And the officers who will respond to the plea for help will face perhaps the most dangerous type perpetrator: men who strangle women.
“When a man puts his hands around a woman’s neck, he has just raised his hand and said, ‘I am a killer,’” said Casey Gwinn, president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance.
Gwinn, along with chief executive officer Gael Strack, spent three days this week with community leaders, social workers, police and prosecutors for training sessions and strategy meetings as the county’s Family Justice Center’s 10th anniversary approaches.
One of 15 counties then-President George W. Bush picked from 400 applicants to receive funding for the administration’s Family Justice Center Initiative in 2003, St. Joseph County established its Family Justice Center in 2004.
Modeled after the first center established in San Diego under the leadership of Strack and Gwinn, the Family Justice Center here houses police and prosecutors who work for the county’s Special Victims Unit, as well as victim’s advocates, child advocates and social workers, in order to pool resources of different county agencies and create one stop to help victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
Friday’s training centered on nonfatal strangulation assaults, which Gwinn called the “most missed, underappreciated and mishandled cases in the whole realm of sex assault and domestic violence.”
Gwinn cited a study that said women who are strangled by an intimate partner at least once are 800 times more likely to become a homicide victim, making strangulation a prime indicator of how lethal a perpetrator is likely to be.
The health risks of losing oxygen during an assault can span years after the strangulation as well, he said.
Gwinn has also conducted studies that show a correlation between men who strangled women and men who shoot and kill police officers.
“The men are not strangling women to kill them,” Gwinn said, noting that most women who are later killed by a partner are shot to death. “They are letting them know they can kill them anytime they want.”
Gwinn and Strack’s training centered on how best to police and prosecute strangulation assaults and aid the victims, which can be challenging as victims are often reluctant, and the assaults rarely leave visible marks.
“We taught ourselves to prove cases like we were homicide prosecutors, where there is never any victim,” said Strack, a former prosecutor in San Diego.
In St. Joseph County, prosecutors in 2013 levied 36 strangulation charges, a Class D felony then and a Level 6 felony now.
This year so far, prosecutors have brought 18 strangulation charges.
“We will give a jury everything we have,” deputy prosecutor Stephanie Steele said, noting that investigators look for much more than just marks around the neck, which are often not there.
Telltale signs of strangulation include petechiae around the eyes and ears, or tiny red dots that come from bleeding under the skin, hoarseness, urination and defecation, ringing ears and nausea.
Police and prosecutors here have a protocol of questions to ask to draw out information from the victim, who may be reticent to explain details of the abuse.
“They might hesitate to share some of the more embarrassing symptoms,” Steele said.
Strack encouraged prosecutors to always subpoena a doctor and groom medical experts to drive home for a jury the seriousness of a strangulation.
Gwinn told of a woman who had a series of strokes 30 years after she got out of an abusive relationship that involved choking.
Commander of the St. Joseph County Special Victims Unit Brian Young said detectives who investigate allegations of strangulation take special note of the cases, given the high risk of future lethality.
“We can take steps to stop the violence,” Young said.