Team of one

Single detective oversees domestic violence cases

| June 06, 2013

On a recent Tuesday morning, three patrol officers wait inside the Missoula County Sheriff's Office for Detective John Lamb's daily briefing. The briefings typically cover updates from ongoing cases and happen every weekday at 6:30 a.m. Sheriff Carl Ibsen refers to some of them "six-minute trainings," a reference to Lamb's specific job to educate officers on issues of domestic violence.

This morning, Lamb offers an update on bills signed into law during the recent legislative session. Among them is one that redefines the qualifications for partner or family member assault charges to include same-sex couples. Before Senate Bill 306 was signed into law this spring, a violent partner in a same-sex relationship could only be charged with misdemeanor assault, which carries fewer severe legal consequences than partner/family member assaults.

"So, no more misdemeanor assaults," Lamb tells the deputies.

The Tuesday briefing lasts about 15 minutes.

When Ibsen ran for sheriff in 2010, one of his campaign promises was to create a special team consisting of at least one detective to focus on domestic violence and sex crimes. The idea of a dedicated investigator at the county level was something he and his late wife, Missoula attorney Judy Wang, had discussed many times. Wang was hailed as a statewide advocate for domestic violence victims before a drunk driver killed her in 2009. Shortly after Ibsen's election, he followed through on his and Wang's idea, and kept his campaign promise, by picking Lamb for the position.

"I'm a resource for people outside of our agency to call in to the sheriff's office and ask "How do we get this done?'" says Lamb, who has worked with the office since 1993.

Patty Murphy, housing director and Pathways supervisor for the YWCA, says Lamb was a volunteer at the women's shelter more than 10 years ago, and still attends YWCA advocate trainings. Murphy and Katharina Werner, the shelter manager, believe Lamb's appointment has allowed the YWCA to provide higher levels of safety and service at the shelter, as well as improved communication between the department and her organization.

Sheriff Carl Ibsen appointed Detective John Lamb, above, to focus on domestic violence and sex crimes at the county level. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Sheriff Carl Ibsen appointed Detective John Lamb, above, to focus on domestic violence and sex crimes at the county level.

"Before we would just call and leave messages and have to be redirected to different people," Murphy says.

Lamb's position allows him to keep in touch with several groups working on domestic violence issues, from the state fatality review board to community networks like the YWCA and J.U.S.T. Response. Sometimes he brings in outside guests like Cat Otway, a registered nurse and forensic interviewer from Missoula's First Step Resource Center, to help instruct deputies on how to respond to specific incidents.

In February, Otway presented to the department an overview regarding strangulation, something first responders often overlook and that can have serious consequences later in life if the signs go undetected.

"Some people have lost part of their hearing after being strangled," she says. "Some people I've been in contact with can't eat solid food for the rest of their life. The potential for stroke could possibly be for the rest of your life."

Otway says that several calls involving suspected strangling came in just after her week of training with the department. Lamb says he's seen reports of strangling during domestic violence situations rise in the last couple of years. He doesn't believe necessarily that it is occurring more often, but that it is simply being reported more—a possible result of the increased awareness shared between the sheriff's office and the public.

"Maybe it's not a trend of it happening more, but of more people willing to talk about it," Lamb says.

Overall, Lamb said there were 528 reports of partner/family member assault filed in 2012 in the city-county area. This year, there have been 92 so far. Lamb says the key to keeping that number low is continued education and diligence on combating the issue, despite relatively limited resources. That doggedness is part of why Ibsen picked Lamb in the first place.

"When he gets into something he doesn't let go of it," Ibsen says.

Otway adds that her strangulation sessions, and others, will be repeated annually for maximum effect.

"It's just like qualifying with their weapons," she says. "You need to keep up with the training—repetition, repetition, repetition."

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