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In its first year, Columbus' STOP strangulation program brings slew of felony charges.

A line of police patrol officers in uniform on an indoor stage.
Allie Vugrincic
Some of the more than 50 members of Columbus Division of Police's STOP team pose for a photo during a event marking one year of the program. The Strangulation Team Operations for Prosecution provides extra training to Columbus officers so they can better respond to and help prosecute felony strangulations in domestic violence cases.

The first year of a Columbus program aimed at better responding to and prosecuting strangulations has led to a dramatic increase in felony domestic violence charges.

Last year, state lawmakers made strangulation a felony offense. Since then, more than 50 Columbus police officers have volunteered for the Strangulation Team Operations for Prosecution team, or STOP.

“That partnership that we have with the Division of Police helps build the evidence and the right package so that the prosecutors at the county level can put these people behind bars where they belong,” said Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein.

Klein said that strangulations can be complicated cases. And when strangulation is involved in domestic violence, that significantly increases the chances of a situation escalating to homicide.

From 2022 to 2023, the city attorney’s office more than doubled the number of felony domestic violence cases it referred to the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, from about 250 to more than 670. More than 400 of those cases were felony strangulations.

This year, the city attorney’s office has referred another 174 felony strangulation cases to the county as of April.

Officers on the STOP team learn to identify the signs of strangulation, swab victims for DNA evidence for prosecution, and use trauma-informed interviewing methods.

"We see things now that we never saw before, especially when it comes to strangulation,” said Columbus police officer and STOP team member Joshua Bell.

Bell said while patrol officers didn’t used to follow up with victims, they now can stay in touch, answer questions, and provide support.

“A lot of times with domestic violence victims go back to the suspect and to where as now, they can lean on us,” Bell said.

The program also involves advocates. Amber Howell with Family Safety and Healing said that when her team is called, it often makes victims feel more comfortable and builds trust with police.

"I've had survivors say this is the first time I've been believed. And the fact that the officer called you out makes me believe that they know that I'm going through this," she said.

Columbus marked the one-year anniversary of the STOP program on Tuesday. Officers on the team were presented with STOP pins for their uniforms and challenge tokens.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.