Wausau Pilot & Review

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of guest articles from community experts on domestic abuse, in observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.This article may contain information that is emotionally difficult and/or upsetting for some readers.  Readers are encouraged to care for their safety and wellbeing in ways that make sense for them and to reach out for support if needed.

To speak to an advocate who can assist you with safety and support, please call The Women’s Community 24/7/365 at 715-842-7323 or toll free at 1-888-665-1234.  If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please contact your local medical provider as soon as possible.

From: Eric Soberg | Everest Metro Police Department

The most dangerous perpetrators of intimate partner violence are those who strangle their victims. 

In cases of non-fatal strangulation, any form of non-consensual strangulation should be considered a massive red flag to those investigating an incident, those who gain knowledge of it, and especially those who are experiencing it.  The act of strangulation is a significant escalation in violence and often times a precursor to homicide. 

In order to understand the seriousness of strangulation, we need to define strangulation and develop an understanding of the perpetrator in these incidents. 

Strangulation is defined by Wisconsin State Statute 940.235 as: Whoever intentionally impedes the normal breathing or circulation of blood by applying pressure on the throat or neck or by blocking the nose or mouth of another person. Wisconsin State Statutes also defines this same action as deadly force when deployed by a law enforcement officer. Let’s take this a little further to clearly understand what this act looks like in the context we are discussing. 

  • Strangulation is taking both hands, wrapping them around the throat of someone you claim to care about and squeezing as hard as you can for as long as it takes for them to become unconscious or die; all while fighting their efforts to resist your actions. 
  • Strangulation is taking both your hands and covering the mouth and nose of someone you claim to care about and holding them in place for as long as it takes for them to go unconscious or die; all while fighting their efforts to resist your actions. 
  • Strangulation is not an impulse control issue. 
  • Strangulation is not an accident. 
  • Strangulation is not a sex game gone wrong. 
  • Strangulation is an intentional and persistent act of violence that is done to a victim while they are actively resisting the efforts of a perpetrator. 

Now that we have a clear understanding of what this act is from a criminal perspective, let’s try to dip into understanding the common actions and thought processes of the perpetrators of these crimes.

It’s important to understand the context in which strangulation occurs. Research consistently shows that the majority of strangulation cases are perpetrated by males against females in the setting of an intimate relationship. Although, same-sex strangulation can occur and strangulation by a stranger can occur, these are rare occasions and not the most common scenarios. In strangulation cases, as with all intimate partner violence, it is important to understand there is a gradual escalation of coercive control tactics performed by the perpetrator; however, there is no clearly defined timeline for the escalation of behaviors. Behaviors can escalate over the course of a night or over the course of years or months.  

Timelines in each situation may differ, but the patterns of behavior are consistent. The perpetrator will develop trust, test methods of coercive control, and escalate to violence if their tactics fail to control the victim. The perpetrator will start by gaining the trust of the victim in order to develop an attachment between the perpetrator and the victim. The perpetrator will commonly use methods related to isolation and deprivation, destruction of self-worth, threats and acts of abuse, and monitoring and surveillance. 

Coercive control is highly personalized to the victim and targets specific vulnerabilities, insecurities, and anxieties of the victim. The depth of personalization and targeting is determined by the level of understanding the perpetrator has of the victim.  

In the context of a new relationship or first encounter, the coercive control might be as simple as building attraction and trust to lure the victim to a private place for isolation. Once in the private setting, the perpetrator will test out tactics to gauge the response. If the perpetrator feels a loss of control or a fear the victim may tell someone about what is happening, violence can result. 

The recently popularized Netflix series Dahmer highlighted the Wisconsin serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 people and was known to utilize strangulation as a final control over his victims. The series highlighted these behaviors in the short term context of a first encounter with a perpetrator. In the context of a long standing relationship, the perpetrator will use the same pattern but the tactics of control will have more depth; and the perpetrator will leverage long standing vulnerabilities of their victim to build power over them. Violence is often a more drawn out escalation in the long term context. The violence might start with smashing a plate, then build to pushing, then escalate further to striking, and finally culminate in strangulation. 

A perpetrator will often times select victims based on a perceived ability to control the victim. Perpetrators will select perceived “targets”, people they believe have self-worth issues, have economic issues that will prevent independence, have previous contacts with law enforcement that will make them less believable in case of disclosure, or have substance dependency issues. 

