Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is one of the most hidden social problems in the United States. It is an issue that has historically been considered a personal family problem matter and has not been taken seriously by the criminal justice system. There are several factors, which contribute to this social problem. Hitchinson & Hirschel (1994), suggest that these factors include “privacy in the home, the social approval of violence, the inequality of women in society, and noninvolvement by criminal justice officials” (p.147). According to the New York State Domestic Incident Report Reference Manuel (2005), domestic violence “is a pattern of behavior involving coercion exerted by one family member or intimate partner over another with the goal of establishing, demonstrating or maintaining power and control” (p. 4). As per the police response to domestic violence, The New York State Domestic Incident Report Manuel (2005), states that a domestic incident “can include any disturbance, dispute, violence, threatened or actual, or report of offense between individuals within a domestic relationship where police intervention occurs” (p. 4). Not only must police come to the legal solution, but due to the high level of emotions involved, such as frustration, outrage, power, passion, despair, and anger, police must be aware of the dangerous consequences that may result from responding to calls for domestic violence. It is crucial for responding police personnel to imply their knowledge of the law along with proper police tactics for officer safety.

According to Loue (2001), research indicates that many of women who suffer from domestic violence have never sought assistance from the police, (p. 136). This may be due to the fear of retaliation from their abusers, a feeling that the violence was a personal matter, or afraid that contacting the police will hurt their relationships. Loue (2001) suggests that victims of domestic violence may also refrain from calling the police because they were disappointed with the police response to previous incidents of violence. The police response to domestic violence is a serious issue and according to Gracia, E., Garcia, F. & Lila, M. (2008), the police response to domestic violence “is not only one of the few mechanisms available to victims to stop the violence but also plays an important symbolic function because it represents societal disapproval and reprobation”, (p. 697). Responding police personnel must be aware and educated of several key factors while on the scene of a domestic violence call for service. These factors include proper on scene intervention, documentation, tactics, assessment, arrest policies, and orders of protection.

The police response to domestic violence has progressed significantly within the past few decades. According to Frye, Haviland and Rajah (2007) “since the late 1970’s, when advocates for victims of domestic violence began to lobby for changes in the law, nearly every state in the Unites States has legislated change in the police response to domestic violence incidents” (p. 397). Historically domestic violence was treated as a non-criminal matter and labeled family trouble calls. In the mid 1900’s, the general police response was to allow family members to resolve their own problems. In many domestic violence situations the police simply chose not to get involved. In other situations, Simpson, Bouffard, Garner and Hickman (2006), found that officers were advised by their superiors to mediate and separate during domestic disputes, not because it created a safer atmosphere for the victim but because the tactic was said to be safer for the responding officers (p. 298). With this mentality, officers were less likely to arrest domestic violence offenders compared to other violent offenders. The failure to arrest can historically be contributed to several factors law enforcement officers faced. Dunham and Alpert (2005) found that the failure to arrest during domestic violence could be attributed to organizational implements, lack of police training, police attitudes, and fear of injury. Organizational implements, such as state laws and the policies of departments, limited officer’s probable cause to arrest a domestic violence offender. According to Dunham and Alpert (2005), “as a result, many police believed that their role was peripheral, restricted to a perfunctory, service oriented call” (p. 144). When police departments do not have a clear agency policy a sense of confusion may arise when officers come across an issue. Especially an issue that is as complicated as domestic violence. Lack of training to handle domestic violence was also another major issue.

According to Corcoran and Allen (2005), “prior to 1966, no United States police departments provided training on domestic disturbances, and only a handful had written policies or procedures on the subject” (p. 40). This resulted in officers having the inability to properly intervene in domestic violence calls for service. As it still is today, the fear of injury during domestic violence calls is also another factor that may have historically attributed to the lack of arrest for domestic violence offenders. According to the Floyd (2007), “since 1855, when New Haven, Connecticut Night Watchman Thomas Cummins became the first officer ever to be killed on a domestic disturbance call, 546 other officers in the United States have suffered the same tragic fate”. This can be attributed to several factors. Factors that include a high level of emotion, drug and alcohol use and unknown weapons in the residence. According to Uchida, Brooks and Kopers, (1987), domestics represent a large percent of assaults on police officers. The fourth factor that Dunham and Alpert (2005), identify as reasons that arrests may not have historically been made is police attitudes. Police attitudes may be contributed to the previous three factors but may have also paralleled with the social attitudes of the time. According to Gracia, Garcia and Lila (2008), police attitudes and responses to domestic violence not only play an important role in shaping the social environment, but also have an important effect on victims’ satisfaction with the police and victims’ sense of security (p. 698). Positive police presence will enhance the victims’ sense of well being and encourage the victim to seek further police assistance. However, negative police response and attitudes will deter the victim from contacting police assistance in the future.

