Gabby Petito’s parents joined Utah lawmakers on Monday as the Senate unanimously voted in favour of a bill that could strengthen the way police investigated incidents of intimate partner violence in the state.
The parents of the 22-year-old, who was strangled to death less than two years ago while on a trip with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, said that a stronger lethality assessment by law enforcement officials would have possibly prevented their daughter’s fatal end.
Advocating for a stronger domestic violence response from law enforcement officials, Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt praised lawmakers for passing the bill that would require all Utah law enforcement officers to conduct a standardised lethality assessment when responding to intimate partner violence calls.
“It is a proud moment to be here, and I thank everyone for the hard work that you did and the way that you voted today,” Mr Petito said. “That was awesome .… But it’s not just about the bill, alright. These questions are only the first step in the way of helping these individuals that find themselves in a situation.”
The bill, sponsored by Republican senator Todd Weiler, has been presented to the House. If passed by the House, it will then go to governor Spencer Cox to be signed into law.
Also known as the “Lethality Assessment Protocol”, it would require law enforcement throughout Utah to ask a series of 11 questions in situations where they suspect intimate partner violence.
It would include questions on whether the aggressor threatened the victim with a weapon, tried to kill or choke them, or attempted to control most of their daily activities. Law enforcement officials would also be required to ask questions such as if the victim feared for their life from the aggressor.
If the victim answered in the affirmative to any of the questions, the officers would be obligated under the law to refer them to an advocacy group for support.
The Moab City Police department was widely criticised for its conduct during Petito’s murder investigation, after it emerged that instead of issuing a domestic violence citation, they separated Petito and Laundrie for a night, when they found them in an emotional fight in August 2021.
About a month prior to Petito’s murder, the police had pulled aside the couple outside of Arches National Park for overspeeding the van, when they found them visibly distraught.
The incident, caught on police body camera, showed Petito sobbing and breathing heavily, with an officer telling her that they considered her the aggressor and were about to file domestic violence charges against her.
In September of that year, Petito’s body was found on the edge of the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Laundrie, the only individual ever identified as a person of interest, was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after returning alone to his parents’ home in Florida.
The law, Ms Schmidt believes, could have helped Petito escape the fatal end, if the police had done the lethality assessment.
“Had his lethality assessment, which I immersed myself in over the last few weeks, been used… I believe she would still be here today,” Ms Schmidt said, during a news conference at the Utah Capitol, shortly after the Senate passed the law.
While roughly half of law enforcement departments in Utah currently use the assessment protocol, as of now there is no statewide mandate.
Though police officers regularly ask questions when they have probable cause to believe crimes like domestic violence are being committed, those in the assessment are designed to screen for risk and are based on statistical data that draws correlations between certain behaviors and danger to potential victims’ lives, Mr Weiler said.
Utah lawmakers said the learning about the correlation between choking and later death was particularly striking in light of a murder-suicide in Enoch, Utah, earlier this month, where a father killed his wife, five children and mother-in-law several years after one of his daughters told officers conducting a child abuse investigation that he had once choked her.
Lieutenant governor Deidre Henderson, whose cousin was shot and killed by her ex-husband last year, said 22 per cent of homicides in Utah were intimate partner-related and that the majority of suspects had prior interaction with law enforcement.
“With this bill, we are trying to very narrowly target the biggest problem we have right now in the state with intimate partner violence,” she said. “That’s to prevent intimate partner homicide.”
The Senate bill also includes provisions to create a law enforcement database for responses to the lethality screenings so officers can access information on prior lethality assessments conducted by any department statewide to better understand and protect victims. Mr Weiler said the database wouldn’t be publicly accessible to ensure it didn’t violate the due process of people investigated yet not convicted of any crimes.
Additional reporting from the wires
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