Law enforcement suicide: Using the psychological autopsy for questions of line of duty deaths

Two Capitol police officers have taken their own lives since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. This information came after the two officers spent 5 hours fighting the insurrectionists sometimes in hand to hand combat. Jeffrey Smith, a D.C. Police officer, and Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood both “took their own lives in the aftermath of that battle” according to an article in Politico on January 27, 2021. A third officer, Brian Sicknick died during the insurrection and his manner of death has not yet been officially determined. Some reported seeing Officer Sicknick being struck in the head with a fire extinguisher during the riot.

First responder suicide is generally not considered a line of duty death and as such, fails to yield the honor given to officers who die in shoot outs or other direct line of duty incidents. And deaths by suicide do not bring family members the death benefits they deserve. Two police officers have died by suicide after confronting rioters at the Capitol that were sent by Commander in Chief Donald Trump. This fact was brought forth by House Impeachment Managers during Trump’s second impeachment trial recently completed.These men must be afforded the honor and benefits provided to any surviving spouse of a line of duty death because that is why these men died. 

The juxtaposition of these facts cannot be ignored. Every one of the hundreds of police officers put their lives on the line as a result of the former president’s truculent narcissism. It would be a dishonor to the men who gave their lives by denying this causal underpinning of their deaths. Suicide by law enforcement officers exceeds the number of officers who die in in gun fights, car accidents, on-duty heart attacks, attacks by citizens, calls for domestic violence, and other police calls for service. “This fact thrust these most private of acts into the national spotlight and made clear that the pain of Jan. 6 continued long after the day’s events had concluded, its impact reverberating through the lives removed from the Capitol grounds” as written in a recent Washington Post report. 

There are things that must be done when law enforcement officers die as a direct result of the the calls they take and the trauma they experience that directly results in their death. Neither of these officers would have died if they had not jumped into the crisis taking place at the U.S. Capitol. Both men were solid members of the Capitol and Metropolitan Police Departments and had no history of behavioral health claims. A transparent psychological autopsy would show the factors that triggered the terminal events leading to each man’s death. For their part, members of Congress spoke highly about the three police officers who died as a result of the riot.

In the days that followed, Erin said, her husband, Capitol officer Jeffery Smith seemed in constant pain, unable to turn his head. He did not leave the house, even to walk their dog. He refused to talk to other people or watch television. She sometimes woke during the night to find him sitting up in bed or pacing. Her husband was found in his crashed Ford Mustang with a self-inflicted gun shot wound that occurred on his way to the job.

Peter Hermann Washington Post 2-12-2021

Rioters swarmed, battering the officers with metal pipes peeled from scaffolding and a pole with an American flag attached, police said. Officers were struck with stun guns. Many officers were heard screaming into their radios “code-33” the signal for “officer needs help” and usually a signal bringing an “all hands” response to the scene of the emergency. Situations like this send chills down the spine of officers responding to calls for help – some are injured in car crashes racing to back-up officers in danger. It is always hoped that when the call for help goes out that there will be enough manpower to push back on the crowd, however large. In this case, the crowd far exceeded the number of LEO’s available for duty. 

 The psychological autopsy is a single case study of a death event that serves to uncover the psychological causes of death. This study would answer these questions and establish an understanding of worst case scenario of frontline exposure to trauma and possibly offer insight into underlying history that may have been anticipated and stopped. When law enforcement officers take their own lives this careful analysis of the hours and days preceding their time of death is essential. “From this information an assessment is made of the suicide victim’s mental and physical health, personality, experience of social adversity and social integration. The aim is to produce as full and accurate a picture of the deceased as possible with a view to understanding why they killed themselves.This would answer the question as to whether or not the deaths may be considered to be line of duty, as they must. Psychological autopsy is probably the most direct technique currently available for determining the relationship between particular risk factors and suicide” Hawton et al. 1998

I have proposed a Behavioral Health initiative in conjunction with changes in police policy and transparency that has been the central posit of social clamor since the death of George Floyd this summer. The International Association of Chief’s of Police (IACP) has a broad-based Mental Wellness program it is reporting on its website that highlights the importance of this kind of support. “The IACP, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)’s VALOR Initiative, is customizing a program specifically designed to help officers and agencies by enhancing resilience skills. The cost of such a program will reap rewards in the form of career longevity, officer well-being, officer morale, quality of community policing, and greater faith and trust in law enforcement in general.

