Fighting Back: ‘One of the reasons I became a police officer was to protect victims’

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding sits with a domestic violence victim at the Concord District Court on Clinton Street. Elizabeth Frantz / For the Monitor

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding attends a Building for Hope groundbreaking ceremony for the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on May 11, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding attends a Building for Hope groundbreaking ceremony for the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on May 11, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding hugs a member of the community before the start of a Building for Hope groundbreaking ceremony for the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on May 11, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding sits with a domestic violence victim at the Concord District Courthouse on Clinton Street in Concord on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding speaks with Sen. Maggie Hassan before the start of a Building for Hope groundbreaking ceremony for the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on May 11, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding listens to a domestic violence victim talk about her court experience at the Concord District Courthouse on Clinton Street in Concord on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding sits with a domestic violence victim at the Concord District Courthouse on Clinton Street in Concord on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • New Hampshire Lethality Assessment Program date from 2015 to 2017. For an interactive chart, visit concordmonitor.com. Source: N.H. Attorney General's Office

  • New Hampshire Lethality Assessment Program date from 2015 to 2017. For an interactive chart, visit concordmonitor.com. Source: N.H. Attorney General's Office

  • Concord Police Department domestic violence calls and resolutions from 2013 to 2017. To view interactive charts, visit concordmonitor.com. Source: Concord Police Department

  • Concord Police Department domestic violence calls and resolutions from 2013 to 2017. To view interactive charts, visit concordmonitor.com. Source: Concord Police Department

  • Concord Police Department domestic violence calls and resolutions from 2017. To view interactive charts, visit concordmonitor.com. Source: Concord Police Department

  • Concord Police Department domestic violence calls and resolutions from 2017. To view interactive charts, visit concordmonitor.com. Source: Concord Police Department

Monitor staff
Published: 2/5/2019 6:13:30 PM

Bloodied, terrified and naked, the woman fell into Concord police Officer Laura Spaulding’s arms after fleeing her boyfriend’s near-fatal grasp.

Spaulding had heard someone tumble down a stairwell inside the Fisherville Road apartment and unlock the front door. As she drew her gun, she had no idea who was on the other side of the door as it flew open. Within seconds, Leigh LaCasse rushed toward Spaulding with a look of sheer terror on her face.

“She grabbed me for dear life,” Spaulding recalled while on patrol one recent winter night. “I thought, if someone is going to run at an officer who is pointing a gun, there must be something really bad inside.”

It was the early-morning hours of May 21, 2011. Spaulding and another officer had responded to the apartment on the city’s north end about 3 a.m. for a report of a domestic disturbance, called in by a newspaper delivery man who’d heard LaCasse scream. LaCasse had just been beaten and near strangled by her former boyfriend, Daniel Fleury, who had broken into the home through a back sliding door and threatened to kill her.

As Spaulding wrapped a jacket around LaCasse’s exposed upper body and called for an ambulance, she thought of her sister who, while pregnant, had been badly beaten by her then-husband. Spaulding was just 16 when she saw the signs of abuse in the Georgia town where she grew up.

On that spring morning decades later with LaCasse, she was reminded of what had called her to serve and of her commitment to helping save victims from a similar plight.

“One of the reasons I became a police officer was to protect victims, like my sister,” she said. “There are people out there who don’t know that this isn’t okay, that this isn’t normal life and that they don’t have to put up with it. They come to depend on this person whom they love. They don’t understand that this person when he said, ‘I won’t ever do it again,’ doesn’t mean it.”

Spaulding still remembers every detail of her day with LaCasse, including at the hospital where she stayed long after her shift ended. That call and the relationship Spaulding built with LaCasse in its aftermath cemented her decision to apply for the newly-created position of domestic violence officer in the Capital City in 2012.

She was chosen by then-chief John Duval that year and continues to lead the one-woman domestic unit with a focus on community service and victim advocacy more than six years later. With a clear passion and vision, she was a top candidate for the promotion and, once in the role, brought forward ideas that her administrators gave her the freedom to pursue.

While the position has always been funded, 2017 was an anomaly for the department. Spaulding found herself back on patrol due to a critical staffing shortage; her temporary reassignment meant much of her work for the domestic violence unit was suspended into spring 2018. As the agency searched for new recruits, the perfect tsunami hit: retirements peaked, officers applied for military leave and others were injured and unable to work. Spaulding and the department’s community resource officer helped fill the void.

On patrol of Loudon Road during one weekend night in January 2018, she struggled with the reality that victims were likely suffering the most as a result of her assignment change.