Some perpetrators will target victims who are significantly younger and/or of lower social or economic status to establish the foundations for building power and control over the victim. Once the victim is selected, the perpetrator will introduce low-level coercive control tactics to test the reaction of the victim. 

As the perpetrator sees success with the tactics they test, they will become bolder.  The perpetrator’s actions slowly chip away at the victim’s independence and increase their dependence on the perpetrator. If the victim starts to fight the tactics of the perpetrator, violence will be introduced, coupled with emotional manipulation and controlling actions. Despite deploying emotional control and physical violence to control the victim, the perpetrator of strangulation will still not feel secure in his sense of control. In a desperate attempt to maintain control, a perpetrator will deploy strangulation. 

This is not a temporary loss of control by the perpetrator, but a violent act meant to maintain power over their victim. The perpetrator often fears a loss of control over the victim and sees strangulation an ultimate statement of control. If the victim is able to break free or regains consciousness, this is the time in which many victims will truly fear for their life and believe their perpetrator may kill them. These feelings can trigger a disclosure, which leads to law enforcement intervention. 

The perpetrators of intimate partner violence are commonly considered a “cafeteria criminal.” The cafeteria criminal is one who picks from various criminal menu options, such as violent crimes, drug offenses, and property crimes. It is common for these perpetrators to have a history of domestic violence or other criminal offenses. 

A recent example of this is Darrell Brooks, who committed crimes in three separate states and is considered a habitual domestic abuser. Brooks has previous strangulation charges, he escalated to gun violence, and most recently was accused of driving his vehicle into the 2021 Christmas Day parade in Waukesha causing the deaths of six people and injuring 62 others. 

Perpetrators are typically well versed in the criminal justice system having been through the process of being interviewed, interrogated, or investigated before.  Based on these previous experiences, perpetrators will often have built-in excuses for their actions that fit defense narratives. They use these narratives to justify and excuse their actions or even shift blame for their actions onto the victim.   These narratives will commonly be used to minimize their actions and can include statements, such as:

  • “I was holding her against the wall near her neck, but not on her neck.”
  • “She is exaggerating what happened.  I was just holding her back.”
  • “It was an accident.  I just lost it for a second.”
  • “I don’t want to choke her, but sometimes I get confused because she says that she is into it when we have sex.”

These statements play into unfortunate cultural biases and gender narratives that persist in various media forms and society. These statements are an attempt by the perpetrator to divert the officer’s suspicions and avoid the consequences of their actions. 

Ultimately, this is the last opportunity for intervention for a many victims because the perpetrator has no further tactics after using what State Statute defines as deadly force against the victim. If the interventions of the criminal justice system are not significant and the perpetrator regains access to the victim, or if no disclosure is made and the perpetrator remains in contact with the victim, the next step in escalation is killing the victim. 

If any victim discloses any level of non-consensual strangulation, it is critically important we understand things do not start at this point. Strangulation is an escalated behavior that needs to be discussed to prevent further victimization. If the perpetrator has reached this point in the escalation, there has been a long path of reinforced behaviors that will continue to drive the perpetrator to escalate his behaviors. When strangulation is deployed as a method of abuse, there needs to be a significant response from anyone who is notified by the victim whether it is a neighbor, a loved one, or a first responder. 

We need to act to stop violence. 

If you would like to hear more about MCDAIT, and learn about dynamics of domestic violence as we break down common misconceptions, we invite you to attend our Domestic Violence In Our Community: Fact and Fiction.  This presentation is free and open to the public and will be held in the Community Room of the Marathon County Public Library –Wausau Branch on Tuesday, October 25th, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. 

This event will feature members of the Marathon County Domestic Abuse Intervention Team and is not sponsored by the Marathon County Public Library.  For more information visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/3312847698985972

Officer Eric Soberg is the Community Resource Officer for Everest Metro Police Department and is a member of the Marathon County Domestic Abuse Intervention Team, a coordinated community effort of local service providers to address victim safety, offender accountability, and community awareness.  For more information on MCDAIT, please reach out to ashley@womenscommunity.org or call The Women’s Community at 715-842-5663.