testified as to the protection she believes is needed and fear she feels living with her intimate partner.  These are not new and the complaints and dysfunction among intimate partners is a continuous drain on LEO resources.
Calls for service because of domestic violence are frequent.  Police officers are often asked to keep the peace at times when violence has occurred.  Arrests are mandatory when physical injury has occurred.  At this point police are required to remove the violent spouse and offer protection from further abuse to the victim and her family.  When RO’s are granted there is a growing belief that guns should be taken from subjects against whom RO’s are granted.  Experts say these GVRO laws are modeled after domestic-violence restraining orders that also authorize police to take away guns from people who pose threats to their partners, but with safeguards.
“Ensuring the mental wellness and health of first responders has long been an under appreciated task for the heads of police agencies. U.S. law enforcement has learned from tragic events over the years and now trains to respond to threats with the best equipment and practices known today. However, many chiefs are not prepared to deal effectively with the intense scope and unanticipated duration of the aftermath of these events, and many chiefs are unaware of the impact such events will have on their communities and the officers in their agencies.”
“These red-flag laws are a possible solution because they’re an intermediate step between doing nothing and trying to involuntarily hospitalize an individual,” said Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.
“While LEO’s may be more resilient, law enforcement officers also quietly deal with an outsized share of our society’s violence and death. As a result, too many officers struggle with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.”
“You can’t just call up law enforcement and say this person that I’m mad at is a danger to me, it is not possible without judicial oversight,” said April Zeoli, a professor who studies domestic violence at Michigan State University. Her research shows these restraining orders reduced intimate partner violence by 13%.
“Research data provide strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of emotional fitness training to enhance resilience, positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, and emotional well-being, and more importantly, they strengthen professional pride and organizational commitment” according to Tung Au, et.al. in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology in 2018.
Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence – these people have demonstrated their unfitness to own a firearm” David French, 2018
Supporters say the “red flag” measure—also known as a gun-violence or extreme-risk protection order—offers a way to address a legal conundrum: how to take action against people perceived as an imminent threat to themselves or others, but who haven’t done anything illegal.

Au, W.T., Wong, Y.Y., Leung, K.M. et al. J Police Crim Psych (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-018-9252-6
French, D. A (2018) Gun Control Measure Conservatives Should Consider. National Review, February 2018
Kamp, J. and Mahtani, S. (2018) States Consider Laws Allowing Courts to Take Guns From Dangerous People  ‘Red flag’ measures are gaining ground after Florida high school shooting. Wall Street Journal
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Protection from abuse: the role of social media in the reduction of safety

