Op-Ed: The Last Warning Shot

In the midst of all kinds of other late-breaking news, last week there was also a widely reported story of a man from Anchorage, Alaska, who walked out of court a free man.  He was charged with offering a woman a ride, strangling her unconscious, and then masturbating on her.  The grand jury in Anchorage had indicted 34-year-old Justin Schneider on four felony charges – and he ended his interactions with the court system by walking free.  The Assistant District Attorney in Anchorage, Andrew Grannik, called for an ‘expert’ opinion regarding Mr. Schneider’s possibility of recidivism.  The expert assessed the risk of Mr. Schneider re-offending  and described that risk as being “low.”  This expert could not be more wrong.  In domestic violence cases, strangulation is one of the top five risk factors for a future homicide.

This story is relevant to Tarrant County.  As our community service providers, law enforcement, and the Office of the Criminal District Attorney look more into strangulation here at home, we understand Tarrant County has a significant problem with this issue specifically – not surprising as Tarrant County has one of the highest rates of domestic violence homicide in the state.  Additionally, the research about strangulation as a form of intimate partner violence is staggering.  Conservatively, if you are strangled by your intimate partner, you are seven-hundred and fifty percent more likely to die at the hands of that abuser, probably by gun-shot.  Strangulation isn’t typically attempted homicide – at least not in the practical sense – it is a tool abusers use to display their power and control over a victim.  Those of us who work in this industry call strangulation the ‘last warning shot,’ the closest a victim can come to death and still live.  Most victims survive a strangulation assault, but strangulation can easily become a homicide.

Since the Anchorage story of this case has been circulating, the experts here in Tarrant County thought it best to widely share information about the dangers of strangulation on victims – and also the serious nature of this specific form of violence on the part of the offender.  Daily, three women and one man die from strangulation; ten percent of violent deaths in America are attributable to strangulation.  Most victims will not have visible external injuries.  It takes 6.8 seconds for a victim to fall unconscious from strangulation.  In 15 seconds, a victim can lose bladder control; in 30 seconds, bowel control.  Brain death can occur in as early as 60 seconds of being strangled.  The severity of signs is not an indicator of the severity of the injury itself as again, it is not uncommon for strangulation to have no visible injuries.  Women who are strangled and not killed can suffer permanent medical harm, including traumatic brain injury and major stroke.  Women who are pregnant and strangled can experience major harm to an unborn baby.

Stranglers are dangerous people with serious issues of power and control.  Let’s be clear:  they are certain to re-offend.

And we are increasingly aware that stranglers represent a danger to the greater community – not just their intimate partners.  This community includes police officers.  Multiple academic studies from around the country note that more than half of the men who kill or physically harm police officers have been found to have a history of strangling an intimate partner.

A significant percentage of those who stay at a SafeHaven domestic violence shelter, or walk through the doors of One Safe Place, report they have been strangled.  Strangulation can include any type of pressure on the victim’s neck, pushing the victim’s face into a pillow, putting a bag over a victim’s head, or any action that impedes breath, preventing the victim from breathing.  If Tarrant County is serious about ending domestic violence homicides, this is the sub-population of victims and offenders where we need to focus our efforts.  If you or someone you know is in a violent relationship, please call SafeHaven’s 24-hour DV hotline for Tarrant County at 877.701.SAFE(7233), or come to One Safe Place at 1100 Hemphill Street in Fort Worth.  We believe you.  We take you and your incident seriously.  We want you to be safe.

Kathryn Jacob
SafeHaven President/CEO

and Ken Shetter
One Safe Place President