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Fighting Back

One professor's statistics-driven screen is reshaping the way domestic violence is policed in Maryland

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Before 2014, catch up on the best of The New Republic. For the next few weeks, we'll be re-posting a selection of our most thought-provoking pieces from the recent past. 

Jo’Anna Bird arrived at her family’s two-story, wood-frame house at about 11 p.m. on a winter night three years ago. The house sits on a quiet street in one of the poorer corners of one of America’s richest counties: New Cassel, in Nassau, on Western Long Island. Bird, 24, was a mother of two who often wore her long brown hair in a ponytail. She had worked as a school bus monitor, a medical assistant, a Walmart cashier, a supervisor at BJ’s Wholesale Club, and she now hoped to be a corrections officer. She had come to stay with her mother and stepfather because the possessiveness of her ex-boyfriend—the father of her young son—had evolved into something much more frightening, and she did not want to be alone.

Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, known to most as “Pito,” waited for Bird that night behind a row of hedges in the front yard. After she parked, he appeared and said he wanted to talk. Bird refused, went into the house, and locked the front door. “We assumed he left. We all went to bed,” says Sharon Dorsett, Bird’s mother. “The next thing we heard was her screaming.” Valdez-Cruz had broken in through the basement and tried to smother Bird, who was lying on a couch in the living room watching television, Dorsett told me. When he dashed to the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife, Bird ran to her nephew’s room. Bird’s stepfather told Valdez-Cruz to leave, which he did. A short time later, Valdez-Cruz tried climbing in through a bedroom window, but Bird’s nephew threatened to stab the intruder with a fork. Next, Valdez-Cruz tried squeezing in the bathroom window, but he couldn’t fit, although his baseball cap toppled into the tub. Bird’s stepfather called the police.

The two officers arrived sometime after midnight. As the family crowded into the living room to explain what had happened, Valdez-Cruz returned to the house and casually knocked on the front door. One of the officers let him in. Bird had two protection orders against Valdez-Cruz, but the police did not arrest him. “They said, ‘Pito, get out of here, go take a walk somewhere,’” Dorsett says. It was a response that was by now familiar to Bird. “He’s going to kill me,” Dorsett recalls her daughter saying. “I’m going to die.”

A couple of months later, on the afternoon of March 19, 2009, Jo’Anna Bird’s body was in the back of a Nassau County Police ambulance. Her outstretched hand dangled off the side of a stretcher; her blood-streaked face tilted to the left. A gland ballooned from her neck, which had been sliced from ear to ear. As the investigator filming the area moved from the ambulance into Bird’s spartan two-bedroom apartment, the evidence of a brutal struggle and its aftermath was everywhere: a clump of hair in the front yard; pools of blood in the stairwell; a knocked-out screen in the window. Bird had been tortured and left bleeding to death inside her apartment. According to the autopsy, she had suffered blunt force trauma to the torso and head, and her trachea, esophagus, and jugular had been perforated.

By the following year, Valdez-Cruz had been convicted of Bird’s murder and given a life sentence. Dorsett believed her daughter’s death had been preventable, so she sued Nassau County in federal court. Her case cast the police department and other government officials as completely ineffective. Even as Bird lay dying, Dorsett’s lawsuit claimed, police officers who had been called to her apartment did nothing; one dismissed the call as “the Pito thing again.” Eventually, Nassau County settled with Dorsett for $7.7 million. The police commissioner said that seven officers were found to have improperly handled Bird’s calls. But, earlier this year, after reading a secret internal affairs report detailing Bird’s death, a member of the legislature told a local TV station that 22 officers “ought to be ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror every morning when they get up to shave—much less be wearing the badge.”

In recent decades, one of the great grassroots movements of the twentieth century built a raft of protections designed to help abused women. These included a sprawling network of community shelters, gun restrictions for abusers, protection orders, and the nation’s first federal anti-domestic violence legislation, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Yet, despite this sustained effort—and even as overall homicides have plummeted nationwide—victims of domestic violence like Jo’Anna Bird are today killed in basically the same numbers as they were about 15 years ago. Between 40 and 50 percent of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands, boyfriends, and exes. And, for about half of these victims, police had been alerted to previous incidents of abuse.

