‘Gabby Petito Act’ would add new assessment to police domestic violence response
Gabby Petito's family gets small comfort in a lawsuit against Brian Laundie's parents. Images via AP.

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Police had responded to a report of a 'domestic disturbance' involving the young woman and the man who later strangled her.

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book and Rep. Robin Bartleman are proposing a new “lethality assessment” form to add to police procedure whenever domestic violence incidents are investigated.

Companion bills (SB 610/HB 673) are being called the Gabby Petito Act. Petito’s disappearance and murder grabbed national headlines in August 2021. Not long before her death, police had responded to a reported domestic disturbance involving the young woman that was misclassified and lacked details.

Petito’s father brought the idea for the bill to Book, according to a news release.

“United as a family, we stand together in support of the legislative bill against domestic violence, advocating for justice, protection and a brighter future for all,” said Joe Petito of Vero Beach, in a prepared statement.

His 22-year-old daughter’s remains were discovered in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest and it was determined she died of strangulation. The man she was traveling with, Brian Laundrie, was deemed a person of interest in her disappearance after he returned to Florida and refused to discuss her whereabouts. His skeletal remains were found in North Port’s Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park on October 20, 2021 not far from where he and Petito had lived with his parents before setting off on a cross-country trip.

He left behind notes that indicated he was responsible for Gabby Petito’s death.

A month before her body was found, Utah police encountered the young woman and Laundrie after a witness dialed 911 to report a “domestic disturbance” involving the couple. Neither Petito nor Laundrie wished to press charges, police reported. Later, an independent review found that police had mistakenly classified the incident as a mental/emotional health break and not a domestic assault, according to media reports. The review also said that the incident report had left out key details, such as how a scratch on Petito’s cheek had materialized.

The most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that deaths like Petito’s account for more than a third of the females murdered in 2021. Gabby Petito was one of an estimated 1,689 women who died at the hands of an intimate partner in 2021, statistics show. Those same stats show that more than three-fourths of female murders were committed by someone the victim knew.

“Each one of us knows victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, even if we do not realize it,” Book said, in a prepared statement. “That’s why we are working to honor Gabby Petito’s life through meaningful action, protecting the lives of other victims and survivors before it’s too late, so that we can keep people safe in ways Gabby was not. It is absolutely possible, and it begins with the Gabby Petito Act.”

The legislation would mean that responding officers fill out a form that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women has approved. It assesses the likelihood of serious injury or death in the situation police are responding to. This evidence-based assessment would have to be given to the responding officer’s supervisor and filed with the law enforcement agency that will allow data on domestic violence cases to be compiled.

It could be a lifesaver, Bartleman said.

“As a mother of a daughter the same age as Gabby, the sheer horror of her disappearance and the heartbreaking revelation that her murder was a result of domestic violence left me in tears,” the Weston Democrat said. “Thousands of domestic violence cases go unreported each year as many victims are paralyzed with fear so it is imperative that when 911 calls and reports are made that we give law enforcement officers the tools needed to protect victims like Gabby. This legislation is a lifeline for those in peril.”

The bill seeks to advance early intervention, potentially preventing tragedy after tragedy.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement would collaborate with the Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association, and domestic violence advocacy organizations to develop policies, procedures, and training programs for the effective implementation of lethality assessments, according to the bill.

Those working with battered women see the potential for life-changing improvement in the way this age-old problem is handled, according to a news release.

“This bill gives Florida law enforcement the tools needed to make real time decisions and connect victims with resources that may save their lives,” said Linda L. Parker, President and CEO at Women In Distress of Broward County, Inc. “We all want to make sure not one more family has to experience what the Petito Family and so many others have experienced.”

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].

One comment

  • psych care

    November 29, 2023 at 1:55 pm

    It will be interesting to see if the party that does not support women passes this act and the men in blue are willing to truly help victims of domestic violence. Too often the GOP and those who “protect and serve” need help themselves.

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