By: Georgette Braun

Police and doctors are turning to technology to help identify invisible evidence of attempted strangulation

ROCKFORD — Each year, hundreds of women are nearly strangled by a boyfriend or domestic partner, but often there are no marks to show the abuse.

It’s an act of violence that can turn deadly quickly or slowly. Unconsciousness can occur within seconds and death within minutes, experts say, but even someone who survives the encounter could suffer long-term health issues.

“It’s like have a ticking time bomb inside your neck,” said Dr. Bill Smock, police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department and medical director of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in San Diego. He said he knows of a woman who suffered a stroke in mid-February after being nearly strangled four months earlier.

Arteries inside the neck can be damaged without any outside bruising. That’s why police and medical professionals in the region are increasingly turning to technology, namely use of a CT angiography machine, to identify the invisible evidence and potential health risks.

More than half of local women considered to be at high risk of being killed by a partner reported being choked by that person. But the prevalence had gone undocumented — if not unnoticed — until the Rockford Police Department and Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department in 2017 started conducting a lethality assessment when interviewing victims of domestic violence.

They found that nearly 64% of those whose scores showed a “high danger” of being killed had been choked. The two departments conducted 9,119 assessments through Feb. 20, with 5,274 in the high danger category.

More than 100 law enforcement officers, medical professionals and victim advocates will gather Friday at Veterans Memorial Hall to learn more about identifying and investigating strangulation crimes.

“When you squeeze the neck, you can tear the inside of the artery,” Smock said. The CT angiogram machine checks for vessel abnormalities. Treatment can involve using blood thinners to shrink any clot that develops so the artery can heal, he said.

Smock said one recent study showed that 1 of 47 women who had been choked had suffered a torn artery. “That is significant,” he said, adding that “the risk is if you don’t do a CTA and you send them home and they stroke, it is malpractice.”

Sgt. Mary Ogden of the Rockford Police Department said a 15-member task force on strangulation formed late last year is working to set up guidelines for better communicating risks to survivors. For example, a survivor might be more apt to consider undergoing a CT angiogram if a paramedic — rather than a police officer — tells her, “You need to get checked out.”

She also said task force members will be checking into ways to pay for the CT angiograms if insurance isn’t available.

“A lot of women want help but don’t know how to get it,” said Kimberly Wolgast, emergency department operational supervisor at SwedishAmerican Hospital and a task force member. “If you can save one life, it’s a big deal.”

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