“There’s no way to make up for it,” she said. “All the victims who are being victimized, there is no one following up the next day with a call to make sure they have the support and resources they need. If people request my services, I still try to be flexible enough to fit it in but it’s hard.”

The challenge of keeping officers like Spaulding assigned to their specialized roles is also strained by the opioid epidemic and growing methamphetamine problem, which demands more and more law enforcement resources. While leading experts say substance abuse does not cause domestic violence, they are often co-occurring, adding a further layer of complexity to a crime that thrives when an abuser is in a position of power and control.

The inherent danger

Each morning with a coffee in-hand, Spaulding carefully combs through the details of the department’s call logs from the prior 24 hours, searching for any incidents where patrol officers documented domestic violence in the home. She also keeps a journal of the calls where children were present; it helps her keep track of the number of secondary victims also in need of support services.

“I try to remember their names,” she said of the victims one May morning in her office. “That way if there is repeat abuse I know, and I can do more regular follow-ups.”

Opening a desk drawer, she pulled out one of the dozens of cream-colored folders neatly stacked for safe keeping. The files are among those she refers to all too often, she said. In most, the violence between intimate partners has escalated over time, and she fears for the safety of the victims who have not yet found a way out. Some are simply not ready; others too fearful, too aware of the inherent dangers they could face if they try.

Like LaCasse, most victims of domestic violence don’t leave after the first assault. On average, a woman will attempt to leave an abusive relationship seven times before she stays away permanently. What those who have never experienced domestic violence fail to understand is that a victim is in the most danger when she or he leaves.

Spaulding first met LaCasse a month or two prior to the May 2011 assault that led to Fleury’s conviction on multiple felony charges. Witnesses had reported seeing a man punching LaCasse in the parking lot of her workplace. LaCasse told Spaulding that day a stranger had hit her in the face with the door as she was leaving the women’s restroom.

“She was so concerned about talking to police because he told her he would have her arrested for drug possession,” Spaulding said, adding that she later told LaCasse, “I don’t care about that when someone’s life is in danger.”

While law enforcement officials say abusers will assault their partners high or sober, substance abuse can be an aggravating factor. Abusers will also introduce their victims to drugs as a further means of controlling them in a relationship already built on codependency. And when victims call the police, abusers may use a history of drug use in the home to keep them silent. Victims’ greatest fears are arrest and the possibility of losing their children.

In each of the past five years, Concord officers have responded to an average of 700 domestic disturbance calls. Lt. Sean Ford speculates the annual call volume is far greater, in part, because when dispatchers code calls they don’t always have enough information at the outset to know if there could be a domestic violence-related component.

Officials said it’s too early to draw firm conclusions about how Spaulding’s work in the community may be influencing victims who have come forward to report. But annual data since 2015 could be telling; the total number of domestic violence calls hovered above 720 when Spaulding was in her specialty role, but during her one year on patrol, total calls dropped to 661.

When the department added a domestic violence officer, the then-chief understood that early education could aide in future prevention and that meaningful follow-up with victims could foster an environment where they are more comfortable reporting and working with law enforcement.

“It’s not like there was a period of time where it was okay, where it was acceptable and now there’s been a spike,” Concord police Chief John Duval told the Monitor in 2012. “We want to use our resources to address a problem that is ongoing and needs to change.”

Domestic violence calls remain among the most dangerous for first responders, especially in smaller towns where only one officer is on duty and backup may be a half-hour or more away. Standard protocol is a two-officer response, but that is not always realistic in rural communities.

“The calls are the most volatile; you never know what could happen and you have to be prepared for anything,” Spaulding said. “Someone has called for help because they’re injured and afraid, but once the abuser threatens them about what’s going to happen when the cops show up, and how they’re going to take the kids away, the victims all of the sudden don’t want us there. Or, if we put handcuffs on their partner and they think, ‘Wait a minute, I won’t be able to eat tomorrow if I don’t have his share of the paycheck because he’s in jail,’ then the situation can turn fast.”

The power dynamics at play in all domestic violence relationships are why it is so critical that police officers in every community are educated and receive regular training, Spaulding said.

“There was a time when police officers would get very frustrated – and probably some still do – because they’d think, ‘I took him away two weeks ago and he’s back again hitting her.’ They didn’t understand why the victim would have him back and all the tactics abusers use to stay in her life.”

Police officers and attorneys couldn’t adequately track those repeat offenders just a few years ago. Joshua’s Law established domestic violence as a specific crime in New Hampshire by distinguishing it from other assaults. The law, named after 9-year-old Joshua Savyon who was killed by his father, helps draw a distinction between assaults that occurred in a bar fight from those against a spouse or family member.

