Idaho police learning to identify signs of strangling
Katherine Jones / The Idaho Statesman
Angela Weekes (left) and Kari Seibel lead the Nampa Police Department's charge against domestic violence, which focuses in part on recognizing the signs and significance of strangulation. The NPD is one of the first departments in the nation to adopt a new online training program on strangulation, and it's required of all employees.
But when police arrive to investigate domestic violence, those women aren't likely to report the strangulation. And evidence might not be readily apparent.
Nampa police and the Canyon County Sheriff's Office are among the first in the nation to mandate that officers take a new online course from the National Strangulation Training Institute.
That training is the source of some sobering statistics, including the fact that nearly half of all domestic violence murder victims experience at least one non-fatal strangulation.
Victims tend to be too afraid or embarrassed to mention that they've been strangled, said Nampa Detective Kari Seibel, who handles all domestic violence cases in the city. Perpetrators tend to downplay strangulation or choking, she said, as if it's inconsequential compared to hitting.
In reality, it's more dangerous.
Cutting off someone's air and blood flow is a damaging and intimidating act, Seibel said. And it's likely a sign of lethal action to come.
"That's a heavy point I try to hit home when I talk to victims," she said. "I can't express how important it is that I get across to them, 'You almost died. Your kids almost lost their mother. Don't become a homicide victim.'
"To hear, 'I suspect you'll be killed at the hands of somebody you love,' that's a powerful thing."
The most recent homicide in the Treasure Valley involved a strangulation, police say. Bruce Macomb, 62, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his 58-year-old wife, Beba, at their Boise home.
Learning to recognize the signs of strangulation, take time to build a case and get help for victims is essential to the Nampa Police Department's mission, said Chief Craig Kingsbury.
Last month, Kingsbury mandated that all employees -- from officers and dispatchers to administrators and clerks -- complete the short online training course.
"We could have a victim that has been strangled come up to the front window or one of our substations, and I want the first face they see to recognize the signs," he said.
"The big deal is we may save their lives."
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue issued a similar mandate last week, requiring the training for "any of our officers and dispatch personnel that would have some kind of contact with victims in these kinds of cases."
Crime lab workers and command staff, including Donahue, also will take the training, he said.
"I think I'm going to be the first sheriff in the state of Idaho to make it mandatory, but I think we're going to see many others do the same thing," said Donahue, who launched a "Man Up Crusade" last year to increase awareness of domestic violence and raise money for victims.
"This is an extraordinary tool for our officers, to educate them that . there may be more than what they're being told or what they're seeing," he said.
Signs of strangulation are often subtle and unexpected, said Nampa Detective Cpl. Angela Weekes, who has long led the police charge against domestic violence in the city.
It could be a raspy voice or the victim could be urinating on herself -- a common result of strangulation that victims are unlikely to report unless asked. Rarely, she said, are there obvious signs, such as finger marks on the throat.
Weekes said 62 percent of strangulation victims don't have external marks.
"Just looking for strangulation marks, we really missed the boat for years, including me," said Weekes, who wrote the initial grant for the Nampa Family Justice Center and offers training in the Treasure Valley and beyond.
Officers are now trained to assess domestic violence cases according to risk indicators, of which attempted strangulation is one of the four leading danger signs. The others are forced sex, a recent separation and extreme possessiveness.
"In the old days, the goal when you responded to a domestic violence case was to just get the people to settle down, and don't make us come back," said Kingsbury, a 21-year Nampa veteran who became chief last month. "Now you go there and handle it as a major crime scene, which it is. The emphasis for the officers is to make sure they spend time on the call, ask questions and document the scene.
"The cases are a lot better prepared for prosecution, and that results in a lot more guilty pleas," Kingsbury said.
Plus, he said, if police can establish that an assailant tried to strangle a victim, a crime that otherwise would have been a misdemeanor automatically becomes a felony under Idaho law.
The Nampa police's ramped-up efforts to fight domestic violence include creating Seibel's position last June, the first time one detective has been assigned to oversee all of the cases.
"She probably has the largest caseload of any detective," Kingsbury said.
Seibel said that in 195 calendar days of work, she has been assigned 199 cases. Statistics don't show how many of those cases involved attempted strangulation.
Now that officers are better equipped to detect it, she said, "we expect our numbers to go up, unfortunately."
Gael Strack, National Strangulation Training Institute project director, praised Kingsbury and other law enforcement leaders who are mandating the training. The institute aims to have 5,000 U.S. officers complete the training by March 31.
"If we can prevent even one homicide by early prosecution of an abuser when he strangles his partner and she survives, all our work will be worth it," Strack said.
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