Moab’s police department has, for years, been using a protocol that could soon be required by state law.

As the Utah State Legislature ramps up for its 2023 general session, at least one bill will focus on how law enforcement officers handle domestic violence calls.

Already, State Representative Candice Pierucci (R-District 49) is sponsoring HB 43, which proposes modifications to domestic violence policy. The bill would create a Domestic Violence Task Force which would collect data on the use of lethality assessments and the prevalence of domestic violence in the state; it would also devise a plan for improving data collection.

State Senator Todd Weiler (R-District 8) told the Salt Lake Tribune that he plans to sponsor a law that would create a state database of domestic violence calls that officers could access to track offenders; the law would also require agencies to use a questionnaire called the Lethality Assessment Program. The Moab City Police Department has already been using this protocol since 2018. 

Lethality Assessment

According to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, the Lethality Assessment Program, or LAP, is “a tool designed to reduce risks and save lives.” It’s based on a model developed in Maryland. If first responders to a domestic violence scene believe a victim of abuse may be in danger, they’ll ask the person who was abused 11 evidence-based questions, called the lethality screen. The questions are meant to give an indication of the likelihood that the person could be at risk of serious injury or death.

If the lethality screen score reaches a certain threshold, first responders—who could be law enforcement, EMS or other community professionals—will inform the victim that there is concern for their safety, and that in similar situations, other people have been killed. They’ll connect the person with local resources—in Moab, Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center is the main contact for people who have suffered domestic violence. The coalition reports that between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, 4,585 LAP screens were conducted across Utah, with 3,709 indicating a high level of danger.

Moab police use LAP

Moab’s Assistant Chief of Police Lex Bell said the questionnaire is already widely used in police departments, including the city’s.

“In any domestic violence call, we do a lethality assessment,” Bell said. Often, officers will give the assessment to both the suspect and the victim, as those roles can switch in a relationship. Even if the call is only for a verbal argument, if officers respond, they’ll use the LAP, Bell said. 

Former Police Chief Bret Edge led the department in partnering with Seekhaven to learn the LAP protocol. In 2019, he told the Moab Sun News that based on data from the Victims’ Advocate office, the LAP is effective in preventing harm.

At that time, however, it seems the assessment was only used when an arrest was made—then-acting Police Chief Brayden Palmer explained this to reporters who asked why the assessment was not used during the Petito-Laundrie domestic violence incident that became national news when Laundrie killed Petito weeks after their interaction with Moab police. No arrest was made in that case, though both parties had minor injuries from a physical altercation.

An investigation into the Petito-Laundrie stop yielded a report with recommendations for the Moab Police Department, including a recommendation that the agency implement a lethality assessment protocol in all domestic violence cases. Bell clarified that the LAP is now MCPD policy for all domestic violence calls, even if there is no arrest or even no injury. 

Domestic violence is a high priority for the department—though he wasn’t able to share specific data, Bell said it’s probably one of the top three types of incidents to which Moab officers respond.

Leadership at the MCPD have been going over the department’s policy to update and improve it. The updated policy section on handling domestic violence is inclusive and thorough, Bell said.

“It has a lot of language that we feel helps us do the job better,” he said.

Bell said that the creation of a state database, which could be part of Weiler’s bill, would be helpful in addressing domestic violence.

“It would be fantastic to know if there’s been a history,” he said. Right now, it’s not easy for officers to find out about past incidents unless they were recorded in the same system used by their agency.

Several trainings for officers in the coming weeks will break down and explain the new policy to help officers understand it well.

“It’s one of the most important policies,” Bell said, “because it’s such a prolific issue, and it’s so difficult.”