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 20, 2018  Greater protection of victims of domestic violence is needed.  When provisions for a plan of safety are executed victims are expected be afforded greater safety but not always. Domestic violence victims are at greatest risk when they make the decision to leave a violent partnership.  This often means having a safety plan – especially when specific threats have been made. Safety plans are often drawn up by women in conjunction with counselors who specialize in helping families stay off the grid and hidden from violent spouses.  In one case of familial homicide and suicide it was clear that the commonalities needed to be exposed among cases of familial homicide.
In particular, when I teach law enforcement officers about DVH,  I encourage detailed witness statements much as possible especially if the victim described the fear and belief that she will one day be murdered by her partner. These documented statements, if spontaneously uttered, are often the greatest predictor of potential harm to victims and her children. If written into a police report the decision about dangerousness and bail may be influenced.
In the 2011 homicide from Maine, Steven Lake used social media to track his wife and 2 children from whom he was mandated to stay away.  Yet, if his wife posted a photograph of his children he went to great lengths to undermine their safety by identifying anyone who “liked” the photo or commented on it. He used these posts to triangulate her whereabouts and living arrangements.  This was a large part of what marginalized Stephen Lake and in turn Lake posted his own propaganda espousing his loneliness and love for his children. Lake garnered significant support from those social media “friends” who knew nothing about what he had done to require the protection from abuse order. Many, in fact, encouraged him to fight for his children which may have been a catalyst in his festering resentment and ultimately terminal rage. He was provided information and access to his wife’s social media platforms by a family member.  For her part, Lake’s wife wanted to remain close to her in-laws in an effort to normalize her children’s life as much as possible. For example  Lake’s parents were invited to the family’s thanksgiving celebration but declined because Steven Lake could not attend.
Similarities in domestic violence
Cases of domestic violence have similarities across socioeconomic status, ethnic and cultural background, and the cycle of abuse. The growth of social media platforms affords those inclined to control and isolate intimate partners from persons who might provide them security. Cases of domestic violence share the common theme of intimidation, coercion and control.  Social media are a fun and useful medium to keep in touch with friends and family.  But it is also lends itself to sometimes nefarious trolling to gain a perceived advantage in undermining the safety plan. Social media trolling contributes to the control they seek especially when victims seek protection.  In order to limit the impact of social  media stalking victims need to shut down all social media accounts and activity. Greater protection of victims and family members requires a comprehensive plan with provisions for times when they are violated – including mandatory arrest, risk assessment and no bail containment if deemed necessary.
“That is one conclusion of four former and current police officers in a recently released report. The men, who were volunteers and had no connection to the shootings, spent the last several months interviewing 69 people about the triple homicide and suicide in Dexter in June, to suggest ways to prevent future tragedies.” Portland Press Herald, November 11, 2011
The Psychological Autopsy report suggests improvements that may prevent future domestic violence homicides:
 Use of social media platforms by people involved in conflicts should be minimized, to prevent intimidation and stalking.
 Protection-from-abuse orders and bail conditions should mandate disclosure of all firearms that are accessible to the domestic-violence offender.
 An offender who seeks, hides, uses or attempts to acquire a gun or ammunition when a protection-from-abuse order is in place should be charged with a felony and not allowed bail.
 Bail amounts should be high enough to deter abusers from violating a protection orders.
 When a protection order violation involves a deadly threat, a judge should set bail, not a bail commissioner.
 Global positioning systems should track abusers during periods of protection orders in any incidents that involve deadly threats or evidence of weapons.
 At least two officers should be sent to all domestic-violence calls when officers suspect violence is likely.
 At-risk spouses should be advised to live in as secure an environment as possible, with deadbolts on doors, secured windows, motion sensor lights and a land telephone line.
 People charged with domestic violence crimes should not wait more than a year to go to trial.
The safety of potential victims including children is the penultimate goal of protection orders but too often they are ignored via stalking efforts that include using social media to track the activities of an estranged spouse.  This overt defiance requires careful analysis and requires the arrest of the violator.  Once this takes place a dangerousness hearing must take place before he or she is released but this rarely takes place.

The signs were there: What triggers were missed on another mass shooting

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 1, 2018 There is a fine line between civil liberties and the need to keep Americans safe. As of now that line has not been crossed in terms of built-in protections from those who are most dangerous to society. But when someone who thinks he is being commanded by the neighborhood beagle to murder young lovers as Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz did in the 1970’s – can remain free to ply on his dangerous delusions? Berkowitz was a more obvious case of psychotic behavior and violence although ultimately he was found guilty of murder.
“The specter of mental illness insures a convenient scapegoat” Michael Sefton, 2013
Have we have lost site of what it means to deal with mental illness and keep people from being victimized because of a threat to the civil liberties of the mentally ill?  No. Everyone deserves due process but those with a proclivity toward gun violence who have expressed an intent to murder should be afforded closer scrutiny and be kept from having access to firearms. In some cases they must be contained as a means of keeping potential victims and the greater society safe.
It will be interesting to see the psychological profile that emerges moving forward although as of this posting authorities in Broward county are negotiating a guilty plea and when that is signed off we will not hear about him again – until he is lost in prison, or the next murderous episode is recorded. The local district attorney has hinted he may seem the death penalty for the perpetrator of the despicable actions taken one month ago in February, 2018.
“Civil liberties that have historically ended in mass homicide must no longer be “civil liberties” to any degree. That includes owning guns, knives, poison and baseball bats. People without criminal intentions and such homicidal hang-up’s tend to worry not about “civil liberties””.  Brian Gagan 2018
How can we not collect data on someone seeking information on proclivities toward violence?  Every time I shop on-line I receive hundreds of pop up ads for similar products I may like. On Saturday February 17th, CNN’s Michael Smerconish asked the question “would it not be possible to have a similar technology for data mining that looks for proclivities toward violence and capture their social media footprint” of those who might do us harm? There are algorithms used to track people’s on-line shopping behaviors why can’t there be the same data mining to bring forth those looking for weapons, those buying ammunition – as in the case of the Las Vegas shooter, and those who express their desire for committing mass murder via You Tube video’s, Facebook posts, Twitter, or any of the other regular social media platforms. In review of Cruz social media presence there were several red flag warnings of his intentions that were missed.

WHAT ARE TRIGGERS FOR VIOLENCE?


