Lawrence Police Department’s new domestic violence response team seeks better investigations, victim protection
photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot
The Lawrence Police Department is creating a new domestic violence response team that aims to better investigate those incidents and do more to protect victims.
The police department provided information about the response team as part of the Lawrence City Commission’s meeting Tuesday evening. Referencing the homicide of a woman earlier this year, allegedly by her husband, Lawrence police Chief Rich Lockhart told commissioners a key piece of the effort was new victim risk and “lethality” assessments that would hopefully prevent such outcomes.
“The lethality assessment is a really big part of that,” Lockhart said. “It’s something that’s very important and something we haven’t done here, so I’m really excited to get that started.”
Lockhart said the process includes three questions for the patrol officer to assess a victim’s level of risk, followed by further assessment by a domestic violence detective and the recently appointed victim services coordinator, Tassia Records. He said the process will help the team better predict future actions and hopefully prevent violent incidents like the May 16 homicide, in which Chad Joseph Marek, 27, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Regan Gibbs, 25.
Lockhart said Records would be working with patrol officer Mark Hammond to develop new solutions for dealing with domestic violence. Specifically, the police department is creating a response team for domestic violence-related cases that consists of one sworn officer devoted entirely to domestic violence cases and the victim services coordinator, according to city presentation materials. The officer will work directly with the coordinator to assess risk and provide a focused approach to investigations involving domestic violence. The presentation states the success of the team would be measured by assessing the outcomes of domestic violence cases.
Records said the department is lacking a trained investigator for domestic violence-related incidents and repeat high-risk domestic violence cases. She said the need for a domestic violence response team was established based on case management, a review of local domestic violence statistics, and the homicide earlier this year.
“By working together in their respective roles, the investigator and the advocate can provide better communication with victims and stronger cases overall, while helping victims heal emotionally and regain their sense of safety,” Records said.
As an illustration, Records and Hammond presented a breakdown of the domestic battery calls from 2021. Of the 635 reported incidents, approximately half were not pursued by the district attorney’s office, with reasons including that the officer determined there was no probable cause, the investigation by police was still pending, and because the district attorney declined prosecution. Hammond said the breakdown was a visual representation of areas where the department feels the new response team could provide an improvement.
“So as you can see, of those 635 cases, just under half could benefit from this initiative in terms of follow-up and further investigation,” Hammond said.
The domestic violence investigator would expand the initial evidence collected with a focus on danger and risk level; prompt review, follow-up and referrals to ensure a swift response; and follow-up investigation to all high-prioritized reports by risk and danger level, according to the presentation. Duties would include conducting lethality assessments and collaborating with local governmental agencies regarding high-risk suspects. Operationally, Hammond said the risk assessment and lethality assessment would be included in the case file, which would then be forwarded to the prosecution for review.
Records also said if the district attorney’s office provides additional information about why certain cases aren’t prosecuted, that information could be used to help determine where police investigations are falling short.
“I think the biggest question is why are we missing some of those cases, why are they not being pursued by prosecution?” Records said. “And just explore those options so we can learn how to improve our investigative tactics.”
The domestic violence response team will be part of the police department’s special victims unit, which was created in 2020. Willow Domestic Violence Center Director Megan Stuke was also present at the meeting, and she told commissioners she was hopeful and happy about the progress that has been made and the prospect of further collaboration.
“To be here tonight in collaboration with the (police department) is significant for our whole community, particularly for the Willow and for the survivors we serve,” Stuke said. “The project and the potential it represents for all of our citizens is profound.”
Regarding how the city measures the success of local efforts, Stuke said there can be many reasons repeat victims make more or fewer police calls, and fewer calls does not necessarily mean a response has been effective, so more than just calls needed to be examined. She said the Willow’s position is that the metric for success is the output, or what resources, training, expertise and trauma-informed care is provided, and that the Willow was excited about the potential for more to be done in Lawrence. Lockhart said the department would work with the Willow in determining metrics for the program.