There is, however, one exception to this grim trend: Maryland. Since 2007, domestic violence homicides in the state have fallen by a stunning 40 percent. What is Maryland doing that other states are not? The answer appears to lie with a former high school nurse, an ex-Washington, D.C., police lieutenant, and their ground-breaking efforts to protect the most vulnerable victims of abuse.

On a recent afternoon, Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University, stood at the foot of a large, sloped lecture hall at Quinnipiac University’s law school, just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Peering down at her were more than 150 police officers, advocates, lawyers, and social workers. Campbell, who is 65, and has wavy, reddish-brown hair, spends much of her time traveling the country, explaining tools to help predict domestic violence—tools which she has spent much of her career developing. In her personable, matter-of-fact manner, she moved through a PowerPoint presentation, illuminating numbers and graphs with harrowing anecdotes. At one point, she recalled the response of a man from Baltimore who admitted to police that he had strangled his wife to death. “You have to understand: I didn’t mean to kill her,” the man said, according to Campbell. “I’ve done this a bunch of times before and she never died.”

Campbell has been researching domestic violence since the late 1970s, when she was pursuing a master’s degree in nursing at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. A former high school nurse, she had moved into community health work and wanted to know why so many young black women in the area were being murdered. For her thesis, Campbell spent a year digging through case files with the local homicide unit. She was shocked to find that most of the women had been killed by their husbands, boyfriends, and exes. In one case, police had been called to a home 54 times before the woman was killed. Then, her research took on a personal significance: The mother of Campbell’s own goddaughter was stabbed to death by her boyfriend, a charming man whom Campbell had never suspected of abuse. “It was one of those incredibly horrible tragic things that made me all the more committed to doing something about it,” she says.

Back then, there was little awareness of domestic violence. There was no such thing as a protection order or a mandatory arrest. It was the era of “The Burning Bed,” the infamous case of Francine Hughes, a Michigan housewife who, after suffering years of abuse, waited until her husband was asleep one night, then doused him with gasoline and set him ablaze. At the time, nearly as many men died from domestic violence as women—about 2,100 women and 1,600 men in 1976, according to Campbell, who provided the statistics for this story. (Campbell uses Department of Justice and FBI statistics on domestic violence homicides, but includes women murdered by their ex-boyfriends, a category often left out of final reports.) About three-quarters of the men were, like Hughes’s husband, both victim and abuser.

In 1980, Campbell moved to Detroit, where she began teaching at Wayne State University and volunteering at a shelter. When women would tell her their stories, she was reminded of the homicides she had studied in Dayton. These women had been choked and raped, punched while they were pregnant, threatened with murder. Campbell gave the women calendars so they could mark the days that they had been abused. And she developed a 15-item questionnaire, which she called a “danger assessment,” that nurses, advocates, and others who dealt with abused women could use to determine if someone was high-risk.

A few years after moving to Johns Hopkins in 1993, Campbell and a team of researchers began studying domestic violence murders in Maryland. Their work, which was published in 2002, sought to identify the key indicators that predicted whether a case of domestic violence was likely to become a domestic homicide. The study produced some surprisingly precise findings. If a man had a history of hitting his partner, that in itself was a predictor of murder. But certain kinds of behavior came with even higher chances of death. For instance, if a man choked his partner, she was five times more likely to be killed by him at some point. If he was unemployed, he was four times more likely to kill her. The researchers also found that only 4 percent of homicide victims had ever sought help from a shelter; in a follow-up study, they found that a stay in a safehouse decreased the risk of violent re-assault by 60 percent. Their findings offered new ways to measure risk. “It also informed the system about which cases needed heightened scrutiny,” says Campbell.

After Campbell’s work was published, she was contacted by David Sargent, a former lieutenant in the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. Sargent is the law enforcement coordinator with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, and, during the ’90s, he had developed a training course for police officers to help them respond to domestic abuse calls. But that seemed to have little effect on intimate partner murders, and the “referral”—the standard police approach of giving victims a shelter hotline phone number—seemed too passive to do much good.

