Lethality Assessments and Extremely Dangerous Behavior

Last updated 2019

Violent relationships often become more violent over time. While it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty when relationships will escalate to lethal violence, researchers have identified some common factors and have created lethality assessments to gauge the degree of risk in a present situation. Risk assessments take a number of different forms, including yes-or-no questionnaires, 10-point rating scales, and calendars to track the frequency of violence behavior.[1] However, as one team of researchers stated, lethality assessments should be used as a guide “rather than as a precise actuarial tool.”[2] Lack of circumstances ticked in a risk assessment—and detailed below—does not necessarily indicate that violence will not become lethal. Victims and advocates should always use extreme care in planning for safety and women should rely on their own instincts in determining appropriate responses to violent situations.

Research indicates that the most dangerous time for a battered woman is after she ends the relationship. In one report, researchers identified “estrangement, separation, or an attempt at separation” as the second most predominant precursor to domestic violence-related homicide.[3] As one advocate explained, “the perpetrator knows that they are losing that power and control. They believe that by escalating the violence they can regain that power and control.”[4] It is very important for a battered woman to make her own decision to leave a relationship because she is in the best position to assess the potential danger.

In many cases when an abuser kills his wife or partner, he has threatened to kill her in the past.[5] One study indicates that women whose current or former partners had threatened to kill them were almost fifteen times more likely to be the victim of domestic violence-related homicide.[6] However, the same was not true regarding the batterer’s previous threatened or attempted suicide.[7]

Firearms heighten the risk of lethality. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the likelihood is five times greater an abuser will kill his victim if he has firearms. The statistics provided by Everytown for Gun Safety indicate the high rates of lethality when firearms are involved:

“Every month, an average of 52 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner. Nearly 1 million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners, and 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun. In more than half of mass shootings over the past decade, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member as part of the rampage.”

An abuser previously “choking” or “strangling” the victim is also an indicator of extreme danger. In one study, researchers found that “women who were the victims of completed or attempted homicide were far more likely to have a history of strangulation compared to the abused…women [in the control group].”[8] Researchers ultimately concluded that non-fatal strangulation is a significant predictor of domestic violence-related homicide.[9]

An additional risk factor of lethal violence has also been associated with the batterer's possession of or access to weapons, the use of weapons or threats of such use in prior incidents, and escalation of the violence in frequency or severity. One study found that women whose current or former partner had threatened or assaulted them with a firearm were twenty times more likely to be killed by that individual.[10]

Women may be more afraid when men use violence while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Researchers have found, however, that “although drug abuse or serious alcohol abuse is related to an increased risk to a woman’s safety, threats to kill, extreme jealousy, attempts to choke, and forced sex present a higher risk.”[11]

Advocate should be aware that lethality assessments are not free of critique. Scholar and activist Evan Stark claimed that lethality assessments are “very poor windows through which to assess domestic violence and that redirecting scarce resources based on DA is not only unwise but counterproductive,”[12] further arguing that “abuse-related fatalities and near fatalities [are] too rare to be the basis for a useful intervention tool.”[13] In spite of this perception, lethality assessments remain valuable tools for aiding women in making decisions regarding their own safety.


[1] See e.g., Domestic Violence Assessment Tools, Domestic Shelters, https://www.domesticshelters.org/resources/risk-assessment-tools (last accessed Mar. 12, 2019); Risk Assessment, BWJP, https://www.bwjp.org/our-work/topics/risk-assessment.html (last accessed Mar. 12, 2019).

[2] Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al, Assessing Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide, 250 NIJ Journal 14, 16 (2003).

[3] Neil Websdale, VAWnet, Lethality Assessment Tools: A Critical Analysis 3 (2000).

[4] Kristen J. Barnes, Domestic Violence: Women’s Risks Increase after Breakup, Montgomery Advertiser (May 9, 2006).

[5] Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al, Assessing Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide, 250 NIJ Journal 14, 16 (2003).

[6] Id. at 17.

[7] Id. at 16.

[8] Nancy Glass et al, Non-Fatal Strangulation is an Important Risk Factor for Homicide in Women, 35 J. Emergency Med. 329, 332 (2008).

[9] Id. at 334.

[10] Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al, Assessing Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide, 250 NIJ Journal 14, 16 (2003).

[11] Glen Kercher, Andrea Weiss, & Katrina Rufino, Crime Victims’ Institute, Assessing the Risk of Intimate Partner Violence 1–2 (2010) (citing Phyllis W Sharps, Jacquelyn C Campbell, Doris Campbell, Fay Gary, & Daniel Webster, The Role of Alcohol Use in Intimate Partner Femicide, 10 Am. J. Addictions 1 (2001)).

[12] Evan Stark, The Dangers of Dangerousness Assessments, 6 Fam. Violence Quarterly 13, 14 (2013.

[13] Id. at 16.