This investigation is an individually designed case study that elicits a broad range of factual data regarding the antemortem behavior of a decedent in the immediate day or days leading up to the suicide. In this case, what are the events that transpired in the days before the two Capitol police officers took their own lives? The fact is that both men were exposed to incidents and participated in protecting the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Both men were engaged in hand to hand combat.  It is known that the insurrection resulted in the death of a fellow officer and the deaths of 4 other people engaged in violent mayhem in which these men and hundreds others may have been killed. Both men believed the insurgency was potentially deadly to them or their fellow officers. The psychological autopsy is especially important when first responders and essential workers are involved and die soon after. When LEO’s and first responders are put in fear of death or see other officers being placed in the direct line of fire, are vastly outmanned, and have no way in which to stop an attack, they are at high risk for the “hook” that comes from an acute stress reaction and over time, becomes a monkey on the backs of so many fine men and women.  Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018 Direct Decision Institute, Inc.


Hawton, K., Appleby, L., Platt, S., Foster, T., Cooper, J., Malmberg, A. & Simkin, S. (1998). The psychological autopsy approach to studying suicide: a review of methodological issues. Journal of Affective Disorders 50, 269–276.

IACP (2021) Officer Resilience Training Conference https://www.theiacp.org/projects/law-enforcement-agency-and-officer-resilience-training-program, Blog post taken February 13, 2021

