Understanding Domestic Homicide: Offender Typology and Warning Signs
Studies across the globe confirm that the biggest threat of murder for women comes from the man with whom they are intimately involved. In the U.S., 35 percent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or boyfriend and studies in Europe show similar or higher percentages (Hanlon, Brook, Demery, & Cunningham, 2016).
A domestic violence homicide (DH) is different than a non-domestic violence homicide (NDH) for many reasons. First and foremost, in a DH incident, murder is almost never the first incidence of violence, threat, or coercion against the victim. Second, the evolution of the relationship to the point of murder comes with warning signs that officers and prosecutors can identify.
Characteristics of Domestic Homicide Victims
Women in poverty and with higher numbers of children in the household are at higher risk for domestic victimization, and women living in male dominated cultures are often slow to report or even identify certain behaviors as domestic violence (Kulkarni, Racine, & Ramos, 2012). Additionally, the same study found that women with higher levels of education are less likely to become domestic violence victims.
Every officer receives training on identifying domestic violence and why women stay with their abusers. The cycle of violence is taught in police academies to educate officers about the different stages of violence including the tension building stage, making-up stage, and the calm stage. Many women in these situations also become brainwashed by their abuser and can be convinced that they are to blame for the problems. Helping the victim overcome her self-blame and shame of reporting the abuse can be difficult, but is a very important aspect of successfully investigating these cases (Kulkarni, Racine, & Ramos, 2012).
Patrol officers are in a unique position to identify and keep an eye on domestic violence situations. Any patrol officer who has spent a few years working the same area can identify the residences where they receive repeated calls for assistance from domestic violence victims. However, those same officers can’t make an arrest unless there is probable cause. Stalking behavior can start with the offender showing up unannounced or monitoring the victim’s activity, but initially such behavior may not meet the requirements of a crime. However, it’s important for officers to still document these non-criminal behaviors as this evidence can prove pivotal in the investigation if the situation does evolve into a case of stalking.
There are other commonalities that can help an officer identify victims who might be in extreme danger of domestic homicide. The victims of DH are less likely to be under 20 years of age compared to the victims of NDH (Juodis, Starzomski, Porter, & Woodworth, 2014). Women who are in poor or failing health and women who attempt to separate or leave the situation are at significantly increased risk for DH (Monckton Smith, Szymanska, & Haile, 2017).
Police officers responding to repeated reports of domestic violence should take advantage of their position to evaluate the danger level and the relationship dynamic. Officers are able to watch the relationship evolve and their observations can play a key role in identifying when the relationship is escalating towards the point of domestic homicide.
Domestic Violence Offender Characteristics
It is also very important for officers to understand the risk factors of domestic violence offenders. A great deal of past research has shown that domestic homicide is not usually a crime of passion (Juodis, Starzomski, Porter, & Woodworth, 2014). The relationships that end in DH are often the culmination of escalating violence that ends in homicide. Several domestic violence risk assessment tools have been introduced with varying degrees of ability to predict DH. Risk assessments are a list of questions about prior acts of violence as well as questions about the relationship dynamic and other characteristics about the offender and victim that can be used to try to predict the chance of future violence.
The study by Juodis, Starzomski, Porter, and Woodworth (2014) utilized one particular risk assessment and found that 86.5 percent of cases they identified as “extreme danger” did in fact end in DH. The risk factors most commonly associated with domestic homicide offenders were the following:
- A prior history of violence that increased in severity was present in 83.8 percent of cases
- Alcohol was involved in 75.7 percent of cases
- An actual or pending separation in 70.3 percent of cases
- The suspect attempted to avoid arrest in 62.2 percent of cases
- Extreme jealousy on the part of the suspect in 62.2 percent of cases
- Threats to kill the victim in 51.4 percent of cases; and stalking behavior in 45.9 percent of cases
This particular study found several key factors that were also found in other recent studies across the globe. For example, women at the stage of finally leaving or separating from the offender are at great risk, which increases exponentially when increasing severity of attacks, alcohol, jealousy, threats, and stalking behavior are present.
Stalking and Domestic Homicide
According to another study, stalking behavior is very predictive of domestic homicide, but can be difficult to prove in the legal system. A study at the University of Gloucestershire by Monckton Smith, Szymanska, and Haile (2017) explored the relationship between stalking and DH. The study focused on identifying stalking behavior based on its severity or its duration. For example, officers might be quick to minimize a husband who drops his wife off at work every day or constantly calls to check on her whereabouts when these may actually be signs of dangerous stalking behavior. Officers must remember that every time they respond to a domestic violence incident, they are seeing merely a snapshot of the situation that is likely an ongoing trend.
The study defined stalking behavior as fixation, obsession, and surveillance by the offender, and when defined in that way, found that stalking behavior was present in 94 percent of DH cases in the study. Stalking behavior can easily go underreported because of its secretive nature and because many victims are reluctant to report domestic violence incidents in the first place. Police officers must take reports of stalking seriously and document them even if there is no probable cause for arrest at the time.
The following chart from Monckton Smith, Szymanska, and Haile (2017) could be very helpful to officers responding to domestic violence calls related to stalking behavior:
|History of stalking||Threats of suicide||Resentment|
|Persistence||Threats to kill||Failing mental health of victim or offender|
|Compulsion||Strangulation/restrict breathing||Financial ruin|
|Issues with rejection||Vexatious litigation, criminal allegation, child custody battles||Humiliation|
|Delusion||Entering the home covertly||Losing control of the victim|
|Routines/rituals||Acting on threats of sexual violence|
*The victim is at high risk for DH when at least one characteristic is present from each of the three categories.*
Patrol officers, detectives, and prosecutors should become aware of these domestic homicide studies to more actively identify high risk cases, protect victims, and effectively prosecute offenders. Police officers would do well to thoroughly document cases of stalking or escalating violence even if they do not rise to the level of criminal charges at the time. That documentation can help in the future if charges are filed and can assist in a more accurate threat assessment. Prosecutors can rely on police reports when making arguments on bond issues and victim protection. Protecting those who cannot protect themselves means responding patiently, intelligently and diligently to all kinds of domestic violence cases.
About the Author: Scot DuFour has been a police officer since 2004 and is currently an investigator in a domestic violence prosecutions unit for a district attorney’s office in Colorado. Scot was previously a police officer with the Aurora Police Department, Phoenix Police Department, and a task force officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a graduate of American Public University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
Hanlon, R., Brook, M., Demery, J., & Cunningham, M. (2016). Domestic homicide: Neuropsychological profiles of murderers who kill family members and intimate partners. Journal of Forensic Sciences 61(1).
Juodis, M., Starzomski, A., Porter, S., & Woodworth, M. (2014). A comparison of domestic and non-domestic homicides: Further evidence for distinct dynamics and heterogeneity of domestic homicide perpetrators. Journal of Family Violence 29(3), 299-313.
Kulkarni, S., Racine, E., Ramos, B. (2012). Examining the relationship between Latina’s perceptions about what constitutes domestic violence and domestic violence victimization. Violence and Victims 27(2), 182-193.
Monckton Smith, J., Szymanska, K., & Haile, S. (2017). Exploring the relationship between stalking and homicide. University of Gloucestershire Centre for Learning and Innovation in Public Protection. Retrieved from: http://eprints.glos.ac.uk/4553/1/NSAW%20Report%2004.17%20-%20finalsmall.pdf