Data gaps leave scope of domestic violence unknown in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah does not have a complete and accurate idea of how prevalent domestic violence is in the state. And that makes it harder to find real solutions and to help Utahns living through it, an advocate said.

“Without this data, our responses aren’t as informed,” said Liz Sollis, Utah Domestic Violence Coalition spokesperson, told the Salt Lake Tribune. That means in many cases survivors are “left to fend for themselves, which could put them at a greater risk of harm or, even worse, death.”

Now, state lawmakers have to figure out how to fix Utah’s domestic violence data gaps.

The discrepancies in information are happening at the local, state, and federal levels, legislators heard at the Nov. 17 meeting of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee. And the inconsistencies are occurring among law enforcement and other state and community agencies, Capt. Tanner Jensen, director of the Statewide Information and Analysis Center in the Department of Public Safety, told them.

One issue, Jensen said, is that situations are not always labeled as domestic violence. For instance, a Moab police officer who responded to the reported domestic disturbance in August between Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie described it as a “mental health crisis,” according to a report Jensen presented to lawmakers.

The report, titled “Analysis of Domestic Violence in Utah,” stems from a bill that Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, got passed last session related to domestic violence training for police.

“Domestic violence is such a horrific and important issue that we need to be addressing that we cannot have these kinds of gaps in our data,” Pierucci said at the November meeting. “We should be able to ask these what seemingly are straightforward questions and be able to collect that information.”

Last week, the representative told The Salt Lake Tribune that she is drafting a bill to fix these data gaps next session and talking with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, the courts, prosecutors, and the Statewide Information and Analysis Center for it.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said last month that he is also planning a broader bill about collecting and sharing data in the criminal justice system.

Departments have different ways of collecting data, and they don’t always share information through the same systems, which leads to inconsistencies, Jensen said.

“There is not one good place to find (domestic violence) data, and it is obtained agency by agency,” the report states.

According to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, one in three women in the Beehive State will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, compared to one in four women nationally.

The coalition oversees the state’s Lethality Assessment Program, connecting law enforcement and first responders with victim service providers. According to Jensen, 72 law enforcement agencies participate in this program, while other departments may use other methods. Pierucci said it would be helpful to compare “apples to apples.”

“I think for a very long time, we had hoped that eventually, we could bring everyone around, but it’s just not moving as quickly as we need it to,” Pierucci said last month. “And when it comes to data, it’s throwing a huge wrench in the system.”

According to the report, there is no consistent code or flag for domestic violence cases in national and statewide databases, among other issues.

“We’re missing a great amount of data that’s just not being reported,” Jensen said.

What we do know about domestic violence in Utah, the report says, is that women and children are the most likely victims, while a boyfriend or girlfriend is the main perpetrator. And based on the data available, the most common domestic violence-related offense between 2016 and 2020 was simple assaults.

Analysts found that the number of arsons related to domestic violence included in the Bureau of Criminal Identification’s annual crime reports rose from six in 2019 to 34 the following year. In the few years before, the number ranged between two and six.

“It is possible that COVID-19 and other significant happenings in 2020 impacted these increases,” the report states.

The number of burglaries related to domestic violence also rose to 173 in 2020, from 124 in 2019, according to the report.

“Crimes like strangulation, suicide, and homicide can be difficult to link to (domestic violence) if the victim is unable to confirm it,” the report states. “Even if agencies consistently report (domestic violence)-related offenses, the data may still be incorrect due to complexities in linking (domestic violence) to these crimes.”

Sollis said that “given the nature of domestic violence, reports to law enforcement, calls to crisis lines for support or utilization of victim service providers do not provide a full picture of the prevalence.”

“Many survivors suffer in silence and/or try to resolve the situation without the support of others,” Sollis said.

Still, Sollis said, “working toward consistency in data collection and reporting is critical.” And surveying survivors and secondary victims should be part of that work, she said.

If changes aren’t made, Utah’s domestic violence data will remain incomplete, according to the report.

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