There are always triggers for violence, we believe, that sets a plan into action.  So far these have not been disclosed In the ongoing investigation. Triggers differ from case to case.  Triggers can be sudden emotional loss or overwhelming humiliation that is unbearable to a potential assailant. Triggers may also be the result of months or years of festering emotional baggage that explodes after some relatively benign insult such as being denied a date to the prom or loss of employment.
The red flags were well noted in his pre-incident behavior. The FBI had specific and detailed warnings about Cruz. He had been expelled from the Parkland, Florida high school because of violent behavior and threatening other students. He was sent to an alternative school about which we have learned very little. Outwardly, Cruz was living in the fringe of humanity and was known to be an angry violent person. Media reports indicate 29 visits to the Cruz household by county law enforcement officials because of conflict and fighting with adoptive parents – both of whom are now dead. Upon initial review, after his mother died in November, Cruz had been living with a family who offered to take him in after she died suddenly of pneumonia. His father had passed away several years earlier of a cardiac issue.
Certainly the death of his adoptive mother may have been an emotional catalyst – if she were important in his psychological life. Perhaps she shaped his fragile inner narrative sufficiently to delay this emotional maelstrom by  providing a positive sense of self -worth. It is not yet known. But it was Cruz who fired the weapon. The evil was in him not the firearm. More will become known about the Cruz family and his adoption in the coming months. So few of these perpetrators of mass homicide survive. Moving forwsrd,  I would suggest accessing police reports under the freedom of information act and see yourself what police were dealing with.
I will say that there are Nikolas Cruz copycats everywhere and we should be on guard for them – as I try to be here in Boston. In Florida, persons suspected of having mental illness may be held under the Baker Mental Health Act allowing for involuntary psychiatric exam. All states have this mental health protocol but too often law enforcement officers are not trained to make these determinations or are concerned about litigation. This is training I want to see begin to become part of the academy training for career law enforcement officers. The “see something – say something” adage may be a jump-start toward better control over individuals who brandish ideas of violence and broadcast their underlying emotional slippage on social media. These persons should have no access to firearms.

WHAT NOW?


“There is broad conceptual agreement that regardless of whether you view gun ownership as a right or a privilege, a person can demonstrate through their conduct that they have no business possessing a weapon. Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence — these people have not only demonstrated their unfitness to own a weapon, they’ve been granted due process to contest the charges or claims against them.  David French in National Review 2018
There must be a mechanism put into place for the fluid containment of individuals who pose high risk such as the individual who pulled off this despicable event. As you see from the quote above, David French published an article in the National Review and proposed a gun violence restraining order (GVRO) that would preclude those most dangerous from owning, buying or having access to guns. Nikolas Cruz was on the fringe for a long time – perhaps his entire adoptive life. It may ultimately come down to an attachment disorder as an underpinning for his terminal rage triggered by loss and powerful resentment toward his adoptive parents and school authorities who expelled him into social and emotional oblivion. His prior behavior, mental health hospitalization, and active threats on social media posts would have likely

Cruz

Nikolas Cruz at arraignment in February 2018

 

made him an unsuitable gun owner.  According to David French, senior writer for the National Review, “the concept of the GVRO is simple, not substantially different from the restraining orders that are common in family law, and far easier to explain to the public than our nation’s mental-health adjudications. Moreover, the requirement that the order come from people close to the respondent and that they come forward with real evidence (e.g. sworn statements, screenshots of social-media posts, copies of journal entries) minimizes the chance of bad-faith claims.” in National Review on February 16, 2018. When such a data set is discovered by family, friends, other students, teachers, etcetera a court mandated mental health assessment and the gun violence restraining order may be issued.  California has used a system of GVRO enactment since 2014 with success. In 2016 over 80 such restraining orders were issued. In the case of Nikolas Cruz, he was thought to be the “most likely” student to initiate a school shooting according to multiple students interviewed after the shooting last week.  
The correlation between mental illness and violence is quite weak. Myths seem to exist that the mentally ill are prone to violent behavior and this is not supported in reality. Dr. Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University, said that these mass shootings highlight Americans’ desire to reaffirm a stigmatization of the mentally ill as “ticking time bombs” to avoid more difficult conversations about gun violence according to Phil McCausland reporting for NBC News.  I find it extremely important and compelling that Nikolas Cruz is alive today rather than among those sleeping in the morgue in Broward county. Most serial killers have taken their own life at the culmination of the terminal event and just prior to succumbing to the police active shooter response. Perhaps, one day in the distant future, Cruz will give up his secrets to an unsuspecting correction officer with just the right stuff to earn his trust.  If such a person exists.

French, D. (2018) A Gun-Control Measure Conservatives Should Consider. National Review, February 16, 2018; https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/02/gun-control-republicans-consider-grvo/
Sefton, M. (2013) The Myth of mental Illness and school shooting.  http://enddvh.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-myth-of-mental-illness-and-school.html Taken February 19, 2018
Gagan, B. (2018) Personal correspondence

Domestic Violence Review – When Containment Fails

Domestic Violence Review – When Containment Fails

 WESTBOROUGH, MA February 15, 2018  The fact is that greater containment of high risk abusers is needed.  I have spoken with police chiefs, district attorneys, and state senators here is Massachusetts about conditions of bail. Whenever someone is arrested he or she is given the opportunity for bail – usually on his own recognizance. This means he simply promises to show up for his initial court hearing usually in the next 24-48 hours.  Unfortunately, no one seems to believe that a person can be held on “high bail” simply because one subject held his family hostage and threatened them with a firearm or another person tried to strangle his intimate partner.

 

im_cycle
 

Power and control – Cycle of abuse

 

The system of bail is directly related to a defendant’s prior history of crimes, convictions, and lastly, the nature of the crime for which he is seeking bail.  The cycle of abuse is posted to the left. It is all about power and control of the victim. On average, police are called after 9 prior episodes of abuse. In general, they arrive when the couple is in crisis and he may be feeling guilt and making excuses for his behavior.  Or other times, the couple is in the honeymoon phase of the cycle and one partner invariably refuses to press charges on his partner.  This is what really infuriates police officers called upon to answer these potentially violent calls. “It was all a big misunderstanding” according to the dangerous partner.
I have posted several essays over the years on the topic of “dangerousness” in terms of it being considered prior to the granting of bail.  The June 2011 case in Maine culminated after the abuser was released from jail on $ 2000 dollars bail. After his death the money was returned to his family.  Some district attorneys have tried to withhold bail money when the defendant fails to appear in court due to death by suicide after domestic violence homicide (DVH).  For many this seemed like a draconian response to families who were in pain and suffering immeasurable.
“Many believe there is a disconnect between the judiciary and the bail system.” Sefton, 2011

What can be done to assure greater containment?

Containment refers to the need to protect a potential victim and his or her family from a violent often marginalized family member who is showing red flags of impending terminal rage.  A Domestic Violence review panel conducted in June 2011 concluded that “there is nothing society can do for a despondent, abusive spouse whose obsession overrides the norms of society – even his will to live”.  If we believe this then we will erroneously surrender innovation in domestic violence prevention and harm reduction.  When high-ranking prosecutors say domestic violence homicide cannot be prevented society is cheated out of taking steps toward containment of those who may violate protection from abuse orders.  Lois Reckitt, executive director of Family Crisis Services in Cape Elizabeth, ME is quoted as saying that the wrong people are in jail when violence-prone abusers are released from custody to stalk and terrorize their family, as was the case in the Dexter, Maine tragedy in 2010.  Containment and harm reduction should be the focus of the legal system and social service agencies alike.  The judiciary and political machinery in states throughout America must speak out about protecting victims and families and not say there is nothing that can be done to stop DVH.

Sefton, M. (2011). Domestic violence and domestic violence homicide. Blog post http://enddvh.blogspot.com/2011/10/domestic-violence-review-when.html Taken January 16, 2018

Analysis of Facts helps Reduce Harm to victims of DV

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE REVIEW BOARDS
WESTBOROUGH, MA  January 5, 2018 As we begin to make program recommendations for reducing intimate partner violence it is worth noting that change comes very slowly in protecting those who are most at risk. There is still a paucity of protective measures in place to assess and contain those who are most violent in our society. Retired New Braintree Police Sergeant Michael Sefton was in Augusta, Maine in October 2011 providing testimony about the results of the psychological autopsy conducted by Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Brian Gagan of Scottsdale, AZ, and Ron Allanach, Ed.D. of Conquitlam, BC, Canada and former Chief of Police Joseph Laughlin of Portland, ME.  Dr. Sefton, who holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed psychologist provider in Massachusetts provides neuropsychological and forensic consultation on domestic violence including domestic violence homicide and assessment of risk.  The report that was filed came up with over 50 recommendations directly related to reduced intimate partner violence. The report was cited over 12 times in a recent Maine Law Review publication on proposed Conditions of Bail. Little has changed in Maine since our first report in 2011 and there is no leadership to bring forth legislative dialogue.
PUBLIC INFORMATION
The testimony provided to the domestic violence review board offered details about a hideous case of family violence that ended with the homicide of 4 members of the same family and was culminated by an attempt to burn the bodies after the murders and the killer shooting at police officers responding to the missing victim. But they were too late. Their research was conducted over a 3 month period following the homicide deaths of Amy Lake and her children.  The team conducted interviews with over 60 persons with direct knowledge of Amy Lake, the victim, her two children, Monica and Cody, and the murderer Steven Lake.

