To combat domestic strangulation, Tulsa police officers seek to educate victims

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Tulsa Police Department Sgt. Clay Asbill, left, Family Safety Center Forensic nurse Kathy Bell, middle, and Family Safety Center Executive Director Suzann Stewart, right. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

She had been abused in the past, she told forensic examiners, but it was only after the latest domestic violence incident that she decided to come in for an interview.

She was young, in her 20s or 30s, and pretty healthy all things considered. Why then had she had not one but two strokes?

“Yes, I’ve been strangled before,” she told the examiners. “Why do you ask?”

Being beaten by your partner is traumatic, both physically and mentally. But few incidents leave scars like strangulation. Many times the injuries don’t show on the outside.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t appear in other ways.

Cutting off the blood supply through the carotid artery interrupts the flow of oxygen to the brain and unconsciousness or even asphyxia can quickly occur. Physical damage to the artery can result in a tear that results in bleeding or a clot. If the clot breaks free it can lead to a stroke, sometimes a fatal one.

In this woman’s case, the stroke effects were obvious, said Kathy Bell, one of Tulsa’s Family Safety Center Forensic Examiners. But they wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t come in for an examination.

“It takes 8 seconds and 11 pounds of pressure to occlude the carotid artery,” Bell said. “That’s it. No matter what, you’re affected by that. Maybe it’s anxiety or nightmares or PTSD. Or maybe you go unconscious. Maybe you die, right then and right there. Maybe you die 20 years later — that’s happened before — the effects show up later.”

Strangulation initiative
Clay Asbill took over the Tulsa Police Department’s Family Violence Unit in 2017, and said he was startled by the number of strangulation crimes being reported.

“Say your officer is taking a domestic assault and battery report,” Asbill said. “It’s extremely common, even probable, that the person is going to say ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been strangled in the past.’”

These cards, carried by Tulsa Police Department patrol officers, will be handed to victims of strangulation.
These cards, carried by Tulsa Police Department patrol officers, will be handed to victims of strangulation.

Bell said about 80 percent of people who completed a “Danger Assessment” given out by the Family Safety Center reported being strangled in the past year.

If those numbers are surprising, perhaps they shouldn’t be. Asbill said his unit sees multiple cases each day where a person reports being strangled at some point by their partner.

“I’m talking maybe 100 times a month,” he said. “I don’t know why there’s so many, but I do know that we’re trying to be proactive.”

To accomplish that, Asbill had printed out thousands of information sheets and pocket cards on strangulation for patrol officers to give to domestic violence victims. The cards identify the risks of strangulation, as well as symptoms that should spur a hospital visit.

“We’re swinging for the fences,” Asbill said. “Our goal is to reduce violence and to possibly reduce domestic homicides.”

Studies have shown that women who are strangled by their partner are 10 times more likely to eventually be killed by them. In Oklahoma, domestic abuse — including strangulation — can be considered a misdemeanor crime depending on the circumstances of the case. Data shows that in Tulsa County, domestic abuse is far more likely to filed as a misdemeanor crime that carries a lighter sentence than a felony charge.

And even making an arrest can be difficult. Tulsa Police Department spokesman Sgt. Shane Tuell previously told The Frontier that officers usually need one of three things in order to make an arrest following a domestic violence call: a cooperative victim, signs of injury, or a third-party witness.

Many victims do not wish to face their attackers in court and be cross examined by a defense attorney, Family Safety Center executive director Suzann Stewart said. Injuries, especially in strangulation cases, are not always immediately visible. And most domestic crimes happen indoors, away from the public eye, leaving a lack of third-party witnesses.

And domestic violence is cyclical — not only do many victims stay in abusive relationships, but their children grow up in that environment and the behavior becomes normalized.

“Children who grow up witnessing abuse are far more likely to be abused or to become abusers,” Stewart said. “They see dad strangling mom and they think that’s how life is.”

“Look,” Asbill said, “I’m a cop. I see these bad guys, and I want them to go to jail. I want to arrest them. But I also want to make sure the victim gets help, whether that’s information about what happened to them, or information on a protective order, or just help getting out of the relationship.

“If it saves one life, it was worth it.”

More cases filed in Tulsa County, and more dismissed

Though domestic violence charges are not rare, it’s impossible to tell how many people are actually abused here in domestic situations.

“There are concerns (the victims have) like ‘Oh, he’s going to lose his job if I report this,’” Stewart said. “A lot of times the victims just want out of the relationship, they may not want their abuser to go to jail.”

Still, hundreds of cases are filed in Tulsa County every year. Data collected by Oklahoma Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank, shows Tulsa County prosecutors filed at least 8,000 domestic violence charges between 2008 and 2015. A similar search of Oklahoma County domestic violence charges show prosecutors there filed only about 5,000 domestic violence charges during the same timeframe.

But Oklahoma County prosecutors had a much higher conviction rate, according to OPI data analyzed by Ryan Gentzler, a policy analyst for the organization (Gentzler cautioned the data collection tool used by OPI is still a work in progress).

The OPI data shows Oklahoma County prosecutors got convictions 56.5 percent of the time on domestic violence cases filed between 2008 to 2015. The data shows 17.6 percent of the cases ended up with deferred sentences, while 18.9 percent of the cases were dismissed.

Kenneth Elmore, an assistant district attorney for Tulsa County who oversees the Special Victims Unit. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

But in Tulsa County, the numbers flip. The OPI data shows Tulsa County prosecutors got convictions on only 35.7 percent of domestic violence charges. Only 7.7 percent of the cases ended with deferred sentences, while more than half of all cases filed in that time frame (52.3 percent) were eventually dismissed.

Ken Elmore, the Tulsa County assistant district attorney whose group handles most of the domestic violence cases, said he believes more cases are filed here because his unit is more willing to file cases other DA’s offices might not.

“We try not to be too concerned with our stats,” Elmore said, noting that some DA’s offices simply won’t file a case where a victim doesn’t want to cooperate. “I treat it like, well yeah, maybe (the victim) doesn’t want to cooperate when her abuser is standing right there next to her, but if we believe her, sometimes it’s better to file the case and see if when she has some time and space, she changes her mind and decides to cooperate.”

Elmore said TPD’s strangulation initiative is “very forward thinking.”

“It could lead to increased reporting and increased follow through from support agencies,” Elmore said. “There are people who before might not have followed through with reporting (the domestic violence) to law enforcement or not followed through with getting treatment who now will. There’s going to be a greater emphasis top to bottom from patrol on up to (prosecutors.) Strangulation is a serious thing that needs to be taken seriously.”

In Oklahoma, most domestic violence cases are filed as misdemeanors. State law even mandates that domestic violence against a pregnant woman be filed as a misdemeanor — it’s only a “second and subsequent” violent incident that would result in a felony.

Strangulation crimes should be filed as felonies, though that doesn’t always happen, Hannah Scandy said. Scandy, the Protective Order Docket Attorney at DVIS (Domestic Violence Intervention Services) said it can be “difficult to look at the statute and know what someone will end up charged with.

“Domestic violence in Oklahoma is still considered by many to be a family matter,” she said. “And we know that often a victim will not report being strangled or choked, and a case that should be filed as a felony ends up filed as a misdemeanor.”

If you need support:

Domestic Violence Intervention Services 24-hour crisis and information line: 918-743-5763

YWCA 24-hour domestic violence hotline: 405-917-9922

YWCA 24-hour state safeline: 800-522-7233

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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