Indeed, it was clear that the prevailing methods of dealing with domestic violence were inadequate. There had been a slight dip in domestic violence murders in the ’90s following the passage of VAWA (which funded anti-domestic violence training and services) and the Brady Law (which required gun dealers to run background checks). But, since then, the number of women killed each year by their partners and exes has hovered around 1,600—that is, only about 500 fewer deaths per year than in 1976. For men, however, domestic homicides have declined from about 1,600 to 600. In other words, all the increased protections for women, the infrastructure of shelters and hotlines, had done a better job of protecting abusers rather than their victims.

In 2003, Sargent, Campbell, and 15 other academics, lawyers, and law enforcement officials met at the Maryland Network’s offices in Bowie. There, they began the first of two years of discussions on how to translate Campbell’s danger assessment into an easy-to-use field tool for first-responders. At one point, Michael Cogan, a prosecutor from Anne Arundel County, told the group, “If we do this, this is going to represent a paradigm shift in the way we work with victims.”

By the end of 2005, the group had developed a series of questions that they called “the screen.” The first three questions concerned the most important predictors of future homicide: Has the abuser used a weapon against you? Has he threatened to kill you? Do you think he might kill you? If the woman answered yes to any of those questions, she “screened in.” If she answered no, but yes to four of the remaining eight questions, again, she was in. Among these were other, less obvious indicators of fatal violence: Has he ever tried to kill himself? Does she have a child that he knows isn’t his?

The officer would then present her with an assessment: Others in your circumstances have been killed; help is available if you want it. If the woman agreed, an officer would dial the local shelter from a police cell phone (to prevent the abuser from finding out about the call) and hand it over.

The screen’s first taker was the Sheriff’s Office in Kent County, a rural, lightly populated region on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “They don’t have drug problems. They don’t have gang problems,” Sargent told me. “They do have domestic violence. And, when they have homicides, they’re domestic violence homicides.”

Today, the screen is used by nearly all of the state’s police departments. More than 3,000 women have sought help with everything from filing protection orders to counseling. Proponents are careful to say it is not the only solution to stopping domestic violence murders and that it is impossible to determine precisely why Maryland’s domestic homicide rate has fallen. Still, Juley Fulcher, director of policy programs at Break the Cycle, an anti-domestic violence organization, told me that Maryland’s 40 percent drop in intimate partner murders is “incredible.” Scott Shepardson, a veteran officer in Frederick, Maryland, observed that, for years, he had watched victims of repeated abuse fill out incident forms seemingly out of routine, paying little attention to the injuries they were describing. “They’re so used to it,” Shepardson says. The process of answering the screening questions enabled them to see the seriousness of the violence in a new light. “It’s changed to, ‘Oh my God—he did try to kill me.’”

Christine considered herself a well-informed, responsible adult. She had a degree in psychology and had bought a house when she was 24. Two years later, she got married. The abuse wasn’t that bad at first. But as it got worse, it became harder to leave. Christine and her husband had a son and a daughter. They lived in a nice home in a quiet neighborhood. “By that time, you’re in it,” says Christine, whose name I’ve changed to protect her identity.

Once, while she was eating at the dinner table, her husband jammed her bean burrito from Taco Bell into her mouth and up her nose, then held it there. “It was suffocation by burrito,” she says. (Christine called the police; he disputed her claims and was not arrested.) In a petition to the court, she wrote, “He has stalked me, threatened to cap my ass, knock my teeth in, kill me, rape me, etc.” After her husband moved out for a brief time, Christine told me that he called her and said he was going to slice her throat and watch her bleed. She called the police and sought a protection order. However, he was not arrested and the order was denied for insufficient evidence.

One Friday night two years ago, Christine was outside talking to a neighbor, enjoying a beer. This didn’t sit right with her husband, who left for a bar, she told me. Later that night, after he stumbled into the house, Christine heard what sounded like a dresser drawer being emptied—the rustling of papers, the clinking of drill bits and coins. She panicked. “It clicked in my head what he was doing,” she recalls. “He was searching for bullets.”

Christine is about five and a half feet tall and 130 pounds. Her husband is over six feet and pushing 270. Though Christine didn’t have much of a plan, she raced upstairs—all she knew was that she needed to “make it stop,” she says. There, in the bedroom, they struggled for his loaded .357 revolver. Christine grabbed the gun, trying to jerk it free. “Somehow, I got between him and it,” she says. “I got it in my hand and spun.” She doubled over on the bed, with him on top of her, still hanging on. Christine eventually wrestled the revolver away and things calmed down for a few hours. But the next morning, as she was preparing to go to a softball match with their daughter, he threw her over the living room couch, then pushed her into the bathroom. Christine called the police.

