Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse

Emerge’s Ed Mercurio-Sakwa says more domestic-violence survivors are seeking help.

Law enforcers across Pima County are on a new mission to prevent domestic violence cases from turning deadly.

And authorities are hoping for private donations to support their efforts.

Monday, April 2, marks the rollout of a new police screening tool to better predict when victims of domestic violence are in danger of being killed or maimed by their abusers.

Until now, safety screenings were less extensive and were only used in felony abuse cases, often after victims had already suffered serious injuries.

The new screenings will be offered to victims at every domestic violence call including misdemeanor cases. Results will also be shared with local judges who set bail and release terms for those facing charges.

Those deemed at highest risk of fatality will be offered priority access to an array of support services including safety planning, emergency housing, legal aid, employment assistance and the services of a victim advocate.

Central to the effort is a new science-based risk questionnaire that looks for red flags of increasing danger.

It includes questions about the jealousy level of an abuser, whether they’ve used a weapon to make threats and whether they’ve ever tried to choke, strangle or suffocate their victim.

Officials say the goal is to intervene at an earlier stage in the cycle of domestic violence, characterized by repeated abuse incidents that escalate in severity over time.

Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, CEO of Tucson’s Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, says research shows 96 percent of victims killed by their abusers did not access support services in the year prior to their deaths.

“We are trying to address that piece,” he said.

“Once someone has been identified as high risk, we don’t want to just say ‘Good luck with that.’ We try to get people who can help them through the process.”

Emerge! is one of nine local agencies that played a role in developing the new system as a partnership between public agencies and local nonprofits.

Others include the Pima County Attorney’s Office, Pima County Sheriff’s Department, five Tucson-area police departments and Southern Arizona Legal Aid.

Last year, the county attorney charged nearly 800 people with felony domestic violence, including 15 homicides and nine attempted homicides.

Local police agencies received a combined total of about 15,000 domestic violence calls last year, the vast majority of them misdemeanors.

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Tucson Police Department Assistant Chief Carla Johnson said research shows domestic violence victims typically leave and go back to their abusers an average of seven times before leaving for good.

The reasons why are complicated. Sometimes it’s because of finances or because they feel helpless, Johnson said.

Mercurio-Sakwa said sometimes its because victims simply don’t realize their abuse has reached the level of being life-threatening.

Chief Deputy Pima County Attorney Amelia Craig Cramer, a driving force behind the new program, said about $1.5 million will be needed to fully implement it in the first year.

About half that has already been secured from government funders and from a recent $250,000 charitable grant from Tucson Foundations.

Jennifer Lohse, a director of Tucson Foundations, which is run by the Lohse family, said officials there hope other local nonprofits will also contribute.

“It’s incredibly exciting to us that a coalition like this will change the shape of domestic violence response,” she said.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @AZStarConsumer


Carol Ann has been with the Star since 1999, but has been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years. She's won numerous awards in the U.S. and Canada. In 2003, she was a war correspondent in Iraq and was a Knight-Wallace Fellow in Michigan in 2008.