A serious indication
Tulsa Police Department combats domestic strangulation through education—and arrests
Strangulation is one of the biggest signs that a physically abusive relationship has the potential to turn deadly.
“It’s indicative of an escalation—that things are getting worse,” said Sgt. Clay Asbill, head of the domestic violence unit at Tulsa Police Department (TPD). “It doesn’t mean all domestic strangulations end up in homicide, but in a large part of attempted and domestic homicides, there is a history of domestic strangulation.”
According to the San Diego Tribune, a study published in 2014 showed that women who had been strangled were almost eight times more likely to end up victims of homicide than women who suffered other forms of abuse.
According to another study, quoted in the 2017 Oklahoma Domestic Fatality Review Board annual report: “Non-fatal strangulation was reported in 43 percent of homicides and 45 percent of attempted homicides of women … another study of 300 cases of female attempted strangulations in the San Diego Domestic Violence Unit of the city prosecutor’s office found that in 89 percent of the cases there was a prior history of IPV [Intimate Partner Violence].”
Survivors of strangulation—regardless of age—may suffer serious, long-term injuries including memory loss, stroke, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and blindness.
In 2013, when the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was re-authorized, strangulation and suffocation were elevated to felony offenses under federal law. This is one example of why re-authorizing VAWA (which was set to expire Sept. 30 and was extended until Dec. 7) is crucial.
Locally, TPD’s Domestic Strangulation Initiative—spearheaded by Asbill—is already making a difference in the lives of strangulation survivors. Asbill became head of the domestic violence unit in early 2017, when Tulsa County had the highest rate of domestic homicides in the state. He made strangulation a priority in his office by launching the initiative at the tail end of 2017.
“Since we’ve started the strangulation protocol, we have increased by 100 percent the numbers of people who have come in this January to July  over January to July last year,” Asbill said. “So, it’s working. We have been successfully able to intervene and have sent several people to the hospital who should have gone earlier. We were able to catch it before they had a stroke or stopped breathing.”
Victims are also able to receive a forensic nurse exam at the Family Safety Center (FSC), housed in the Police Courts Building (600 Civic Center), to document their injuries—which could be important if the victim is seeking a protective order—or to understand if their injuries are severe and need emergency medical attention.
“The nurses here [at the Family Safety Center] have kept records since 2006,” said Suzann Stewart, the Center’s director. “They did a 10-year scan and found 80 percent of the people they had examined over the last 10 years alleged strangulation.”
In 2017, the Oklahoma Domestic Fatality Review Board’s number one recommendation was that “all professionals working with victims of domestic violence: advocates, judges, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, child welfare, mental health/substance abuse professionals, and healthcare professionals should participate in strangulation awareness training.”
“I think sometimes law enforcement in general has treated it like a misdemeanor, probably because we weren’t educated on it,” Asbill said. “Which is why I’m trying to make them understand the danger of it.”
To that end, domestic strangulation arrests made by TPD officers doubled in the past year.
TPD officers are now also trained to give a trifold strangulation/choking info card to all victims of domestic strangulation. The cards, which are printed in Spanish and English, include a drawing of observable signs of strangulation—like a bloody eye from burst blood vessels or finger-shaped bruises around the throat. The card offers information on the Family Safety Center (where services are free), provides space to take notes about symptoms, date and time, and physician information, and gives warnings for when care is immediately necessary, like if one experiences loss of consciousness, trouble seeing, neck pain, trouble breathing, severe headache, dizziness, seizures, loss of bladder control, and other signs of distress.
If you have been strangled or choked and need immediate medical attention, call 911. If you think you have no symptoms, call the Family Safety Center for a forensic nurse exam: 918-742-7480 (and after hours or on weekends at 918-743-5763). If you need other help regarding domestic violence or sexual assault, call the 24/7 confidential DVIS crisis line at 918-7HELP-ME (918-743-5763).