According to Corcoran and Allen (2005), domestic violence calls require a lot of attention from responding police officers. The reasoning for such attention is the need to resolve the issue at hand. Officers have to question victims and tend to complicated needs. Officers also have to identify the circumstances of the situation. Officers have to identify if the call for service is in fact a domestic. Depending on the state and department rules and regulations, officers must evaluate the situation to determine if there is a domestic relationship. Officers determine if the call for service is a domestic based on the definition of a domestic relationship within their state. According to the New York State Domestic Incident Report Manuel (2005): A domestic relationship can be defined in several ways. The mandatory arrest policy in New York State, defines family relationships as current or former spouses, persons related by blood or marriage, or persons who have a child-in-common. However, most police departments in NYS expand the definition of domestic relationship to include intimate partners (without a child-in-common), partners who live together or who have lived together in the past, or persons in current or former dating or intimate relationships. (p. 4).

The police response to domestic violence generally starts when the police dispatcher receives the 911 calls. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), police dispatchers must immediately attempt to gather information from the caller to assist the responding officers. Dispatchers must attempt to obtain the nature of the incident, if it is in progress, whether the domestic is verbal or physical, nature of injuries, weapons involved or in an immediate area, whether alcohol or drugs are involved, description of parties involved, and hazards on scene such as dogs. After obtaining such information, dispatchers should dispatch a minimum of two officers, assign it priority response and not cancel the response even if the caller requests the police response to be cancelled. Communications will keep the caller on the telephone in order to relay ongoing information to the responding police personnel. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), dispatchers should also be responsible for mediating safety for the caller prior to the police arrival and have access for police departments of domestic violence history and nature of calls at that particular address.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), when officers are being dispatched to a domestic violence call they should approach the scene with a high degree of caution, obtain all information from the dispatcher, and be alert for subjects leaving the scene. When arriving on scene the International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), suggests to avoid parking the patrol vehicle in front of the residents, if possible. The reasoning for this is so police are not a clear target for possible assailants. When arriving at the residence officers should identify themselves as police officers, explain their presence and request entry when exigent circumstances do not exist. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), states that “forced entry is permissible if there is probable cause to believe that the safety of a victim may be in jeopardy”, (p. 3). This decision is based on personal observations, physical evidence, and information learned from witnesses. Upon gaining entry, officers should identify and secure potential weapons, separate parties involved, restrain or remove the suspect, if necessary, assess injuries and request medical attention if necessary. Visual inspection and photographs of injuries should be taken for documentation purposes.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police provides an outline for police departments in their response to domestic violence. However, it is essential that responding police personnel are educated to properly assess, document and enforce in domestic violence calls for service. According to De Sanits, (2007), there are several common police errors in their response to domestic violence. Such errors include, failure to write a report, failure to get a good victim statement, failure to obtain a history of abuse, failure to ask or properly record threats, failure to ask about sexual violence, failure to obtain witness statements, failure to deal with restraining order violations and stalking and failure to enforce custody, visitation and family court orders. These failures may result in the suspect not being held accountable for their actions and the history of what led to the current incident to be washed away.

When on scene of a domestic call for service, it should be the responsibility of the police to assess the mechanism of injury to the victim. Sheridan and Nash (2007), define the mechanism of injury as “the exchange of physical forces that result in injury, whether from the force of a fist, a bottle, or a bullet”, (p. 281). In many instances, police come across a victim of domestic violence, which in attempt to protect their abuser, may advise police that they had fallen or were injured accidently. Sheridan and Nash (2007), suggest that the head, neck and face, particularly the middle third of the face, are the most common reported locations of injuries of domestic violence victims. The most common form of physical domestic violence is the victim being struck by the abusers hand, whether a closed fist or open hand. It is important to determine if the victim was struck with a closed fist or an open fist due to the different amounts of force that is generated. According to Sheridan and Nash (2007), being slapped may not require medical attention, and may result in redness or welts to the body, as opposed to being punched which may result in severe bruising, lacerations, fractures and possibly internal injuries. Other non-weapon force can include being kicked, pushed, or strangled.

