Domestic violence-related homicides fell by more than 40 percent last year and officials believe the county’s response to strangulation cases — a particularly deadly form of domestic violence — may have contributed to the decrease.
Seven people were killed by an intimate partner in 2017, down from 12 killings the year before and 16 in 2015.
At a news conference that kicked off Domestic Violence Awareness month — held nationally in October — District Attorney Summer Stephan partly credited the drop to a pair of efforts designed to better detect, document and respond to cases of strangulation: the Strangulation Protocol, developed in February 2017, and the introduction of domestic violence forensic exams in March 2017.
“Even though deaths are down, one person killed is too many,” said Stephan, who also introduced a countywide domestic violence prevention campaign called “Now is the Time.”
Strangulation is a particularly dangerous form of domestic violence because victims can fall unconscious in seconds and be dead in minutes, experts say. If victims survive, they can be left with serious, long-term injuries that include memory loss, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury, stroke and blindness.
Women who have been strangled are also nearly eight times more likely to end up victims of homicide than women who suffered some other form of abuse, according to a study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2001. In San Diego County, 15 percent of domestic violence-related homicides between 2008 and 2016 were strangulation cases.
Since San Diego County began putting the strangulation protocol into practice, the number of prosecutions involving strangulation cases have increased threefold, partly because they are being better documented, officials said Thursday.
In 2017, 71 felony strangulation cases were filed, up from 44 in 2016 and 18 in 2015.
About a month after the county started using the protocol, a grant from the state’s Office of Emergency Services allowed the county to offer a more robust forensic exam designed to document, in detail, the injuries of victims involved in serious domestic violence incidents — including all strangulation cases.
In assault cases, when it is often a victim’s word against the abuser’s, medical evidence can make or break a case, officials say. Between Jan. 1, 2017, and Aug. 31, 2018, prosecutors filed charges in 73 percent of the 175 strangulation cases that put the new exam to use.
For comparison, charges were filed in about 32 percent of all domestic violence cases during the same time frame, said Deputy District Attorney Tracy Prior.
Although domestic violence-related homicides decreased last year, domestic violence incidents increased overall by about 4 percent. In 2017, more than 17,300 domestic violence incidents were reported, and the District Attorney’s Office was asked to review 6,859 cases.
To help address that increase, the office unveiled a new domestic violence prevention campaign designed to encourage victims, witnesses and offenders to take action and get help.
“People may not know where to turn for support, how to help a friend, how to recognize the signs and how to take action,” Stephan said at the news conference. “We want victims to know that help is available to get them out of an abusive relationship and provide protection. We also want friends, families and co-workers to know there is a way they can support someone who is experiencing abuse, and offenders need to know it is possible to stop the cycle of violence.”
To help get word out about the campaign, more than 60 billboards have been erected across the county with slogans that encourage those with a connection to domestic violence to try and change the course of an abusive situation.
Most of the locations were chosen because research showed there was a higher number of domestic violence incidents in those areas, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The billboards will remain up for about seven weeks.
County officials also said there is a growing body of research suggesting homelessness and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand. For the first time, the District Attorney’s Office has placed employees at local homeless shelters to help identify domestic violence survivors and connect them with resources.