Spaulding said the state took a significant step forward by passing Joshua’s Law but feels more could be done to hold perpetrators accountable so that they’re not just cycled through the system time and time again. That could include enhanced penalties for repeat offenders and stiffer sanctions for those who violate protective orders, she said. Perpetrators know they’ll get a night in jail for violating a protective order and yet they do it anyway.

“Why not go further and make it two nights in jail and a fine?” she asked.

Intervention and follow-up

The city’s decision to add a domestic violence officer wasn’t because of a sudden spike in crime but to address a gap in services for domestic violence victims. The department also believed that having an officer actively speaking about the issue at community events would also help bring attention to a social problem long encased in stigma.

Unlike in some surrounding cities with similar positions, the Concord officer serves as an advocate and educator, not solely as an investigator of domestic violence crimes. Although, members of the force acknowledge the addition of a second domestic violence officer focused on investigations would dovetail well with the existing position and provide more options for tailoring the response to each case.

For Spaulding, the job has provided her with the opportunity to work closely with the local crisis center, to speak with children in area schools and to educate her fellow officers – those on the Concord force and members of nearby agencies – about the importance of a trauma-informed approach. She knows the homes in the city where officers return to time and time again, and the victims who call 911 because they want the abuse to stop but not because they’re ready to turn their abusers in.

“The first day when it happens, that’s the worst day for them,” Spaulding said. “It’s usually very traumatic and hurtful and shocking, and they have to do something which they’ve never done in their lives, or rarely done, and that is ask for help.”

Day two is an “emotional dump,” she said, explaining victims think about what happened, have a lot of questions and yet aren’t sure where to turn for answers.

“I can call and say, ‘Hey, I heard this happened to you. Do you need help with anything?’ ... I’ve gone out to help people get the baby stroller from his car, the vouchers for the baby milk, the application for a restraining order, and I’ve lent them a phone through HopeLine.”

The police department has a handful of HopeLine cellphones serviced by Verizon Wireless with 40 hours available to victims to use to stay in touch with Spaulding, a crisis center advocate or other community services. The phone is a victims’ safety net and possibly their only connection to the outside world. Too often, abusers stalk their partners through tracking applications and shared family plans and, some, break their partners’ phone as a means of further isolating them.

If the responding officers forgot to or were unable to complete a Lethality Assessment Protocol questionnaire with victims, Spaulding ensures it is done during a follow-up call. The form helps first responders screen for high-risk domestic violence victims with the goal of preventing serious injury or death. Those who screen in are immediately connected with an advocate through the 24-hour domestic violence hotline and additional services.

Attempted strangulation, as documented in LaCasse’s case, is a lethality indicator or future predictor that the abusive relationship could turn fatal.

The state attorney general’s office has led training sessions to educate officers on the use of the LAP form and continues to make a push statewide for its regular application. The New Hampshire form is based on the Maryland Lethality Assessment Program, which has served as a national model.

In 2017, law enforcement agencies throughout the state completed more than 1,500 LAP screens with 63 percent of victims screening in as “high danger.” A total of 246 victims went on to utilize follow-up crisis center services after speaking with an advocate.

Concord police performed 156 LAP evaluations in 2015 and a total of 109 the proceeding year. But with Spaulding reassigned in 2017, officers completed just 34.

Spaulding said she is always reminding patrol officers to use the form, noting studies have shown immediate intervention can be the difference between life and death. Victims don’t often readily recognize how dire their situation is, in part, because their abuser has controlled them for so long and because they think they’re somehow at fault for what has happened.

Rebuilding lives

For months after LaCasse’s assault, Spaulding remained on the midnight shift assigned to patrol the sector of Concord that included Fisherville Road. She said LaCasse worked as a late-night waitress or bartender and would not return home until early morning. Spaulding would typically stop by about 2 a.m. to check in.

Efforts to reach LaCasse over the past year were unsuccessful but she told the Monitor on the day of Fleury’s sentencing in 2012 that Spaulding’s support was pivotal.

“She’s my hero,” LaCasse said back then. “She was there that night with open arms. I was not clothed, she put a jacket on me. She stayed by my side through the hospital visit even after her time on the clock was done. She checked in for the past year and a half with me and with my children, just to see how we’re doing. I can’t explain with words for what it’s meant.”

That was all before Spaulding officially became the city’s domestic violence officer. Today, the list of survivors she routinely checks in with is growing.

“Those who get away and rebuild their lives, they’ve told me, ‘Thank you, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.’ That’s the reward.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.




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