The common man who left no foot prints

“I’m looking for people to stop fights before they happen and I want people to be more aware of the common man”. Juston Root, 41 – from posted video just one day before his death
Hospital video of BPD officer initial encounter with Juston Root on February 7, 2020
On February 6, 2020 Juston Root posted a few minutes of video in which he espoused a disjointed series of thoughts espousing the importance of being aware of the common man and using friends for support. Was Root speaking about himself, perhaps in need of someone? He died one day later in a frightening series of events that lasted seven chaotic minutes leaving this common man dead. Juston Root had a long history of mental illness. On the day of his death, he was seen at a local hospital in Boston displaying what appeared to be a firearm. Interestingly, his parents reported he liked to carry replica handguns sometimes using a should holster. This bespeaks an attraction to firearms and yet he did not own a real weapon. It is not clear why he chose the hospital district on Longwood to make his initial foray. He was said to have made threatening statements to law enforcement officers who he first encountered. What was said? Did Mr. Root threaten the first BPD officer seen in the video? Did the officer get a look at the weapon shown and could he have been expected to recognize it as a replica? Our training and experience set the stage for this level of acumen. Video of the scene showed Root parked in the middle of traffic wandering in and out of the frame. 4 -way hazard lights activated. Was Root so rule bound that even on his last hurrah he had the provision of thought to set his hazard lights? This seems unlikely for someone in a terminal state of homicidal or suicidal rage. What was his state of mind once shot? At some point shortly after this initial encounter a parking lot valet was shot in the head and critically injured. Mr Root did not shoot the parking attendant but this was not clear amid the next moments of radio traffic. The fact that the attendant was injured by friendly fire simply was not reported and likely, was not clear at this point in the investigation. This set the stage for manhunt that quickly came together looking for someone who had shot a parking lot attendant and pointed a weapon at the police officer. It is at this point that Root made a run for it setting into action an all hands on deck police gauntlet that he had little chance of evading.
“There will always times when police officers encounter those with mental health needs especially in times of crisis. Training and education offer the best hope for safe and efficient handling of cases. A continuum of options for detox, dangerousness assessment, and symptom management must be readily available – but here in Massachusetts they are not”   Michael Sefton, 2017
What happened next triggered a chaotic police response that led to his death just minutes after he displayed a handgun aiming it toward a Boston Police Officer. It may have ended right there had the first responding officer rightfully met force with force. The physical reaction of the first officer almost looked as though he was expecting Root’s replica to go “boom”. But he held fire. An officer 20-30 feet further away saw this and fired upon Mr. Root wounding him and hitting someone down range of the incident. Officers are responsible for where the rounds go once they leave their weapon so it is always best they hit an intended target on the range or in the street. It is likely that area police agencies were put on tactical alert. When this happens, adjacent cities and towns clear their call screens and have available units staged at intersections watching for the suspect vehicle. In the end, the weapon he carried was determined to be a replica or toy. In his preamble on February 6, he suggested that people should not call police because they often are not aware of what was happening and 911 calls often result in police “storming in” in an effort to eliminate a threat to the public. Root seemed aware that “a lot of bad things can happen in the name of justice” when people call police in what he says are “fabricated phone calls”. This presentiment may be his experience living with mental illness for decades of his life. Juston Root was known to stop taking prescribed medication aimed at keeping hallucinations and delusions at bay and regulating his mood. The body worn video is chaotic and has been edited. Multiple officers can be heard shouting instructions at Root, a 41-year-old with a long history of mental illness who had brandished a fake gun at an officer earlier in the day. When situations like this occur the adrenaline often drives officers into elevated state of arousal that requires keen environmental awareness to assure actions taken are lawful. The county D.A. in the case has determined that, given the totality of the circumstances, the degree of lethal force directed at Juston Root was lawful. In the moments before he was killed by police gunfire an off duty paramedic made an effort to care for root but was ordered to back away by police. The crash was caught on video tape from the traffic light camera on Route 9 in Brookline. It was sensational and Mr. Root was obviously traveling at a high rate of speed when he crashed. He was attempting to flee. “Moments later, he walks onto the mulched area where Root was shot, approaching an officer standing over an object that appears to be a gun.” Video that is released reveals police officers warning each other about talking openly on tape. Some say there was bravado and even laughter after the threat was gone. ”Is it fake?” the first officer asks. Yes, was the answer and officers at the scene began to understand that Root may have died as a result of officer-assisted suicide. Something no officer ever wants to encounter. Someone so distraught that they put themselves into the line of fire by acting as if they are holding a firearm or other weapon forcing police to use deadly force. It is not clear that this was his intention given the remarks he recorded one day earlier. Mr. Root had grown up with mental illness that was first diagnosed when he was 19-years old. This is quite typical of the major mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar depression that present themselves in late adolescence. The National Alliance on Mental Illness described Schizoaffective disorder as having clinical features of both schizophrenia and major depression. They can be unpredictable and often exhibit signs of hallucinations, delusions, poor impulse control, and suicidal behavior. Among these patients, officer-facilitated suicide would not be unheard of. But Root’s father said he had been stable over the preceding five years although he had a history of carrying fake guns. He was quick to point out that his son often stopped taking his prescribed medication. But in his taped preamble he was not angry and made no threats toward law enforcement. In fact, he indicated that he had friends on the police force although it is likely the friends of whom he speaks were officers he encountered over the years but I am being conjectural. If Mr. Root intended to die by police officer gunfire he may not have activated his hazard lights which can be seen blinking as he staggered away from the wreckage of his Chevrolet Volt. In his video statement he started by saying he had friends on the police force. There was no obvious animosity toward law enforcement. If he had had a genuine firearm and intended to go out in a blaze of glory, he may have made a final stand either at the wreckage of his vehicle or somewhere nearby like behind a tree. That was not the case. Root was trying to get away. No final stand. No “fuck you” to the world. He was down when he was shot and there was a person there to help him who was ordered away. An officer can be heard saying “he is still moving” after the barrage of rounds over 30 in all. Juston Root was mentally cogent enough to activate his 4-way hazard lights after the high speed crash and in video that could be seen when he first entered the Longwood hospital district. Why? A formal psychological autopsy that is transparently guided might find an answer to that question. Hospital Police were on guard and had been victim of a homicide that took place inside the hospital itself in January 2015. Juston Root was here for 41 years living in what he perceived was a dangerous world. He came and grew to have an affinity for law enforcement he left without leaving any foot prints or last words.

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/?

Domestic Violence amid worries of pandemic

Brian Gagan of People Results, a Scottsdale, Arizona consulting firm on the left with Dr. Michael Sefton, a psychologist provider in Massachusetts are interviewed by media outlets in Maine following publication of the Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake, a northern Maine man who murdered his wife and children after being denied permission to attend his son’s 8th grade commencement celebration. The Psychological Autopsy is a detailed case study designed to uncover cues to precipitating factors in DVH. The research conducted in 2011 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. 

