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CMPD Focuses On Strangulation Cases

Lisa Worf
The scene outside police headquarters following last week's shootout between police and murder suspect Jonathan Bennett.

Those who handle domestic violence cases in Mecklenburg County are zeroing in on a particular crime - strangulation. In June, CMPD investigators, prosecutors, and medical providers will undergo training on how to better identify these victims and bring their cases to court. 

The man who killed over twenty people in a Texas church last year had something in common with the man who ambushed officers last week outside of CMPD headquarters. A history of strangulation.

Analysts at the Alliance for Hope International in San Diego point to a correlation between offenders who strangle and those who go on to murder. Sergeant Craig Varnum of CMPD’s Domestic Violence Unit says that has those who handle these cases in Charlotte paying attention.

“The crime of strangulation is probably the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed, under prosecuted, under investigated crime that we know of with the most potentially damaging ramifications – not only to the intimate partner, but to the community as a whole and, as we’ve seen, to police officers,” says Varnum.  

In 2016, CMPD charged 257 people with strangulation. Seven were convicted.

Varnum says North Carolina has some of the strongest statutes regarding strangulation, but these cases are tricky. For one thing, they can be tough to identify because often victims don’t remember what happened, since strangulation can cause part of the brain to shut down. And, another, investigators and prosecutors have to know how to ask the right questions. 

“We know that if we ask ten known victims of domestic violence, ‘Were you strangled?’ Eight out of ten will say, ‘No,’ says Varnum.

He says the better questions are: We’re you choked? Did he put his hands around your neck and you felt like you couldn’t breathe?’

He says strangulation victims are more likely to answer “yes” to those questions.

Alliance for Hope International will conduct the four-day training in June. Varnum says the only way to handle these cases is to have what he calls a system-wide collaborative team approach. That’s what he says CMPD, MEDIC, the District Attorney’s Office, and other organizations in Charlotte are working on.