Injuries from being kicked, although rare, can be very injurious due to the amount of force generated from the abuser. When being pushed, injuries to bones such as knees, hips, chin and elbows can be consistent with falls. Injuries to forearms or cuts inside of one’s hands however should raise suspicion of defensive injuries from domestic abuse. Strangulation is a common victim injury in domestic violence assaults and is often overlooked by responding police personnel. According to Sheridan and Nash (2007), “strangulation can result in a variety of symptoms not usually classified as injuries such as shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, headaches, sore throat, voice change, loss of consciousness, involuntary loss of bladder and bowels, and memory loss”, (p. 286).

When responding to a domestic violence call, police must be aware that weapons can range from knives and guns to everyday household items. Household items are readily available to abusers and can be used as a weapon capable of causing visible external lacerations and may result in internal injuries. When lacerations occur from blunt trauma to the body there is a greater probability of added trauma to internal structures and organs as compared to cuts that may just involve the area actually touched by a sharp object.

Hirschel, Buzawa, Patavina, and Faggiani (2007), found that all states have granted the police to make warrantless arrests when responding to domestic violence calls. Some states even reduce police discretion and mandate that an officer must arrest if the officer finds probable cause that an offense has been committed.

According to Hirschel, Buzawa, Patavina, and Faggiani (2007), “current research on domestic violence indicates that intimate partner violence arrest rates have risen as a direct result of the implementation of mandatory and preferred arrest domestic violence laws” (p.255). When it was implemented, mandatory arrest policies sent a shockwave though police departments around the country. Mandatory domestic violence arrest policies represented a major change in policing from policy to police response and made strides to alter a strong police subculture that tended to believe that domestic violence was acceptable in the eyes of the law. Mandatory arrest policies have become a key solution in cases of domestic violence. According to Frye, Haviland, and Rajah (2007), “in 1994, the New York State legislature passed the Family Protection and Domestic Violence Intervention Act, which contained provisions enacting a mandatory arrest statute”, (p.397). The goal of mandatory arrest policies was to increase the amount of domestic violence related arrests as well as standardize the police response and procedure to domestic violence. With the goal to increase domestic violence arrests, the intentions of mandatory arrest policies were to deter batterers and first time offenders. However, effects of the policy such as “dual arrests” and an increased rate of females being arrested have been identified.
Mandatory arrest laws in domestic violence cases have significantly increased the arrests of females as either single primary offenders or during a dual arrest. A dual arrest is the outcome when police arrest both parties involved in the domestic incident for offenses committed against each other. According to Finn, Blackwell, Stalans, Studdard and Dugan (2004), factors that lead to a dual arrest include evidence of injuries to both parties, probable cause established separately for both parties, statements from uninvolved witnesses which implicates both parties, assault on the police officer by the victim, and restraining or protective orders for one of the parties when the other party invited them.

Hirschel, Buzawa, Patavina, and Faggiani (2007), found that in some cases of domestic violence, dual arrests were the result of legislation, department policies or both failing to require officers to identify the primary aggressor. Female offenders tended to be young and were more likely to be involved with drugs or alcohol than their male co-defendants. The rise in female arrests in domestic violence cases may be a result of several factors. According to Henning, Renauer, and Holdford (2006), the mandatory arrest policy may be encouraging police officers to arrest female victims who acted physically aggressive in self-defense, when historically officers may have just arrested the male. In cases where a female is strangled, injuries may not be initially visible, where the male may have visible physical injuries that were sustained from the female acting in self defense. Mandatory arrest policies put pressure on police officers to arrest based on what is initially visible, not necessarily what is justified. Mandatory arrest policies limit officer’s discretion and intervention techniques during the response to domestic violence.

