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STRANGULATION: IDENTIFYING A NEW EPIDEMIC
Conference on Crimes Against Women works with law enforcement to help investigate, reduce incidents of abuse
By Marc Robertson
Late on a Saturday night, a lone sheriff’s deputy responds to a call from a home on the edge of town. A fight has broken out between a couple who share a single-wide trailer house with four children and an elderly relative. The deputy parks her patrol cruiser in a trash-strewn and unpaved driveway.
A woman lies partially clothed in the dirt, illuminated only by the light from an open door and the red and blue flashes from the deputy’s mud-splattered truck. She is still clutching the cellphone that she used for the 911 call.
Children’s faces can be seen peering around the door frame, eyes wide with fear at the sight of the officer. Then they are whisked away, and the door to a far bedroom slams.
Law enforcement officers working routine patrols in South Texas communities are finding themselves called with increasing frequency to situations involving domestic violence.
What may have previously gone unreported is that a victim of abuse in the home was strangled.
Today, that patrol deputy approaches the scene outside the trailer house with a wealth of new information at her disposal, and the skills to examine and investigate the situation in ways that will determine exactly what kind of violence has been committed.
A new training course is being made available to local and regional agencies by the Institute for Coordinated Community Response and is being offered to deputies of the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office in video format. La Salle Investigator Homar Olivarez believes the course is vital in helping address a growing issue of domestic violence, especially in rural communities, notably cases that involve strangulation.
The assault is often known by its penal-code term, ‘impeding breath or circulation,’ involving a form of violence between two people in which one either applies pressure to the throat or neck of another or applies body weight, sometimes by kneeling.
Olivarez says the frequency of incidents involving some form of strangulation should be of grave concern to all law enforcement agencies as well as counselors and advocates against domestic violence.
“Regardless of whether we are marking Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the issue of impeding breath or circulation is something that we should be addressing,” the investigator says. “Domestic violence isn’t something that only occurs during one month or requires attention at a specific time of the year. It is something we deal with all year round, and that means our officers may be handling such cases on a daily basis.”
La Salle Sgt. Elvira Gonzales concurs, adding that she believes incidents of domestic violence involve attempts at strangulation more frequently than was often reported in the past.
The sergeant describes responding to a call involving a domestic dispute and finding a household of children, parents and grandparents, many of whom may have been traumatized by witnessing or being victims of abuse. At the heart of the case, though, she says there is likely to be a victim who has suffered at the hands of an assailant and may already have begun exhibiting signs of physical abuse.
The likelihood that the victim of strangulation is a woman is a detail not lost on the officers.
“When we approach a victim, we have to be very sensitive to the situation,” Sgt. Gonzales says. “We will need a medical evaluation immediately, but we also have to remove the potential victim from the situation, to speak with her calmly and to allow her to express to us what has happened, without fear of recrimination.
“We are going to look for visible signs of strangulation, among other forms of physical abuse,” Sgt. Gonzales said. “There will be indicators, but the physical effects of strangulation are such that the outward signs such as bruising may not appear until later.”
Gonzales and Olivarez say they believe the new training courses available to officers across the state have aided investigation of possible strangulation and have given officers an improved outlook and approach to cases of assault.
“We are more confident in handling these cases,” the sergeant says. “We are more successful in seeing these cases through to a grand jury indictment. We have the investigative tools to make a case that will go to prosecution.”
Investigator Olivarez says he believes officers have responded well to the new training courses because they have a better understanding of the true nature of strangulation.
“On the matrix of domestic violence, from mental abuse and neglect all the way up to homicide, strangulation is right before homicide,” Olivarez says. “The victim is seconds away from being killed. Impeding breath or circulation is essentially an attempt to stop the vital flow of blood or oxygen in the body.
“The brain can’t go on for very much longer without a fresh supply of oxygen or blood,” Olivarez says. “To strangle someone by impeding breath or circulation of the blood is to put them within seconds of death.”
As a crime on the Texas Penal Code, strangulation was first recognized only as recently as 2009, when it became a state offense. Previously reported only as a form of abuse in a case of aggravated assault, strangulation is now classified as a third-degree felony “because of the threat of death from this severe form of physical harm,” Olivarez says.
Research into past cases and a further examination of cases currently underway have revealed strangulation had occurred when previously it had not been noted, the investigator says.
“Research from homicides has shown that there was strangulation, but it still wasn’t widely recognized how severe the event had been,” he says. “Homicide detectives were familiar with it, but there were survivors of strangulation who had been victims of severe violence.
