Contra Costa Aims to Stop Domestic Violence Homicides Before They Happen

On September 20, 2011, Rafael Zarate slipped an eight-inch kitchen knife into his boot and walked into the restaurant where his ex-girlfriend was just beginning her shift.

The troubles between Zarate and Jensy Romero had already gone on for months, according to court documents. Just a few weeks earlier, Romero tried to break it off for good. That’s when the threats to kill her and her children began.

Zarate called her constantly. He waited outside her home. He followed her.

Zarate also began showing up at Romero’s work on a daily basis — the only place he could see her face to face.

It was there that Zarate murdered Jensy Romero, stabbing her four times in the restaurant’s bathroom.

Last year, a jury in Contra Costa County convicted Rafael Zarate of first-degree murder and stalking. He is currently serving a 25-year to life prison sentence. Still, what vexes the county’s domestic violence agencies is the question: Could they have saved Jensy Romero’s life?

Contra Costa is now developing a program to prevent domestic violence-related homicides. Beginning this year, the county will begin testing a model designed to predict the most potentially lethal cases of domestic violence, and ultimately, prevent them from resulting in murder. Supported by a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, Contra Costa is among four sites across the nation selected to pilot screening models aimed at identifying and intervening in the highest risk cases. Over the course of two years, the Justice Department will measure the results, and depending on what they find, will recommend the most successful models to be replicated in jurisdictions across the United States.

In announcing the program last year, Attorney General Eric Holder noted that an average of three women die every day at the hands of an intimate partner. According to federal data from 2007, intimate partner violence accounted for 14 percent of all homicides. Another data set found that husbands or boyfriends murdered one-third of all female homicide victims.

In Contra Costa County, three law enforcement jurisdictions — Richmond, Concord and Brentwood — will be testing the Lethality Assessment Program, a screening model designed to help first responders to a domestic violence incident make an on-the-scene assessment of risk. The responders, such as police officers, hospital staff or domestic violence advocates, will administer a set of questions to the victim which can statistically anticipate the level of deadly risk. The questionnaire, based on an instrument called The Danger Assessment, includes 20 weighted questions based on risk factors shown to be associated with homicide and serious injury from domestic violence.

The items include questions about whether there have been previous incidents of violence, whether the abuser has made verbal threats to kill and whether there are weapons in the home. Other items may seem less obvious predictors: Is he unemployed? Do you have a child that is not his?

Devorah Levine, director of the county’s Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence Initiative, explains that in order to prevent homicides and near-homicides, it’s critical to analyze the cases in their full context.

“Domestic violence exists on a continuum,” Levine said. “It’s a pattern of power and control — sometimes over the course of an entire relationship; sometimes for a period of time — but it’s a pattern. It’s not a single incident.”

Officers in the Richmond Police Department will be among the first responders to be administering the lethality assessment questions in the field, said Captain Bisa French. Depending on the respondent’s score, officers will be prepared to immediately connect the victim with services.

“We know that the sooner we connect our victims to advocacy, the better results that we have,” French said. “Here, we try to surround the victim with services and provide all the resources they need so that this doesn’t occur again, and especially so it doesn’t turn into a lethal situation.”

French said Richmond detectives see about 45 to 50 domestic violence cases a month, mostly felonies. Every year, an average of one to three domestic violence cases result in homicide, she said.

Currently, when officers respond to a domestic violence call, there is no standardized set of questions required for assessing risk.

“They’re not looking at domestic violence from a lethality-prevention aspect; they’re only looking at taking the police report for the incident that’s happening at the time,” French said. “With this assessment, it will give them more of a bigger picture of what’s been going on and what could potentially happen.”

Deputy District Attorney Rachel Piersig, who was the prosecutor in Zarate’s murder trial, says that if the risk assessment tool had been available at the time, Jensy Romero’s life might have been spared.

“When she did go the police, they unfortunately didn’t identify the level of risk that she was at. There wasn’t actually a report taken,” Piersig said. “She was murdered four days later.”

In Romero’s case, there had already been signs of danger — the stalking, the threats. But one key opportunity for intervention came about just a few days before the murder, Piersig said.

On September 16, 2011, Romero finally called 911. Zarate had been stalking her for several weeks, but this day was a particularly intense. In an effort to get away, Romero wound up hiding from Zarate in another restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator, according to court documents.

“On the 911, it was pretty clear some crimes had occurred,” Piersig said. San Pablo police responded to the scene.

“By all accounts, she was told she needed to get a restraining order, and that the police couldn’t do anything,” Piersig said. “And so that’s one of those things — the police could have been mistaken.”

Later, investigators would find Zarate’s license plate number written down among Romero’s things — which, Piersig said, is something victims do when they fear they may be killed and want to leave a clue to the perpetrator. In her purse, investigators also found a business card for STAND! For Families Free of Violence, a local domestic violence advocacy group and a key partner in the county’s homicide prevention efforts.

Gloria Sandoval, chief executive officer of STAND!, agreed that there could have been a better response to the Romero case.

“There were many places where things fell down,” Sandoval said. “So we all failed in that case essentially.”

For Sandoval, who has been working for decades in domestic violence prevention, the case underscores the need for coordination between agencies.

“The biggest thing that we’ve learned is that we really need to work closely together as a system,” she said. “It makes a huge difference for the services that victims receive, and for how we hold perpetrators accountable. And we have a long way to go, I would say, but we’ve made some great strides in terms of systems change.”

In addition to partnering with law enforcement to provide immediate services to the victims identified in high-risk situations, Sandoval said that the operators of the organization’s 24-hour crisis hotline will eventually be administering the questionnaire themselves. Every year, she said, the organization receives calls from 13,000 to 15,000 new clients.

“The hope is that the evidence shows that this is a valuable way of conducting business,” Sandoval said. “And that we can find a way to fund the implementation countywide and that it would become standard protocol if we find out that it works.”

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