The murder of Robert Godwin, Sr., with a shot to the face on Easter Sunday, jarred the nation. The perpetrator uploaded the encounter to Facebook for all to see, in an act that blended violence and vanity in the most macabre way. Steve Stephens opened his car door and picked his victim at random, gunning down the 74-year-old Godwin, who was walking home from his family’s Easter celebration.
Yesterday, as police hemmed Stephens in after a high-speed chase, the miscreant took his own life.
This disturbing incident prompted me to wonder about the perpetrator’s background and whether there were prior incidents that drained him of any remorse or empathy. In a revelation that was not the least bit surprising to those of us who work in animal protection, The Daily Beast recounted that Stephens had a history of torturing animals, including the graphic beating of his pet bird.
The relationship between violent crime and animal abuse has been documented with precision in recent years. While the correlation seems obvious to those of us close to the issues, many first responders and social welfare professionals are still learning about the predictive aspect of violence against animals. Through our Law Enforcement Training Center, we partner with enforcement agencies, prosecutors’ associations, and domestic violence groups nationwide to address this relationship and how a multidisciplinary approach to animal abuse and domestic violence keeps our communities safer.
The escalation from animal cruelty to interpersonal violence is just another reason we work relentlessly to pass meaningful animal protection laws, including the institution of felony offenses in all 50 states for the sort of violent crimes committed by Stephens. Last year, President Obama extended these laws to military bases by signing an executive order under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to adopt a strong anti-cruelty standard. We are working with Congress to close a glaring loophole in protection for abused animals, supporting the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act.
The PACT Act would provide us with a federal anti-cruelty statute, empowering law enforcement to prosecute animal abuse cases that cross state lines or occur on federal property, and helping address the disturbing crime of bestiality (a sexual fixation on animals that is often linked to child abuse). Also pending in Congress is the Pet and Women Safety Act (PAWS), which will expand existing federal domestic violence laws to include protections for pets and establish a federal grant program specifically designed to assist victims of domestic violence to safely shelter their pets when they leave their abusers.
Consequential penalties are critical to seeking justice for animals, but equally so is the tracking of these crimes, which is why we heralded the set-up of a separate “cruelty to animals” offense under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Tracking animal cruelty creates “breadcrumbs,” leading law enforcement to pay special attention to individuals with indications of an empathic disconnect and treating their early crimes with the seriousness they deserve. Ideally though, these records will also be used to develop thoughtful approaches to addressing animal cruelty offenders, preventing subsequent violent crime against people.
We cannot prevent every murder or every act by disturbed individuals. But if we treat violent acts against animals as red flags, with the state responding by prosecuting and incarcerating, and perhaps rehabilitating, these offenders, then maybe we’ll prevent gruesome repeat crimes against animals and also murderous acts against people. Through our work to make this world a more humane place for animals, we can make a safer world for all.