“The Texas Legislature recognized the severity of the act of strangulation and created a classification as an offense in family-based assaults,” the investigator says. “It was enacted, but no training was widely available to us at the time. Officers were applying old investigative elements pertaining to assault, and they were looking for evidence based on that, not on the possibility that strangulation had occurred.”
The investigative measures and the prosecution of assailants took a dramatic step forward when Travis County prosecutor Kelsey McKay identified an apparent lack of information available to officers and began leading the way in teaching new methods of investigating the assault and pointing out ways in which to show that an assault had led to strangulation.
“Her involvement led to development of an evidence-gathering method for officers responding to allegations of what were now being regarded as strangulation events,” Olivarez says. “Some years later, at a conference in San Antonio, McKay went over what officers were missing in some of these cases, what they were failing to catch.”
Both Olivarez and Sgt. Gonzales are quick to note that acts of strangulation are found in cases of domestic violence across the state and nation, and that the severe physical abuse is not limited to South Texas. Locally, however, they believe officers will benefit from the training courses initiated by McKay because of the frequency with which deputies and police officers are dispatched to incidents of violence in domestic disputes.
“I know it sounds unusual to say it like this, but we effectively saw the quality of the cases improving,” the investigator says. “That is to say, our officers are now able to identify strangulation as having occurred, which gives us a greater ability to pursue a case to prosecution and to remove a violent assailant from the environment in which there are potential victims.”
Olivarez and Gonzales describe the nature of strangulation as “highly medical,” as it constitutes a specific action aimed at bringing a victim close to death or ending a life.
“The method of recording such an event relies on a lot of medical symptoms,” Sgt. Gonzales says. “These are largely different from a physical assault on other parts of the body that cause visible injury. Strangulation – impeding breath or circulation – is more of an internal rather than external injury. The symptoms will be different.”
Gonzales was sent by the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office to one of the first series of in-person training classes offered by McKay’s new initiative in 2018, when the prosecutor helped spearhead a statewide initiative.
“This gave me more in-depth training, which is what we all needed,” Sgt. Gonzales says. “It gave us a huge advantage in detailing our reports.”
The training course pays special attention to what instructors describe as “best practices in strangulation investigations,” according to a prepared statement by the organization.
The institute is a program of the Conference on Crimes Against Women (CCAW), created to provide training and technical assistance to rural Texas counties. The video series is being made available to law enforcement agencies across the state free of charge. Olivarez hopes that all law enforcement agencies will pick up the thread and give officers access to the course.
Titled ‘Strangulation Investigations,’ the training course prepares law enforcement officers “to recognize and effectively document evidence of strangulation, leading to more successful felony prosecutions and increasing safety for entire communities,” the organization noted in its press release.
“The use of strangulation is a strong indicator of future violence and homicide,” the CCAW reported. “Although strangulation is a felony in Texas, this crime is often overlooked due to elusive evidence, including frequent lack of visible injury and the already complicated dynamics of domestic violence crimes.”
“What causes strangulation? What brings an assailant to the point that he or she wants to strangle the life out of someone? That’s a question that is hard to answer,” Olivarez says. “More often than not, we are dealing with a person who has a lust for power, in other words someone who feels the need to exercise strength or control over another, sometimes in the household, sometimes a partner or loved one. It manifests itself in a violent attempt at gaining physical control over someone who can’t defend him- or herself.
“It is the ultimate way for abusers to show you that they have your life in their hands,” Olivarez says. “And I mean that literally.”
As a form of physical violence frequently found in cases of domestic assault, strangulation represents the final step in a progression of abuse, the investigator says.
“It started somewhere,” Olivarez says. “Has there been a pattern of long-term abuse, increasing in violence to this point, seconds away from homicide? These are questions we have to ask.”
Law enforcement agencies in Texas, including the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, have now taken advantage of the robust and consequential ICCR-provided training that the CCAW believes “will make a difference to local citizens and victims of this often-neglected crime.”
The course includes six 10-15-minute videos complete with discussion and resource guides. The videos are designed to be viewed during the “roll call” or shift-change meetings that law enforcement agencies commonly use as a time to share updates and training with all officers.
Roll call training sessions are considered uniquely beneficial, according to both the CCAW and Investigator Olivarez, as they focus on complex issues that many officers have not previously received advanced training on, and are easily shared between individuals and departments, allowing the information provided to reach many people simultaneously.
The goal of the Conference on Crimes Against Women is “to create an overall reduction in the rate of crimes against women, and ultimately eliminate violence against women.”