At times of stress, families struggle to maintain the emotional homeostasis that keeps them safe. The normal roles and hierarchy within a family system may erode. The social distancing required during the coronavirus outbreak has frayed many people into irrational and sometimes dangerous behaviors. Domestic violence thrives at times when the strain of social order violates family routine. Fear and uncertainty over physical health coupled with 7/24 news reporting of death and suffering can be overwhelming for some. 

As with many out of the ordinary times, the incidence of domestic violence increased amid fears of contracting Covid-19. In a Chicago suburb a man killed his wife and then himself as the couple waited for word on the virus swab they had taken together. Neither person tested positive for the virus. Their bodies were discovered after family member grew concerned after not hearing from them over several days. 

According to a Washington Post, Patrick Jesernik killed his girlfriend because he feared they had both contracted Covid -19. His girlfriend, Cheryl Schriefer was murdered after she developed symptoms including shortness of breath. The couple were discovered to be dead by Will County Sheriff’s deputies whose preliminary report suggests murder suicide. 

Star of Will County, Illinois Sheriff’s Department

Domestic violence homicide when Covid-19 strikes fear – coercion and control take over

There is no telling what triggered this tragic event. The Will County Sheriff’s Department had no prior contacts with the couple so no pattern of DV could be established. However, with fear of becoming infected with the virus it is plausible that Mr.Jasernik believed he was ending what he wrongly assumed would be a horrific end of life for them both amid the growing pandemic. 

Some hotlines for people suffering from anxiety and depression have reportedly received more calls, particularly in areas where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly like Maryland and Portland, Oregon, but the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline did not report an increase last week. (The phone number is 1-800-273-8255.)

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.

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

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

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

Co-occurring Illness: Effecting change at times of crisis

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WESTBOROUGH, MA  – April 24, 2017 There is no magic solution for de-escalating someone who is in “crisis” or emotionally distraught.  The loss of control may signal a failure of reality testing that can signal a diminished capacity to appreciate the consequence of their behavior.  This occurs frequently when people who have mental illness have co-occurring drug and alcohol addiction. It is true that the correctional system has more than its share of mentally ill prisoners but for many being in jail is the only way to stay sober.  The full capability to provide mental health services in the correctional system here in Massachusetts has not been realized.  The courts are reluctant to require that someone receive treatment for mental illness and/or substance abuse in lieu of going to jail.

Criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive so there will always be a high number of incarcerated persons with chronic underlying psychiatric diagnoses.  The prevalence of mental illness in the general population may range from 5-15 percent. The degree of mental illness in the correctional system may be as high as 40 percent by some accounting but the number is misleading. One needs to consider treating mental illness when it becomes a barrier to functioning such as in schizophrenia or bipolar depression where the symptom profile interferes with reality testing. Only then may a contract for treatment may be constructed to include medication and psychotherapy depending upon the diagnosis.  In cases where mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse exist a determination about primary diagnoses and treatment options must be considered.

“The consequences of dual diagnosis include poor medication compliance, physical comorbidities, poor health, poor self-care, increased risk of suicide or risky behavior, and even possible incarceration” according to Buckley and Brown, 2006

In many cases of emotional crisis those in need can be diffused with recognition of their struggle – such as death of family member or loss of employment.  By showing empathy for their emotional burden police officers and mental health providers can intervene and make a real difference.  But effecting change takes time and a consistent message that personal responsibility begins at home.  Instead of placing blame on a “system” that is filled with holes individuals need resilience and family support to get the help they require. teachinginprisonBefore I am criticized for being insensitive, I point to the 12-step programs in alcohol and drug recovery.  They are free and in many cases provide 24-hour support and mentoring at times of crisis. I strongly believe that if people can remain clean and sober than the need for crisis intervention will decrease.  Ostensibly, this is a perfect first step toward recovery and will bring forth a palpable reduction in emotion and reduce the potential for violence.  When substance abuse is stopped emotional growth is more able to take hold.  Healthy, more effective problem solving may result from prospering emotional maturity allowing for resilience and enhanced coping.

Stress can engulf individuals and families for a variety of reasons and should not be judged. People cope with stress differently and in many cases achieve emotional relief by having someone to talk to.  Some clinicians believe great personal change may be possible when coping skills are most frail.  But in too many instances, drug and alcohol abuse present a confounding variable when working with person’s diagnosed with mental illness. At the same time this raises the risk to law enforcement exponentially. Why?

