'Calling card of a killer:' Strangulation is spousal abuse tipoff

Officers with the Waterloo Regional Police Service were trained this week on how to identify, investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases where women are strangled by their partners.

Strangulation a likely sign of homicide in domestic violence situations, experts say

'The man who slaps a woman is an idiot. The man who strangles a woman is a killer,' said Casey Gwinn, a former prosecutor who now trains others about how to recognize the signs of strangulation in domestic violence. Gwinn said men who strangle their partners are also more likely to commit other violent crimes. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Officers with the Waterloo Regional Police Service were trained this week on how to identify, investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases where women are strangled by their partners.

Incidents of non-fatal strangulation are a dangerous predictor of homicide but experts say the signs are too often overlooked by first responders and the justice system.

"Strangulation is the calling card of a killer," said trainer Gael Strack, chief executive of the U.S.-based Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. Strack was in Kitchener to train officers from Waterloo region police and other services. 

Research out of the U.S. suggests women who have previously been strangled by their partners are seven times more likely to later be killed, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine. 

'No external injury at all'

Death from strangulation can happen quickly or take place over time, Strack said, which can make it difficult to detect.

In some cases, a strangled person can lose consciousness within seconds, and die within minutes. In others, cumulative injuries develop after being repeatedly strangled which can pile up and lead to death. These can include brain damage, dissection of the carotid arteries causing stroke and early onset dementia.

Unfortunately, Strack said, the signs of strangulation are often invisible. First responders and medical professionals might not see any signs of bruising or scratching.

"You can strangle a person to death and have no external visible injury at all," said Casey Gwinn, Strack's training partner and president of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.

'It doesn't get more personal than putting your hands around someone's neck. Watching them take their very last breath,' said Gael Strack. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Strack said first responders and police need to ask victims more in-depth questions to figure out whether they may have internal injuries from strangulation.

That resonated with WRPS Staff Sgt. Terri-Lynn Turner, who has worked in policing for more than two decades and said strangulation has only recently become a major focus in domestic violence investigations.  

After this week, she said officers will use a new interviewing checklist to encourage victims to give more detailed answers.

"I think it's really just delving deeper into those interviews to elicit more specific information that is more helpful in the prosecution," said Turner.

Tracking becoming priority

Staff Sgt. Terri Turner says for much of her policing career, strangulation was not something police were aware of. She said that tracking cases involving strangulation will be easier going forward due to legislative changes. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

In the past, Turner said, it's been difficult to track the number of domestic violence cases involving strangulation in Waterloo region — but she said it should soon get easier.

In September, a new subsection was added to the Criminal Code making strangulation a separate offence.

"We'll definitely be able to actually track those numbers now by seeing how many times that section and that charge is actually laid," she said. "So we'll have a much better handle on it."

In the last two years, Turner said Waterloo region police have laid three charges for attempted homicide in cases involving strangulation.

Separately, the sexual assault and domestic violence treatment centre at St. Mary's General Hospital has also started tracking cases involving strangulation.

Julia Manuel, who directs the treatment centre, said the hospital has seen greater numbers of victims presenting with symptoms of strangulation, and hopes to get more conclusive local data about the scope of the problem.

"Unfortunately, we're coming in after the assaults already happen," said Manuel. "So how do we reduce those numbers and reduce the [amount] of strangulation?"

Manuel said she hopes tracking domestic strangulation will make it easier to understand, and to stop it from happening.



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