Contributed photo by Hermiston Police Department
A bill making its way through the Oregon Legislature would put domestic abusers who strangle their victims behind bars for longer.
Senate Bill 1562, passed unanimously by the Senate and headed for a vote in the House Friday in the waning days of the short session, would upgrade strangulation from a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail to a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison. It also expands the definition of strangulation to include knowingly halting a person’s breathing by applying pressure to their chest.
Advocates for domestic violence survivors are applauding the bill’s message.
“It makes a statement about what will not be tolerated,” said Kathryn Chaney, director of Domestic Violence Services in Umatilla County. “Hopefully it could be a deterrent.”
She cited a 2008 study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, which found that abusers who have escalated to strangulation are 750 percent more likely to eventually kill their victims. The act of cutting off a victim’s air supply — using methods ranging from squeezing the neck to covering the mouth and nose — is a huge red flag for “potential lethality” Chaney said.
“Preventing someone being able to breathe is saying, ‘I’m thinking of killing you,’” she said.
In her line of work Chaney has met many victims of strangulation by a family member or significant other, who are often “absolutely terrified.” Even when the incident convinces the person to face that fear and leave their abuser, post-tramautic stress disorder can linger for a long time.
Physical trauma can linger, too. Although strangulation can cause instant death, Chaney said one of the most sinister things about that particular act of violence is sometimes the effects can kill victims days or even months later. They may look undamaged from the outside but experience internal swelling, damage to the spinal cord, permanent brain damage, vision loss, vocal cord damage, seizures or fluid in the lungs causing pneumonia. Strangulation can cause blood clots that later lead to death by a stroke, or can damage the carotid body in a way that later causes a heart attack.
Sometimes loved ones of those being abused imagine that if their friend or family members were being strangled they would have visible bruising on their neck, but Chaney said sometimes no bruising ever emerges.
Umatilla County is not immune to strangulation as a form of domestic violence. Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said in Hermiston last year there were 36 cases of aggravated assault, of which 36 percent involved strangulation. Fifty-eight percent of the assaults were domestic, and of the domestic assaults 57 percent included strangulation.
He said the department did a “deep dive” into the assault data, analyzing everything from time of day to race and gender, to look for possible preventative measures.
“What we’re looking for is patterns, trends,” he said. “Is there something we can do?”
In more than half the cases, it was verified that a controlled substance was involved, but Edmiston said recent drug decriminalization laws in Oregon aren’t helpful there. He said adding another officer to the department to bring back a dedicated street team would help sweep up abusers who have warrants. Alert citizens who call the police when something is off can help too.
“Go with your gut,” Edmiston said. “Make the phone call and we’ll respond and maybe intervene before the situation gets out of hand.”
As for Senate Bill 1562, Edmiston said while he believes in holding perpetrators of abuse, including strangulation, accountable, he feels skeptical that the longer sentence will act as a deterrant in the moment. He said he has seen shocking cases of “just pure rage” in domestic violence that didn’t necessarily seem to fit the commonly-held narrative that strangulation comes as part of an escalating pattern over time.
Senate Bill 1562 would provide up to five years in prison for strangulation and leave the perpetrator with a felony record. Sen. Bill Hansell of Athena sponsored a similar bill in 2015 which would have made strangulation a felony but also added a number of other protections for domestic abuse victims, including justifying the use of physical force against an abuser who had previously assaulted the person and seemed in imminent danger of doing so again. The bill never got out of committee, which Hansell said was due to concerns by the committee chair about making all strangulation on the same level in the sentencing guidelines instead of treating certain cases, such as strangulation in the presence of a minor or on a pregnant victim, on a higher level.
This time, Hansell said, thanks to agreements on making some strangulation circumstances a higher level on the sentencing guidelines despite making them all felonies, the bill that Hansell signed onto as a co-sponsor got the support to pass the Senate unanimously and move onto the House, which will hold its third reading a vote on the bill Friday.
“Everyone was very pleased,” he said. “We’re getting to where we wanted to be a few years ago.”
Hansell said he became passionate about domestic violence-related legislation in his early days as a state senator after being invited to a meeting of domestic violence advocates in Pendleton.
He said strangulation is “almost without fail” part of the pattern in cases of fatal domestic violence and for that reason he believes getting perpetrators into prison for longer will help protect victims.
“It’s going to save lives,” he said.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.