“It is also, however, a primary part of our mission to improve the way crimes against women are investigated and prosecuted,” the CCAW reported, “as well as to improve the way victims are treated throughout the criminal justice system. The problem of domestic violence is so pervasive and at such epidemic proportions, that tangible decreases in the rate of violence against women will not be seen until all women are safe in their homes.
“Conferences like CCAW create the momentum and the network to allow for the culture shifts necessary to end the epidemic of violence against women,” the organization noted.
“Yes, there has been an increase in the number of incidents of impeding breath or circulation, in cases of domestic violence,” Olivarez says. “Since we first became aware of the availability of this training, it has been like night and day, in the number and in the detail of cases filed. It shows that there is a problem. We have to recognize that there is an uptick in the number of incidents, but this is also reflected in the uptick in the number of cases that identify strangulation as having occurred.”
Feature inset: Strangulation
“He just wouldn’t stop… I could hear my daughter screaming”
STRANGLED: A SURVIVOR SPEAKS
By Marc Robertson
When she came home from a night at her cousin’s house last summer, Kristi M. found the lights on, the television showing cartoons, children asleep on the living room floor, and her boyfriend shirtless, unconscious on the couch.
The man who had strangled her to within an inch of her life only the night before had already been released from custody and had celebrated with a six-pack of beer.
Kristi has spent the past ten hours curled up in her cousin’s armchair, sometimes in tears, sometimes speechless with rage, and sometimes wondering how she could have been at fault for the assault she sustained on Saturday night.
“He was my boyfriend in high school,” she says, looking at her reflection in a cracked cellphone screen and trying to wipe the eyeliner from her cheeks. “Look at me. I can’t go back in there like this. I’m a mess.”
Kristi straightens her torn shirt, runs her fingers through matted hair, and climbs out of the car.
Within minutes, she is back. The front door to the house is still open.
“They’re all asleep,” she says, drops back into the car seat and begins to sob. “The kids were watching cartoons. They must have fell asleep right there.
“He’s on the couch already,” she says. There is a finality to it. She knows she must go back into the house. She knows that she must act as though everything’s alright, if she is to avoid being beaten again.
She must do it for the children.
Kristi touches her throat.
“He put his hands here,” she says, almost matter-of-factly. “He squeezed, and he was shouting. I don’t even remember what he said.”
Faint blue and red marks have begun appearing on either side of Kristi’s throat. They might have been there at midnight, when the beating stopped, but she can’t remember.
“He was so sweet, you know?” The idea has struck her, even though it seems not to fit the man she last saw through the window of a police car. “He was always a sweet guy. He would do nice things for the kids. But when he got mad about something… I don’t know what happened.”
Kristi summons her courage again and opens the car door.
“I have to go,” she says, and looks at her fingernails. “Look at these. This one’s broken, and this one too. I think I broke them on his hands… I don’t know.
“He was… I don’t know how to say it, but he just wasn’t himself,” she says, now wiping away a new tear. The eyeliner is going to run again. She dabs her face, but it doesn’t help hide the exhausted, reddened eyes. “He gets this way… but last night was different. He’s never choked me like that before.”
Kristi stares through the windshield. The front door beckons. Perhaps she hopes the children are still asleep. She doesn’t know if they’ve been fed.
“I keep saying I don’t know, don’t I?” Kristi tries to laugh, but it comes out as a cough. “I don’t know this, and I don’t know that… I couldn’t tell the police anything.
“Besides, this still kinda hurt,” she touches her throat again. “He strangled me, didn’t he?”
Realization comes as a shaft of sunlight stretches across the hood of the car. There is no breeze on this stifling South Texas day. Kristi sinks into the car seat again, her courage gone.
“Let’s do this, then,” she says after a moment’s silence. “But you won’t put my name in the paper or anything like that? Okay, then.”
Kristi stares at her fingernails again. The bright red is sharply out of place in the pale sand color of everything around her. The dust, the dried plants, the battered siding on the house… everything is beige.
Except her pretty nails.
Those are red.
Red like a happy feeling, a favorite color for a little girl. Red like candy. So red that you have to smile.
“Can you put a different name? You can? Okay.”
I can and I have.
“He’s not working right now, I guess,” she says after taking a deep breath of the hot afternoon air. She lights a cigarette. “Do you mind if I smoke? Okay. Well, he says he’s got no money. He buys beer, though. He still gets a lot of that.
“I feed the kids, take them with me to the store… I only work part-time now. There’s no jobs here, since the oilfield went down. My mom lives here too, but she gets sick a lot. She doesn’t go out. Me and her, we both get Lone Star, so that pays for the food.