After the officers arrived, they asked her questions that she doesn’t remember. They put her on the phone with someone at the local shelter, but today, most of the details of that conversation escape her, too. By Monday, she had a lawyer and an advocate who had been provided by the shelter. She was at the courthouse seeking a protection order—something she thought she would never do again.

Over the next year and a half, her advocate was there if she had to go to the sheriff’s office, if she had to go to court, or if she panicked about her husband. The protection order came through. Then came the next step: divorce. “There were many times when she wanted to give up,” her advocate told me. “I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘It’s not worth it.’” By October of last year, it was over: Christine and her husband were legally divorced. “If that police officer hadn’t handed me that phone,” she told me, “I probably would have washed it under the best that I could.”

The lethality screen has now been adopted by law enforcement agencies in 14 states, from Barre City, Vermont, to Kansas City, Missouri. Nurses use it in emergency rooms, as do case workers from children’s services departments. Since the Washington D.C. police department introduced a variation of the screen in 2009, domestic violence homicides have been cut in half, according to Elisabeth Olds, co-executive director at safe, an advocacy group. As for other states, there has been no equivalent of the 40 percent decline in homicides that occurred in Maryland, Sargent told me, but it is too soon to expect such dramatic results. In 2008, a Harvard competition named the Lethality Assessment Program one of the country’s 50 best innovations in government.

Yet, as simple as the screen is, it requires increased funding. Training police to use the questionnaire is financially negligible, Sargent told me—the process takes less than an hour. But, if the screen leads to more victims seeking legal help, counseling, or refuge, that means greater costs for the places that provide those services.

When the Kansas City Police Department introduced the screen in 2009, a local shelter, the Rose Brooks Center, had anticipated less than a half-dozen new calls every week to its hotline. “From day one, we were getting four to six [more] calls a day,” says Susan Miller, the center’s CEO. The number of people staying at the shelter rose from about 70 nightly to an average of 90; cots were added to conference rooms and offices. In the first year that the screen was in use, the center turned away 2,300 people seeking shelter. In 2011, it turned away 4,178. At the same time, the center has seen cutbacks in state and federal funding and has launched a $2 million emergency fund-raising drive to build a new wing containing 25 additional beds.

The future of the lethality assessment is now caught up, like so much else, in the ongoing ideological war over government spending. Every five years, VAWA—which acts, among other things, as a funding mechanism for domestic violence shelters and training programs—must be reauthorized, a process that allows lawmakers to refocus how the money is spent based on new developments in the field. Earlier this year, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy offered a reauthorization bill that included funding for “evidence-based” anti-domestic violence programs, such as the lethality screen.

Though the previous two reauthorizations of VAWA enjoyed broad bipartisan support, this year was different. In anticipation of the reauthorization, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly wrote on last summer that VAWA was “feminist pork”; Janice Shaw Crouse, a senior fellow at the conservative Beverly LaHaye Institute, has argued that VAWA’s overly broad definitions of violence have sent men to jail for “unpleasant speech” and “emotional distress.”

Senator Leahy’s bill was voted out of a subcommittee along party lines in February, with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley leading the Republican opposition. In a New York Times op-ed, Grassley argued that the bill failed to recognize the country’s “dire fiscal situation,” and railed against “controversial” provisions that would allow increased numbers of immigrant victims of domestic violence into a temporary visa program. A vote is expected soon, but the press secretary for Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the new Republican point person for VAWA, declined to say if an alternative bill includes support for programs like the lethality screen. For high-risk women, such a program could mean the difference between life and death—between ending up like Jo’Anna Bird or ending up like Christine.

These days, Christine is trying her best to create some semblance of normality. She has a few key rules that she follows to keep herself safe. She only answers phone calls from numbers she recognizes. She tries to avoid places her ex might be. But, in the six months since her divorce was finalized, she has found something she hasn’t known in a long time: “Relief,” she wrote to me in a text message. “With the ability to breathe.”

Tim Stelloh is a writer living in New York City. This article appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine.