Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm

crosshairsIn response to recent acts of both terrorism and recurrent gun violence by home-grown psychopaths more should be done to maintain greater control over potentially violent persons. In the Las Vegas concert venue and the more recent Texas church massacre it becomes
increasingly clear that predicting violence is practically impossible. At least this is
what we are led to believe. And yet when it comes to domestic violence
homicide the similarities in cases are almost carbon copy.
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 duplicity stems from cultural beliefs that what happens behind closed doors is nobody’s busy change in the way in which law enforcement manages these cases is essential. The 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. 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. These behaviors toward a victim instill fear and point to the perilous danger that exists.
“Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” Frederick Neuman, MD
Coercion and Control
Lenore Walker is a psychologist at the Domestic Violence Institute has published a theoretical description of the coercion and control model of DV. Victims are young and vulnerable to being emotionally and physically controlled. The Texas killer Devin Patrick Kelley had all the makings of a violent abuser from the time he was in high school and only now are people willing to talk about his darker side. Kelley was separated from his second wife who was just 19. Victims like this are often kept away from their families, not allowed to work, or when working are not permitted to handle their own funds. Some victims have to explain every cell phone call or text message they make or receive often being met with jealous fury. By robbing their sense of self keeps intimate partners emotionally isolated and insecure. They are often led to believe they could not live on their own and the children they share will be lost to them if they choose to leave. This “so called” male privilege keeps his partner marginalized and in servitude. It appears at first glance that Kelley was looking for the mother of his currently estranged wife likely enraged over steps taken to keep them apart as the divorce progressed through the courts.
Occasionally police or children’s services are called when intimidation and threats become violent. It is important to provide aftermath intervention and follow-up with families where domestic violence or chronic substance abuse occurs or families tend to disappear. Change is required to pay closer attention to those with whom law enforcement has frequent contact. Over and over
surviving family members speak of coercion and control on behalf of the abused.  Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the preincident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are possible. This is not new data nor are the stories very different.
I speak to police agencies and individual officers about DV and DVH offering detail from the psychological autopsy research we conducted on a sensational and tragic case in Dexter, Maine in which Steven Lake killed his 35-year old spouse after 10 years of marriage along with their 2 children. The Lake case was very much like the Kelley murders in terms of the cycle of abuse and its early onset. It was thought that Lake was intending to go on a killing spree but was interrupted in the act by an observant police officer. Recently a police officer participating in the statewide DV task force in Vermont asked whether there is a single most important factor or predictor to the risk of DVH? Some believe the fear of being killed by her spouse and abject cruelty toward step children raise the bar significantly and as such are worthy of crafting one’s DV report and request for orders of protection around. But keeping the victim and her abuser on the radar screen will also reduce her fear and loneliness and offer greater protection. Other risk factors include: choking and recurrent
sexual violence – although victims seldom disclose this out of guilt and fear of not being believed.
People knew what might happen
The Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake consisted of over 200 hours of interviews with immediate family members on both sides. Steven’s aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” in reference to an acknowledgment of his depression and anger at the impending divorce. She believed Lake would take his own life in front of his wife and children as a final act of punishment they would never forget. But he went far beyond that as we again saw in the small church in Texas this week. We are getting better at teaching children and families that if the see something they should say something. This is the trademark line of the Transportation Safety Administration in its fight against terrorism. The same might be taught to neighbors and friends when domestic violence is suspected or known to be occurring. If you see something then it is incumbent upon each of us to do something to help those in harms way.

Neuman, F.  (2012) Is It Possible to Predict Violent Behavior? Can a psychiatric examination predict, and prevent, a mass murder? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201212/is-it-possible-predict-violent-behavior Taken May 12, 2018

Watch for the flying of the flags

Terminal rage dissembled by increased red flag threats and violence

WESTBOROUGH, MA  November 2, 2014 A group of my colleagues and I were drawn into the chilling events of June 13, 2011 after Stephen Lake killed his family and then himself.  During the final moments of his life Lake laid out the death scene ostensibly to torture his spouse from whom he was estranged and ordered to stay away.  While police closed in, Lake killed and attempted to burn his victims in an act of emotional mayhem.

Arguably, the murderer in this case became blinded by anger and resentment at perceived disrespect and exclusion from the lives of his children. This anger had grown over the year since a protective order was issued following a violent episode in the family home. The perpetrator grew marginalized during the coming months becoming resentful and humiliated at missing key events like Christmas and an 8th grade commencement.  All the while he posted on social media sites his love for his family he grew depressed and disorganized.  12 hours before the violent ending he tearfully described feeling depressed to a family member and was advised to seek help.  Lake wrote 9 suicide notes that were found in the days after his death.

Renewed interest in retrospective study

The psychological autopsy revealed an increasing pattern of red flags in the weeks before the murder-suicide in Dexter, Maine. Greater awareness of these red flags may serve as a stopping and containment point for perpetrators of intimate partner violence.  In a sad retrospective, the Maine state Chief Medical Examiner cited that “in spite of some mental health treatment the extent of (the perpetrator’s) anger was not fully appreciated”. The research led to a call for no bail holds for some violent abusers and GPS monitoring for others.  After 3 years, these recommendations are finally beginning to emerge in the protection of victims of domestic violence in Maine. Mr. Lake was alleged to have violated the protective order more than twice.  His reported view of the “cost of divorce was the price of one bullet”.

Who can be expected to bear witness to red flags?

It is well documented that domestic violence is a secret happenstance that effects far too many families across the country.  Victims are expected to remain loyal servants of their spouses under the dissembling guise of love and devotion.  The findings published in the Dexter, Maine study reveal that people knew what to expect from Mr. Lake.  His unwinding was clear to some of his closest family members.  A paternal aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” suggesting an awareness that Lake might kill his spouse and then himself – sparing the children.  Others believed Lake might commit suicide in front of his wife and children leaving them with the emotional specter of his violent death.  Instead, as the chief medical examiner cited the full extent of Lake’s anger was not appreciated.  In this case, as in many other retrospective studies of DVH red flags were not appreciated. Many believe that an order of protection is not effective in protecting victims from violent spouses who seem to ignore “stay away” orders seemingly at will and without consequence.  These are the red flags that require containment of the abuser and must serve as the frank evidence of elevated risk for domestic violence homicide.

The team of people helping 22-year old Elliot Rodger, a young man who went on a shooting rampage at the University of California at Santa Barbara in May 2014, all reached out to police and the media when they could not reach the estranged and overwrought man.  But they were too late as he had made his mark on history by then.  The the Virginia Tech shooting some red flags were missed.  Had the subtle clues the Rodger’s underlying mood been recognized the shooting may have been averted.  To read the blog from the UCSB shooting click here.

Mandated reporting for domestic violence 

As a civilized society there should be mandated reporting for those most at risk for domestic violence and the penultimate DVH as it becomes apparent.  Just as practitioners are mandated to report cases of suspected child abuse and elder abuse so too must we begin to take heed of the signs of domestic or intimate partner abuse and take action.  By doing this we may save the lives of those most effected by DV and arguably break the recurring cycle of domestic violence.  Some people wrongly believe there is nothing that can be done about domestic violence homicide. Others remark that “what happens behind the closed doors in a dysfunctional and violent household is no business of anyone else”.  To the extent that this draconian belief system prevails in the public understanding of DVH there is little chance of preventing this scourge.  As a result states are slowly changing their response protocols for DV and the police response to signs of abuse with mandated arrest for suspected perpetrators.

Risk assessment of those arrested for domestic violence is often overlooked.  However, police departments are teaming up with agencies serving the population of abuse victims like never before and are adopting tools to assess the likelihood of future violence when determining bail amounts. Bail commissioners must be educated about the cycle of abuse and domestic violence when assessing bail amounts.  The average abuse victim experiences 5-7 episodes of DV prior to calling the police. Police response to DV has slowly started to include a careful analysis of the history of aggressive events including the number and type of physical assaults that have taken place.  Some events are clearly more foreboding like choking to a point of unconsciousness, sexual aggression, threats of suicide, and the use of veiled threats of death if the spouse ever tries to leave. Other behaviors such as unrealistic jealousy may be the underpinning of current or domestic violence.  One victim told me that the abuse started as soon as she said “I do” 16 years earlier.

REFERENCES

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.

Sefton, M. (2011) The Psychological Autopsy: Provides a host of pre-incident indicators. Blog:  http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com/2011/11/psychological-autopsy.htm, taken May 26, 2014.

THE LACK OF CRIMINAL HISTORY REVEALS LITTLE ABOUT INTENT TO HARM IN CASES OF DV

Image Sedona, AZ

 Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

New Braintree, MA  Once again domestic violence has resulted in deadly force being used to stop one man from killing his intimate partner and the child they have together.  This cowardly man paid no attention to the court ordered protection order that was in place bringing lethal force to bear upon his family.  His guns were not removed from his control leaving him armed and dangerous.  Only this time, it is he who died in the violent final act before he could finish what he had come to do.  Police were ready for violence and met force with appropriate force resulting in death.  The surviving victims are fortunate for the action of the brave and courageous officers on duty in Calais, Maine on this night or they may have lost their lives in a murder-suicide – now all too common in northern, Maine.

The details of this Calais, ME case of domestic violence are being carefully guarded.  It is known that Daniel Phinney, 26 was out on bail after being arrested and charged with domestic violence and criminal threatening in May 2013.  At that point he must have both physically assaulted his significant other and threatened to kill or maim his family resulting in the charge of criminal threatening.  Police are quick to say that Phinney had no prior criminal history perhaps in an effort to circumvent the obvious outrage evoked by the system of bail in Maine that releases violent abusers over and over again.  Had anyone made an effort to determine the degree of risk posed by Daniel Phinney prior to his release?  Had anyone registered safety concerns based on the defendant’s behavior and history?  Had they undertaken a psychological assessment of Phinney that may have provided important details about his impulse control, substance use, and proclivity toward violence?  These details may become more apparent in the coming days.  Perhaps a second look at the Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter Maine Homicide may be of value in terms of understanding risk and red flag behaviors that warrant containment of domestic terrorists.

The Phinney case is reminiscent of the 2011 Steven Lake homicide in Dexter in too many ways.  Lake had twice been released on bail before murdering his family.  The medical autopsy concluded that “in spite of psychological counseling (the state) failed to appreciate the degree of anger and violence in (Steven Lake)”.  He too had been charged with criminal threatening after holding his family at gunpoint as he drove home the point about how much he loved them but he could not let Amy move on.  Perhaps criminal threatening behavior should trigger a closer look at risk factors when setting conditions of bail.

I was a member of a team that conducted a psychological autopsy on Lake that resulted in over 50 recommendations to the esteemed Maine Attorney General’s Homicide Review panel in November 2012.  At first glance what is clear is brash indifference toward the court protection order and the availability of firearms to the defendant.  It is now important to study the case of Daniel Phinney and learn from the many red flags he waved in the weeks prior to his death.  These events can be stopping and containments points in future cases of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide.  No family should be kept in fear by a spouse whose loathsome behavior derails all human spirit and sense of dignity.