One response to stress is the increase in substance use and with that increase there is often a worsening of any underlying mental health disorder such as depression and anxiety.  “There could be a common factor that accounts for both, primary psychiatric disorder causing secondary substance abuse, primary substance abuse causing secondary psychiatric disorder, or a bidirectional problem, where each contributes to the other.” (Buckley and Brown, 2006) Unemployment, early childhood trauma, financial burdens, and random emotional baggage result in a range of actions that foreshadow regression and failure of coping mechanisms that put us all at risk.  Some people are able to endure extreme levels of stress with little to no outward sign of distress while others boil over at the first sign of conflict or emotional ripple.

JAIL DIVERSION

There is a growing push toward alternative restitution and jail diversion for those with mental health and substance abuse problems.  In San Antonio, TX, the Bexar County jail had been filled to capacity for many years.  As a jail diversion and mental health program evolved the population dropped by 20-25 percent from 5000 inmates to 3800.  Data suggests that over one quarter of all prisoners may experience mental illness or substance dependence/abuse and are not receiving treatment.  But here in Massachusetts the systems are not available to make this innovation an effective reality in any scale.  Many departments are using jail diversion options such as drug treatment and counseling but here in Massachusetts psychiatric treatment cannot be court mandated. Arrest may not be indicated simply because a person is in crisis but those in crisis may be involved in some type of criminality such as assault, criminal threatening, domestic violence and property crimes. So what options are available? The drop out rate for patients suffering from major mental illness is quite high. They often stop taking prescribed medication and do not attend counseling sessions.

MENTAL ILLNESS, CRIMINALITY AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

bigstock-Mental-illness-in-word-collage-072313As a police officer I found jail diversion a discretionary tool that was used a great deal. Nevertheless there are times when arrest is the proper course of action but jail diversion remains a possible negotiating point for those charged with some crimes.  The correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath follow-up and intervention when the immediate crisis has settled from the events that brought police to this dangerous threshold. Arrest is mandated by state statute when one spouse has visible injuries. Whenever possible using a restorative justice model – often limited to incarcerated individuals – may allow those arrested for crimes against persons to reconstruct their encounters with police and gain concrete understanding of events and the impact substance abuse may have had on the actions taken by themselves and law enforcement. Some never attain empathy for victims, family members including action taken by police and wind up behind bars.  Police encounters with persons having co-occurring mental health and substance abuse are frequently violent and often result in charges for assault on a police officer and more. In the aftermath of these encounters offenders may be sent to treatment in lieu of formal charges with the understanding that sobriety and psychotherapy are indicated.  In cases of treatment avoidance police have the option to file charges later on.

Techniques for understanding mental illness may facilitate mutual understanding and establish the needed bridge to facilitate treatment as published in 2015 (Sefton, 2015). Those seeking diversion from incarceration must demonstrate the willingness to change and take responsibility for their actions.  The relationship between law enforcement and community agencies is one that requires a strong foundation and mutual understanding of the framework for reducing recidivism, criminality, and managing mental illness.


Buckley, P. F., & Brown, E. S. (2006). Prevalence and consequences of dual diagnosis. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 67(7), e01-e01.

Sefton, M. (2015) Emotionally distraught – nearly one-quarter of all officer-involved shootings go fatal. https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/emotionally-distraught-nearly-one-quarter-of-all-officer-involved-shootings-that-go-fatal/. Taken March 5, 2017.

DVH in MA: 4-year old child begs father not to murder his mother

  • “… He stood in the doorway with a loaded gun and talked about killing himself and/or children and myself. He was bringing up old verbal threats and I thought they were going to come true”

Amy Lake – July 2010

The words above were taken from a requested order of protection in the state of Maine in 2010.  The threats upon this victim and her family became a reality exactly one year to the day after this order was put in place in 2011. Amy

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Michael Sefton

Lake and her two children were murdered by her husband Steven Lake who killed himself as well. Immediately following the killings a Maine district attorney said “there was nothing we could have done to prevent these killings”. These were the words that triggered a team of professionals including myself to research the sequence of events that lead to this event.  A formal psychological autopsy was undertaken in 2011 following these murders and over 50 recommendations were generated (Allanach, et al 2011).

