Lethality Assessment Protocol – North Carolina Criminal Law

Intimate partner violence is abuse or aggression that occurs in a romantic relationship, usually between current or former spouses or current or former dating partners. According to the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced some form of intimate partner violence. In North Carolina, 35.2% of women and 30.3% of men experience domestic violence and stalking in their lifetime.

Since 2018, the North Carolina Department of Justice (NCDOJ) has partnered with several communities across the state by sharing and helping implement the Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP). The LAP, which was originally created in 2005 by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, is a program designed to prevent intimate partner homicides and serious abuse by connecting high-risk victims with safety resources. This post gives a brief introduction of how the LAP works and information for NC communities that may wish to participate.

How does the LAP work?

Law enforcement officers who respond to domestic calls use an eleven-question instrument called the “Lethality Screen” to assess a victim’s risk of being killed by an intimate partner. Generally, many of the questions revolve around past behavior exhibited by the alleged offender, including attempts at strangulation and threats made toward the victim. Once the officer determines that there is or has been intimate partner violence, the officer separates the parties and administers the Screen to the victim. Based on the results of the Screen, the officer calls the domestic violence service program (DVSP) hotline in the county and offers the victim the opportunity to speak with an advocate about their safety and DVSP services. This is especially so when a victim is identified as “High-Danger” according to their answers on the Screen or the circumstances of the call for service. The LAP allows community partners to serve victims who otherwise may not access the life-saving services of the DVSP.

How can my county get access to the LAP?

Contact information for the NCDOJ’s point person on the LAP appears at the end of this post. Training is offered to any law enforcement agency or domestic violence partner agency at no cost. The NCDOJ works with communities to assess readiness, then facilitates an on-site LAP training for communities that have successfully completed the application process and committed to program requirements.

To date, LAP has been implemented in ten North Carolina counties: Alamance, Buncombe, Durham, Franklin, Henderson, Mecklenburg, Onslow, Orange, Pitt, and Wake.

Can the LAP Screen be used in court?

The LAP was developed to be a safety tool for law enforcement use. Evidence supporting its utility for that purpose is summarized in this paper. It was not developed for use by judicial officials, and as far as I know, has not been validated for that use.

Even so, the LAP Screen is not a confidential record. The reality is that once the result of the Screen is included in an officer’s incident report, it becomes discoverable and may be used by the parties in ways that are beyond its core purpose. For example, a judicial official may find the Screen informative for setting pretrial release conditions for offenders who are arrested at the scene. G.S. 15A-534(c) requires a judicial official to consider a variety of factors in determining which conditions of release to impose, including “any other evidence relevant to the issue of pretrial release.” More specifically, G.S. 15A-534.1—which governs pretrial release in domestic violence cases—allows a judicial official to retain the defendant in custody for a reasonable period of time while determining the conditions of pretrial release, when the official has determined that the immediate release of the defendant will pose a danger of injury to the alleged victim. A judicial official may well determine that a “High-Danger” LAP result is a relevant consideration which suggests that a defendant may need more stringent conditions of release.

Nonetheless, court officials are encouraged to exercise caution in how they use the LAP Screen. In addition to the concern about the scope of the Screen’s validation, there may also be a risk to victim participation and victim safety if the results of the Screen are not handled with care. Victims may be less likely to complete the Screen on the scene for fear of retaliation if the offender finds out it was used against them.

How will we know if it works?

The predictive value of the LAP has been studied in Maryland and has been reported (same paper as the one linked in the previous section) as recently as 2022. There is not yet any North Carolina-specific data available. However, according to the NCDOJ website, data from other jurisdictions shows that LAP can identify 92% of women facing near-fatal violence, and a study of female homicide victimization by males in Maryland found a 35-45% reduction following successful implementation of the LAP. Of course, there are people who disagree about the LAP’s efficacy. Some studies suggest that the LAP does not empower victims or result in victims taking protective measures, and that some officers view the LAP as extra paperwork that does not result in better information or outcomes.

Community partners who are interested in more information about the LAP and LAP training can visit the DOJ’s website here or contact Holly Jones at [email protected].

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