The Dangers of Responding to Domestic Violence Scenes
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Responding to domestic violence calls for service is one of the most volatile and dangerous situations for police officers. They lead to about 14 percent of officer deaths every year, according to the FBI. Such calls are also one of the most common. Domestic violence constitutes anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of total calls received by police, according to the National Institute of Justice. Given how dangerous and common these situations are, officers must be trained to take enhanced precautions so they understand that anyone present at such a scene can pose a threat.
Fortunately, agencies around the country are improving their domestic violence training programs. For example, on October 11, the Houston Police Department announced it is providing advanced training for its 5,000 officers so they can better respond to sexual assault and domestic violence cases.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence, now more commonly referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), is abusive behavior inflicted by one partner in a relationship towards the other. This abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, and/or economic in nature, writes Ron Wallace, a criminal justice professor at American Military University (AMU). Many cases start as emotional or psychological abuse and leads to physical and/or sexual abuse.
Recommendations for Responding to Domestic Violence Scenes
To maintain officer safety, a minimum of two officers should be responding to domestic violence calls and should separate subjects immediately upon arrival. Jeremy Nikolow, an 11-year veteran officer in central Florida, recommends that officers separate individuals so they’re facing away from each other and out of ear shot. However, officers should position suspects in such a way that allows the officers to maintain visual contact with one another for enhanced officer safety. In addition, questioning should be done in an area that does not contain potential weapons, such as the tools or utensils that might be found in a kitchen, garage, or cluttered area of a house.
Don’t Assume the Man is the Aggressor
When responding to domestic violence, officers should maintain an open mind about who is the aggressor and who is the victim. Men are often erroneously identified as the aggressor simply because they are male, writes AMU criminal justice professor, Michael Pittaro. Despite growing evidence that women are equally likely to be the perpetrators of violence, this fact has not caught up to practice. This problem recently gained greater recognition when the Department of Justice issued guidance in 2015 to help police prevent gender bias during response to domestic violence situations. Among several protocols, the DOJ encouraged police to treat all parties respectfully but cautiously until they have gathered enough information to determine what happened and who is the aggressor.
Questioning Subjects Involved in a Domestic Violence Call
When responding to domestic violence calls, officers need to ask pointed questions of all involved parties. Questions include:
- Who called the police? Why?
- Are you hurt? Did someone strike you, hit you, or injure you in some way? Where did they hit you? Did they hit you with an object or weapon? How many times?
- Tell me what happened and who hit you.
- Has this person ever hit or hurt you before?
- Has anything been broken or damaged (e.g. phone ripped out of the wall)?
In addition to trying to determine what happened, officers should also evaluate how fearful the victim is of the abuser. The best way to do this is to ask open-answer questions such as:
- What happened?
- Describe how (abuser) was acting? What was said to you?
- Were any threats made against you? Against your children or other family members? What were these threats?’
- What are your fears or concerns if the suspect is arrested?
Document the Scene
Officers must be diligent about documenting the scene. Pictures should be taken that include both wide shots of rooms and close-ups of damaged items. If there are obvious injuries to individuals, take pictures of injuries and call emergency medical services to diagnose, treat and confirm injuries. Conduct a background check of all parties to determine if they have been involved in previous domestic violence incidents. All this is important evidence to confirm what took place.
Most importantly, when officers respond to a domestic violence call, they must recognize they are walking into a potentially dangerous and unpredictable scene. Just like there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop, there is no such thing as a routine domestic violence call. Officers must approach each domestic violence case with the highest level of caution while maintaining an open mind and seeking ways to offer assistance and protection to the victim of such abuse.