I am sick to my stomach as I write about another senseless killing of Wanda Rosa in Methuen, Massachusetts in late summer 2016.  The case resembles so many cases of domestic violence homicide – manipulation and control.  Ms. Rosa had a permanent order of protection but had recently modified the order to allow Emilio Delarosa to see the child they had in common. Why in the world would anyone allow Delarosa to see his son? He is no role model and the potential for terminal violence was readily apparent as depicted in the order of protection.  He expressed his intent to kill his girlfriend on more that one occasion.  Delarosa’s history of intimate partner violence had risen to the level of a permanent ban – signaling that the pattern of violence was undeniable and the red flag indicators for domestic violence homicide (DVH) were apparent in the eyes of the police and judiciary when the permanent order was granted.

Permanent orders of protection are rarely granted unless the pattern of violence was so prevalent and unremitting that the potential of harm or death to the victim and her family was unsurpassed as in this case.  It is known that Delarosa was manipulative and controlling of his girlfriend getting her to drop charges over and over and later alter the terms of the restraining order – ultimately resulting in her death.  Secondly, the person against whom the stay away  order is granted must have demonstrated a blatant indifference of the order of the court by having recklessly violated the order over and again. It should not have been altered.  In the past 18 months cases meeting these requirements (such as this one) have resulted in intimate partner violent deaths.  The Jarod Remy 2013 murder of Jennifer Martin is a despicable reminder of the need for change in cases of DV. Remy killed his girlfriend by stabbing her multiple times as the couple’s 4-year old child bear witness. In spite of laws designed to reduce the likelihood of DVH Rosa was not adequately protected.

Rosa’s boyfriend Emilio Delarosa is on the run as of September 20.  He is accused of murdering his former girlfriend after years of abuse, strangled her to death as their 4-year-old boy pleaded with him to spare her life, according to court records. “No Dad” the child was heard to say over and over. As in the Remy case, the 4-year old witnessed his father choking  Wanda Rosa until she was dead.

“I suspect there is a strong likelihood that he too will be among the deceased in the coming days as is the common eventuality among those who commit the unconscionable, violence that manifest in this terminal event” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., director of psychology and neuropsychology at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.  When some men violate the permanent protection order it is the result of unbridled rage and defiance against a “system” they believe has failed or unfairly humiliated them said Sefton in a release. They are murderous and often turn their rage inward in an act of suicide. I would look for the triggers of what set Delarosa’s terminal rage into action.  It could be something as simple as being told he needed to have monitored visitation with is son or learning that the female was seeing another man – both conjectural on my part.  After the alleged killing Delarosa was heard to say “It’s over, it’s over, it’s over” when speaking to his sister.

“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 Sefton.  A psychological autopsy should be undertaken to effectively understand the homicide and in doing so contribute to the literature on domestic violence and DVH according to Michael Sefton who with colleagues published the Psychological Autopsy of a case from Dexter, Maine where a father murdered his child, estranged wife and ultimately himself (Allanach, et al, 2011).  In the days preceding the murder there are usually red flags or pre-incident indictors that people see that signal the intentions of the murderer.  These clues provide police and the judiciary with data to craft protection plans and are the commonalities found in cases of DVH across the state and across the world.  Some red flag behaviors signal the emergence of imminent terminal anger that can be seen in the social media accounts of intimate partners who go on to kill their spouses.  I am quite interested in the compelling reasons that Delarosa may have argued that resulted in the change in the permanent order of protection.  The outstanding Boston Globe article about the slaying is a sad reminder of the early warning signs of DVH.  All the red flags were present.  In a blog published in 2013 I list the tell tale warning signs of intimate partner homicide and the need for tougher bail conditions (Sefton, 2013).

The impact on the child will be lifelong. At age 4, children are developing their sense of gender identity in the setting of developmental growth, cognitive maturity, social functioning and continued individuation. Imagine the child who is reunited with his parent after a period of mandated protection due to DV.  He is now able to see his family and may be fraught with both excitation and fear.  It would be normal for the child to have fantasies of reunification of the family and perhaps self-blame for not having stopped the action of his father. Just like the daughter of Jennifer Martin and Jarod Remy this 4-year old boy will forever be reminded of the life he will not have.

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. The red flags of intimate partner violence. Blog post taken October 2, 2016.

Sefton, M. Prior history of crime not predictive of DVH. Blog Taken October 2, 2016. post: http://enddvh.blogspot.com/2013/07/prior-criminal-history-used-to.