Maine Law Review

“Although Maine’s statute lists these prohibitions, it lacks the enforcement tools to protect victims against violence associated with guns and other weapons, which is a major factor in Maine’s domestic violence deaths.” Nicole Bissonnette, 2012
HIGHEST RISK
Most researchers agree it is nearly impossible to predict when DVH will occur.  However, the psychological autopsy provides many obvious red flags that offer clues to an impending emotional conflagration or explosion of anger and blame.  The problem in the 2011 case was two-fold.  First, the requirement for bail was not seriously considered because Lake had no criminal history – and yet Mr. Lake had demonstrated an unwillingness to adhere to the legal mandates of the order of protection and violated the court order at least 4 times over the year before he killed his family. Given this unfettered lack of personal control, he should have been held for a hearing of potential dangerousness.  And secondly, the cache of firearms that Lake was known to have kept was not surrendered to police nor was an effort made to obtain the 22 weapons Lake owned by members of law enforcement. No one thought the guns would be an issue.
Many believe that when the victim indicates a strong fear belief that her spouse intends to kill her that risk of DVH is elevated exponentially and must be taken as fact. These often unspoken fears illustrate the need for supervision, assessment of potential for dangerousness and containment of PFA violators. Substantive red flag factors suggest a true risk of violence exists. The study also found that individuals with heart disease who are depressed will often have higher inflammation levels in their body. Many studies show that a combination of exercise and fatty acids, such as Omega-3 found in salmon, can reduce inflammation and consequently reduce bouts of depression and mood swings.In the sworn statement in 2010 for an order of protection, Amy Lake specifically reported that she feared that her husband might kill her. These fears of death would come to fruition one year later. And they did come true in despicable, horrific fashion.
It is not uncommon that red flags are often present early in the relationship as people reported during our research interviews during the psychological autopsy.  Many people we spoke to were aware something agregious was going to happen.  These include obsessional jealousy, threats of death, sexual aggression, unwillingness to integrate into extended family, any use of a weapon, and others.  In the course of their research Sefton and Gagan interviewed Dale Preston who was convicted of DVH in 1982 and served 18 years in Maine State Prison for the murder.  When asked what may have stopped him from killing his wife, Mr. Preston indicate “there was nothing that could have stopped me…”  In these cases, a greater awareness of risk or dangerousness is essential and in some cases a person must be contained for the safety of others.  Such containment requires NO direct contact with an abusive spouse, GPS monitoring, house arrest, or no bail imprisonment.
The case in Maine occurred in June 2011 – exactly 1 year to the day after the victim obtained a protection from abuse order from her husband.  The murders occurred 2 weeks before the divorce was to be finalized and were likely triggered by the abuser’s anger over not being permitted to attend his son’s 8th grade graduation ceremony.  The Bangor Daily News presented details of the recent psychological autopsy presented recently in Augusta, Maine.  Over 30 states across America have formal homicide review boards.  “To make this general deterrence aim successful, abusers must not have access to their victims nor to potential weapons, and the risk of punishment associated with breaking the law must outweigh the abuser’s urge to commit the conduct.” said Denaes, 2012. Bail is a judicial condition that allows a person to be released from jail with the promise to appear in court to answer to charges. Bail also provides for public safety by keeping violent offenders in jail when necessary.
I make an effort to review those published from New England states.  Vermont has an excellent annual report of domestic violence homicide and publishes all recommendations and changes in statutory requirements following individual cases of DVH.

Ronald Allanach et al., 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.
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
Johannes N. Denaes, PUNISHMENT AND DETERRENCE 7 (1974) (“General prevention may
depend on the mere frightening or deterrent effect of punishment—the risk of discovery and punishment
outweighing the temptation to commit crime.”).
See id. at 34-35