Six Ways Officers Can Respond More Effectively to DV Incidents
By Scot DuFour, alumnus, American Public University
Few calls for service frustrate officers as much as those for repeated domestic violence (DV) incidents. Why do so many victims keep going back to the same situation and allow more violence? Officers want to help these victims, but it can often be very hard for them to understand a victim’s actions and know how best to help.
During my seven years as a patrol officer, I responded to many domestic violence situations and remember the frustration well. However, now that I work with prosecutors in a domestic violence unit and see these cases often, I have a more comprehensive perspective of all the complexities and challenges that go along with these types of cases.
I also have a better understanding of what actions officers should take when responding to every DV incident in order to help build the prosecution’s case. The initial investigation into a DV is the prime opportunity to gather valuable evidence and form a relationship with the victim that instills trust and compassion. Building this relationship, and understanding how hard it is for DV victims to leave their circumstances, can help officers sympathize with victims and be less frustrated when they repeatedly encounter the same situation. Below are some of the things I’ve learned that may help officers respond more effectively to DV incidents.
How Officers Can Help DV Victims
Officers must sincerely understand the monumental hurdles victims face when trying to leave a DV relationship. They have often been isolated, blamed, made to feel crazy, physically abused, threatened, and had their children used as leverage by the offender. They may be financially tied to the offender and unsure how they’ll support themselves alone. The emotional, psychological, and physical abuse can make a victim feel helpless, worthless, and hopeless. Taking back control is a terrifying and arduous prospect.
So how can officers and investigators help domestic violence victims? Here are six tips to keep in mind:
1. Understand the Cycle of Violence
One way officers can better understand the actions of domestic violence victims is to recognize and learn about what is called the cycle of violence. Many DV experts now refer to this well-documented phenomenon as the “Power and Control Wheel” because most DV relationships do not follow predictable patterns.
The Power and Control Wheel displays the various ways DV offenders control and abuse their victims. Control can happen through coercion and threats; intimidation; emotional abuse; isolation; minimizing, denying, and blaming; using children; economic abuse; and male privilege.
2. Be a Patient, Supportive Ally
In my experience, the most important thing an officer can do is sincerely want to help solve the problem and not just treat the symptoms. Victims will need as much support as possible and officers can help them gain access to resources and make a plan about how to leave a perpetrator. Officers must also have lots of patience. Only the victim can decide when she (most DV victims are female) is ready to break free from the cycle. Knowing that a caring and empathetic officer or police agency is ready to help her will only increase the chance that she will act. Officers who act irritated or inconvenienced by the victim may actually deter the victim from taking action.
3. Take Highly Detailed Notes and Record Victim Statements
After a DV incident, victims will often recount what happened. Officers must take highly detailed notes and, preferably, record the victim’s statement. This is important because it’s not unusual for a victim to later recant or change her recollection of the incident. While this can pose problems from a prosecution standpoint, the statements taken by officers can demonstrate in court that the victim is scared or has been intimidated by the perpetrator into changing her story.
Excellent documentation of the victim’s statements early in the investigation doesn’t only play a role when the victim changes her story due to victim intimidation. Prosecutors will often call experts in domestic violence and trauma to explain how and why the memory of trauma victims changes as time passes after the incident. Thorough documentation of how the victim’s recollection changes can help bolster the testimony of those experts.
4. Always Seek Medical Attention for the Victim
During every domestic violence call, it’s important for officers to ensure victims get medical attention and evaluation. That’s because many injuries aren’t visible to the naked eye or apparent to those without medical training.
For example, in the body camera footage of a DV case I watched, a responding officer said he was not sure he believed the victim had been strangled because she did not have any visible injuries on her neck. Fortunately, the victim was taken to a hospital and evaluated by a forensic nurse. The examination report described the strangulation suffered by the victim as “extremely dangerous with potential to cause death.” Officers cannot risk overlooking injuries, so it is of paramount importance that they take victims who claim strangulation to be evaluated by a trained medical professional.
Officers are not trained medical professionals and are not qualified to identify many common DV injuries. For example, researchers found that only about 50 percent of strangulation victims will have any visible injuries. It only takes about 11 pounds of pressure on the neck to close off the carotid artery and only 4.4 pounds of pressure to close off the jugular vein. Keep in mind that a handshake yields about 50 pounds of pressure.
One commonly misunderstood sign of strangulation is called petechiae. It forms as visible small red dots on the skin, which are the result of broken capillaries. While this injury may be visible, it often doesn’t look severe so officers may discount it. Petechiae often results from strangulation that occludes the jugular vein, but strangulation that occludes the carotid artery may have no visible symptoms at all.
The bottom line is that officers need to keep their non-medical opinion to themselves about whether a strangulation or other physical abuse occurred. Instead, they need to believe the victim and get them evaluated by a forensic nurse. This examination will not only provide more detail about the severity of the injury, but will also protect the victim from life-threatening medical issues that can manifest long after an event.
5. Recognize and Document Stalking Behavior
Many perpetrators stalk their victims and this behavior is a reliable predictor of future violence against a victim. Yet, stalking behavior continues to be overlooked by many officers. According to Woodlock (2017), this is because DV offenders are able to control their victims by using tactics that are not viewed as overtly aggressive. For example, some offenders may simply use technology to communicate with their victim, but they can do so in a way that isolates that victim, or makes her feel like she is always being watched and controlled.
Officers must document every stalking behavior because this can be very important for a future prosecution. This includes any behavior that shows the offender micromanages, threatens, shames, isolates, or conducts surveillance on the victim. Such behaviors should be documented even if they are not directly related to the particular DV call the officer is responding to. The observations an officer notes in their report may later be used by a prosecutor as evidence of a pattern of behavior.
6. Interview Children as Victims and Witnesses
Domestic violence offenders are always looking for ways to manipulate and control their victims. Children are often used as a means of control by DV offenders, just like technology and other stalking-related tactics. Children who live fully surrounded by the behavior of a DV offender and are often both witnesses, and victims, in domestic violence incidents.
Studies have found that children as young as 12 are able to recognize and articulate controlling and coercive behavior by an offender. The same study found that children in DV households become used to monitoring the situation in the home with great vigilance. Many children have even learned to intervene in strategic ways to help the victim when they sense an incident is imminent.
Recognizing the role that children play in DV households can help officers and prosecutors hold offenders accountable. In addition, it is incredibly important that officers recognize the children as victims themselves. Officers can better serve these most vulnerable victims by taking steps to ensure they are appropriately interviewed and assisted in the same way as traditional partner victims of DV.
DV Cases are Challenging, But Officers Can Help
Officers play a critical role in stopping domestic violence and helping victims break the cycle of violence. It’s important for officers to understand how to best respond to these incidents and what steps are the most important when it comes to keeping victims safe and building a case against an offender.
Domestic violence cases are not like any other crime—they are highly personal attacks, where the perpetrator is often someone who is supposed to care about the victim. These situations are wrought with history and a complex series of coercive or manipulative behavior. Officers must show empathy, patience, and solid investigative skills to unravel the circumstances in DV crime. Approaching each DV case with that in mind will present the best possible case to a prosecutor and help victims break free from the cycle of violence.
About the Author: Scot DuFour has been a police officer since 2004 and is currently an investigator in a domestic violence prosecutions unit for a district attorney’s office in Colorado. Scot was previously a police officer with the Aurora Police Department, Phoenix Police Department, and a task force officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a graduate of American Public University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.