Marci Lopes was confident a new checklist used by police on the mainland would do wonders for domestic abuse victims in Hawaii.

In 2015, Lopes was executive director for the Hawaii Coalition Against Domestic Abuse and had heard of how arming police with what is called a Lethality Assessment Program or LAP form, helped abuse victims get help more quickly from police and social service agencies. At the time, police departments in 34 states were using the risk assessment tool devised by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

“I was very hopeful,” Lopes said.

But two years after Lopes and a team of advocates worked to get the LAP form in the hands of Honolulu Police Department officers, the department’s use of this tool to measure danger is on the wane.

The Honolulu Police Department’s downtown headquarters. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

HPD’s own protocol states the form is to be used if an assault has taken place, there’s a history of violence or if the officer feels “instinctively” that it would be useful.

However, data provided by Lopes, now deputy director of the Domestic Violence Action Center and the Honolulu Police Department show the number of times LAP forms are used by officers at crime scenes has fallen to nearly half of what it was two years ago.

By the end of July 2016, the first month HPD began using the form, officers had used it 223 times, according to data provided to the program’s creator, the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. But this past July – two years later – HPD officers filled out the forms 129 times, according to data the department provided to Civil Beat.

A Checklist Of Threats

By asking just three questions on the LAP form, a police officer can determine if a domestic violence victim is in immediate danger from his or her intimate partner and needs to move to a safer location, like a shelter.

Victims at the greatest risk of future violence, based on the form’s checklist, are put quickly in touch with Child & Family Service, a nonprofit that has been helping Hawaii families in distress since 1899. Agency workers can offer a victim help with housing, counseling or other services.

“It’s an evidence-based program,” said Lopes of the LAP form. “It’s supposed to make their job easier.”

The fall in use of the forms worries Lopes because the new data comes a month after another domestic violence program, the Safe On Scene program, was canceled. In that program, HPD had agreed to have officers contact advocates to come talk to domestic violence victims after they received a complaint.

The Honolulu Police Department has been using the LAP program since 2016. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

But HPD insists that the declining use doesn’t necessarily mean the LAP program is languishing. Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu said that as officers became more familiar with the form and how to use it, the number of times it was needed lessened.

“Officers were likely administering the LAP form more frequently because it was new and unfamiliar at the time,” said Yu.  “As they became more accustomed to using it, they were able to better identify when to use it.”

That reasoning doesn’t wash with Lopes.

“If anything, they should be doing it more because it’s familiar and easier to use,” she said.

Another reason for the dropoff may have to do with less stringent data collection and a possible change made by HPD in the way it now uses the form.

According to Assistant Chief John McCarthy, the department kept more diligent counts of each time the form was used because it had to when the program began in 2016, per HPD’s agreement with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, which administers the LAP program.

“I can’t recall the time period, but for that trial phase we monitored and kept everything to make sure we were in strict compliance,” McCarthy said.

However there is an indication that some HPD officers may not consider a victim in danger if they’ve made an arrest in the case.

“The LAP is an assessment, then and there,” McCarthy said. “If we remove the threat, there’s no need to do the assessment, necessarily.”

That’s not the way the program is supposed to work, experts said.

According to a Centers for Disease Control survey in 2015, one in four women and one in nine men have been the victims of stalking or physical and sexual violence by their intimate partners.

Other studies have shown that of the few victims who do seek help, they rarely do so through police officers. According to the CDC, more than half of the murders of women in the United States were at the hands of an intimate partner.

‘It Takes The Guessing Game Out Of Everything’

Jerald Monahan, the former chief of police in Prescott, Arizona, has long been a supporter of danger assessments at domestic violence scenes. He insists the forms are more than mere paperwork, he said. They inform the victim of other options and their risk if they remain in a violent situation. The form’s questions help prompt a victim to consider safer alternatives and that’s good for both the officer and the victim.

“Not only do we want the people in that home safe,” said Monahan, now the chief of police for Arizona’s Yavapai College. “Officers are shot and killed across the country in domestic scenes.”

On the neighboring island of Kauai, police officers have embraced the LAP form, according to Kauai Police Department Assistant Chief Roy Asher.

“It takes the guessing game out of everything,” he said. “There’s a set criteria, thresholds and it takes the decision-making out of officers’ hands.”

The program isn’t perfect, but advocates there have worked closely with the department to fine tune it over time.

“It is extra work for the officers and we try to encourage them and let them know how much their work makes an impact,” said Chelsea Crapser, the director of crisis and prevention services for the YWCA of Kauai. “It is asking for them to step out of the box a little bit. It is asking them to do a little more.”

But from the start, the program on Kauai has had buy-in from the officers themselves.

“KPD has always been open from the get-go to meeting regularly, to having some oversight,” Crapser said.

Page 1 of HPD LAP FORM

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author