“We were all at home and the kids wanted pizza, but I didn’t have enough money for pizza,” Kristi says slowly. “Maybe that’s what set him off. Maybe he wanted pizza too. I don’t know.
“There I go again, saying I don’t know,” she smiles at last. “But I don’t know. Things just got worse. The kids were being loud. They were begging, y’know? Maybe you don’t know.
“I wanted the kids to be quiet. My mom was trying to sleep. There was just so much noise, and then it happened,” she says. “He just suddenly slammed his fist on the kitchen counter. Bam! It was really hard. Everyone just stopped and stared at him, but I guess he didn’t know that everyone had stopped talking.”
Kristi thinks a while about where the children were at that moment, what was playing on television, what her mother had said last, and how much money she had left in her purse.
Pizza had been out of the question.
It’s hard to tell children they can’t have pizza.
“It’s really hard sometimes, I guess.” Kristi draws on her cigarette. The smoke idles through the open car door. “He was mad. He was really mad.
“He pushed me like this…” Kristi jabs her forefinger into my chest. “He pushed with a kind of punch, but just with his finger. I went backwards. I put my hands on his stomach… he’s so tall, you know.
“I put my hands there, and tried to stop him coming closer. I actually wanted him to back off, to leave. I really just wanted him to leave, can you believe it?”
Kristi stubs her cigarette into the dirt on the driveway.
“He was all, I don’t know, like ‘don’t you touch me,’ and he called me a bitch. I think I was starting to cry. He hates that. I couldn’t help it.
“He pushed me again, and I was up against the counter, like this,” Kristi leans backwards in her car seat and lowers her face. She looks defenseless and cornered, even in the big car. “I didn’t want him to see me cry, but he knew. I just felt like there was nothing I could do.”
Kristi lights another cigarette. Recalling the night before, minute by minute, is making her anxious. Perhaps she fears that he will know she has remembered what he did.
“Sorry, but I guess I’m nervous,” she says. “Anyway… so the next thing I knew, he was pushing me again. He just wouldn’t stop… I could her my daughter screaming. My little boy was pulling on my pants, right here on my pocket. See? Like this. He’s just pulling, like he wants me to come away from his dad.
“The kids knew something was wrong. They were scared. I mean, they were real scared. I think the screaming got worse… I don’t know.”
Kristi was in the trailer house doorway when she felt his hands around her neck. She remembers feeling her cellphone in her pocket, the same pocket her son had been tugging only moments earlier.
“Do you think he knew? I mean, do you think my little boy knew that the cellphone was there, like for calling the police or something?” Kristi stares through a billow of smoke. “God, no.”
When Kristi did call 911, she was on the ground outside the house. She remembers that her knees were in the dirt.
She remembers her fingernails being broken.
She remembers the pressure of his hands around her throat.
“He was so heavy,” she says. “You know, he’s a big guy. His hands were huge. Look at me, all messed up like this.
“The railing up there, by the door,” she nods towards the house. “Right there, that’s where I felt him… like, choking me? Is that what it’s like? Like… so heavy on me, and I couldn’t breathe.
“That was probably when I did this,” she lifts her fingers into the sunlight. Red, broken nails. “Look at this one… maybe I scratched him. Maybe that’s what made him so mad.”
Kristi’s cigarette has burned down to its filter. She tosses it onto the ground. She watches it roll into a tire rut in the dirt.
“The police showed up, you know. I had called, but I didn’t know what to say,” she says thoughtfully. Later, she will remember telling the dispatcher that her boyfriend was drunk and that he had struck her. She is surprised at herself for having called.
“You’re not going to put my name, right?” Kristi asks again. “Okay, well, I guess one of the officers asked me some stuff, and another one was talking to my boyfriend. I just saw them put him in the police car. Yeah… he was drunk.
“I know my mom was here, and she called my cousin, which is where I was all the rest of the night,” Kristi says, a pang of guilt in her voice. “I was, like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. But my kids… I just want to be with my kids now.”
Kristi climbs out of the car. She curls her fingers to hide the broken nails.
“I’m sorry,” she says, leaning down to look through the car window. “I have to go. My kids are in there…”
Kristi pushes the car door shut and catches her reflection in the glass. She touches her throat.
“Does it show? I don’t know if it shows,” she says. It does. I don’t reply. “It shows, doesn’t it?”
Kristi makes an attempt at smiling in place of thanking me, either for the ride home or the interview; I can’t tell which, but it is halfhearted.
She doesn’t pause any more before walking up the steps and into the house.
Her hand wraps around the door handle as she pulls it closed.
Just for a moment, the red nails are bright against the dull beige paint.