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Westchester Police Chief On Domestic Violence, New Laws

Police Chief Gregory Camp recounts last murder cases, domestic disputes and the impact of the new strangulation laws in New York State.

The tragic death of Theresa Gorski has turned her husband’s attempted murder charge into murder and means Sleepy Hollow is now seeing its first homicide case in over a decade.

Sleepy Hollow Police Chief Gregory Camp had to go a long way back to remember the last homicide case here. Over ten years ago, when he was a sergeant, he recounted there were several incidents one or two years apart in the inner village: a shooting on Valley Street and a murder/suicide on Cortlandt. The incident on Valley Street he believed was the act of a jealous lover.

While murder may be rare, domestic disputes are certainly not.

By Camp’s count there were roughly over 200 domestic dispute calls the Sleepy Hollow Police Department responded to last year, which says nothing about the nature of what they respond to beyond its frequency.

Camp estimates that police respond to several such calls each week, “at least.”

New on the books is the strangulation charge Christopher Howson received along with murder in the second degree. The strangulation charge dates back only to 2010 in New York State penal code.

The New York Law Journal, in an article about the death of public defender Gorski, described how the strangulation law was meant to cover a gray area and save lives:

It was created to fill a gap in the Penal Law after authorities and advocates complained that domestic violence victims were often choked to the brink of death and, absent a visible physical injury, district attorneys could charge nothing more serious than harassment, a mere violation. Until November 2010, strangulation was not a crime in New York State.

The law caught on immediately. The state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) reports that about 1,000 strangulation arrests are made every month.

Johanna Sullivan, counsel to the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, told the New York Law Journal that strangulation may leave no marks but can bring someone to the edge of death, again and again. She said studies show that victims who have been strangled in the past are nearly 10 times more likely to die in a domestic dispute.

"Someone can strangle someone almost to the point of dying, and will use that over and over again as a way of gaining power and control," said Sullivan. "They threaten the victim by almost killing them."

A strangulation report issued by the DCJS in September, 2012 ranks Westchester the 10th highest county among the 20 counties reporting 150 or more strangulation arrests or arraignments between Nov. 11, 2010 (when the law took effect) and June 2012.

Westchester reported 418 cases while Brooklyn ranks first with 3,484 cases. Together these 20 counties accounted for 87 percent of all strangulation arrest events in the state.

Males comprised 94.1 percent of all arrest events with a strangulation charge.

As written in the DCJS report, the crime of strangulation breaks down into three offense levels:

  • Criminal Obstruction of Breathing or Blood Circulation (A Misdemeanor) – criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation by applying pressure to the throat or neck or blocking a person’s nose or mouth.
  • Strangulation 2nd (D Felony) – criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation, as described above, and causing stupor, loss of consciousness, or any other physical injury or impairment.
  • Strangulation 1st (C Felony) – criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation, as described above, and causing serious physical injury.

The misdemeanor offense was put into use recently by Tarrytown Police, who arrested a man on charges of criminal obstruction of breathing after an incident that occurred in the TGI Fridays on White Plains Road.

Before the new strangulation charge, Camp said more typically these cases might go unreported.

“Before one party would choke another one and didn’t cause any visible damage but the person couldn’t breathe. Maybe the person wouldn’t press charges. But now,” he said, “this falls into mandatory arrest.”

Gorski’s colleague Jessica Brenes told the New York Law Journal that “Gorski rarely spoke of personal matters and she never heard of or saw any indication of domestic violence.”

Camp said he didn’t find any record of domestic incidents at 127 New Broadway prior to the one that proved deadly. “That doesn’t mean that something didn’t happen somewhere,” Camp said.

Need help? Hope’s Door offers services and support for women at risk and survivors of domestic violence. For more information click here.

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