By Lisa Irizarry, Phillyburbs.com
Authorities responding to a domestic violence situation involving strangulation no longer have to face a “he said, she said” type of situation if there are no telling bruise marks on the victim’s throat.
Because of improved training for handling these investigations, police have a lot more they can look for to get to the truth about what occurred.
Pemberton Township Detective Danielle Hann, who is the police department’s domestic violence liaison and coordinator for officers’ training through Providence House Domestic Violence Services of Burlington County, said the approach to possible strangulation cases has changed.
Hann said domestic violence is still considered taboo, so officers might find a victim unwilling to acknowledge what happened, unsure because she might have blacked out, or did not know strangulation was significant and is not the same as choking, or she may not want to talk about it. She also may want to protect her assailant or is in fear of that person.
“Within the last years, there has been more and more light brought on these issues,” Hann said.
She said there is a “distinct difference” made now between choking and strangulation among authorities.
“There had been a misconception on both sides (police and the people involved in domestic violence incidents), and domestic violence was viewed for many years as a family issue, not a police matter.
“The Domestic Violence Act came forward, and everyone saw domestic violence in a different light,” Hann said. “But there are still some people who don’t want to talk about it. People look at it as an embarrassment. It keeps a lot of people from coming forward, and they downplay it because they don’t want to accept what really happened. The officers (in the past) were going on what they were told if there were no (obvious) physical signs (of strangulation).
“If there are no physical signs, the training is now more advanced, so officers look for other signs,” she said. “We can see other things that might contradict what we are being told.”
“Officers now know that if they document an investigation thoroughly, through photos, video and statements, etc., they can proceed with or without the victim,” Florence police Capt. Brian Boldizar said. “This is important, because a lot of times when it comes time to go to court, the victim does not come to court, or tells the judge that they do not want to proceed with charges.”
Boldizar added, “Some physical injuries may become apparent and visible as many as several days after an incident. So swelling, marks and bruises should be repeatedly photographed to show their evolution over time.”
“Some of the injuries may be self-inflicted, where the victim is struggling to stop the offender’s manual strangulation and/or to remove ligature from around the throat, neck or nose,” he said.
About 30 states have domestic violence by strangulation laws that under certain conditions make it a felony to impede a person’s breathing. New Jersey does not.
“Some have put a special focus on it,” said Sandy Clark said, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women and a member of the New Jersey Domestic Violence Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board, which examines cases provided by police and prosecutors to study how homicides could have been prevented. So there are many new methods used for determining exactly what has occurred when authorities arrive at a scene.
Clark said police also realize now that if a woman is the victim and has been raped, or if some other crime was committed at the same time as the strangulation, the strangulation might now stand out for her.
“Any form of domestic violence is treated very seriously and is prosecuted to the fullest,” Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said. “We believe that an accusation of strangulation should be met with more severe charges, and have worked with local police departments to make sure they know how to determine when this abuse has occurred.”
Bernardi added, “Symptoms such as raspy speech, difficulty in swallowing or loss of bladder control, among other signs, may be present even if there are no red marks on the throat. It is crucial for the responding officers to be able to document this abuse has taken place, because it can be difficult to prove in front of a jury.”