According to Sherman and Berk (1984), the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment revealed that arrests were the most effective method that police used to reduce domestic violence. Sherman and Berk (1984) found that methods such as attempting to counsel both parties or sending the abuser away from home for a periodof time were found to be significantly less effective in deterring future domestic violence in the cases that were examined. This was the first major study to test the deterrent effect of arrest in domestic violence cases. The study focused on three different types of police responses. These police responses included advising the parties, separating the parties and arresting the offender. According to Hutchison and Hirschel (1994), six later studies in Omaha, Atlanta, Colorado Springs, Dade County, Florida, Milwaukee, and Charlotte, North Carolina, addressed this issue of whether arrest was the most effective law enforcement response to deter future domestic violence. It was concluded from the replication studies that the arrest of the offender did not have a significant deterrent effect on spouse abusers as a whole. However, Hutchison and Hirschel (1994), advise that arrests in domestic violence cases “deterred those with high stake in social conformity and increases recidivism among those with a low stake in conformity”, (p.150). This finding is interesting, but it would be unethical if arrest decisions were based on social class.

When responding to a domestic violence incident, it is crucial for officers to understand the elements of an order of protection. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), an order of protection is defined as “any injunction or other order issued for the purpose of preventing violent or threatening acts or harassment against or contact or communication with, or physical proximity to, another person” (p.2). According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), after congress enacted the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, federal law mandates that police officers give full faith and recognition to valid orders of protection issued, even by other jurisdictions. This means victims of domestic violence who are granted court orders of protection may contact the police to protect them from their abusers nationwide. If the abuser violates the terms of the order of protection, the abuser may be arrested for violating the order of protection as well as any other crimes related to the incident. When the police arrive on scene of a domestic involving an order or protection it is essential for the police to read the order of protection in its entirety, determine validity and determine if there is probable cause to arrest the abuser for violating the order of protection, as well as other charges. When responding to a domestic violence call for service, police are held liable to enforce orders of protections. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (2006), provides several methods to reduce the liability when orders of protection are involved. The methods consist of responding in a timely fashion, investigate thoroughly, follow arrest laws of enforcing jurisdiction, enforce custody provisions, offer assistance and referral to the victim, complete detailed incident reports, charged appropriately, follow up for victim protection, train all enforcement personnel, and supervise carefully to ensure victim safety. The last method in which the International Association of Chiefs of Police provides is to seize weapons when appropriate. When an abuser is subject to a qualifying order of protection, federal law prohibits the abuser from possessing a firearm and ammunition. This means that after determining a valid order of protection, police must seize weapons for the benefit of the victim and community safety.

Orders of protection are a tool in the criminal justice field used to prevent abuse to victims of domestic violence. This tool can only be useful if victims obtain the order of protection in the first place. According to Etter and Birzer (2007), “women who may need them the most may be least apt to obtain them”, (p. 114). This may parallel with how women view the police response to domestic violence Negative interactions with police officers can demoralize a victim. A negative police response may lead a victim into deeper despair. Logan, T., Shannon, L. & Walker, R. (2006), suggest that negative interactions with the police may not only influence future help seeking behavior, such as not calling the police, but will also prevent the victim from obtaining orders of protection or even pursuing a violation for an order of protection.

After responding to a report of domestic violence, officers are required to prepare an incident report. In New York State this report is called the Domestic Incident Report (D.I.R.). The D.I.R. is required to be completed anytime officers respond to a domestic incident regardless if an arrest is made or if a crime has been committed. According to the New York State Domestic Incident Reference Manual (2005), the D.I.R. is structured to promote victim and officer safety, offender accountability and guide officers in their investigation. Officers should provide the victim with a copy of the D.I.R. which provides social service information and contact numbers. Officers should also go out of their way to assist victims with social service information and have a working professional relationship with family shelters and providers in the area.

Even though the police response to domestic violence has made significant strides within the past few decades, domestic violence is still considered a serious social problem. Police agencies should take this social problem into their own hands and clearly label it as a violation of the law. American society is deathly afraid of the random attack of a stranger, but the real threat is at home. Police agencies should work in conjunction with each other and have a mandatory dispatch of available units in the area when responding to violent domestics. Department pride should not stand in the way of officer safety when responding to potential deadly encounters of domestic violence. Police agencies should highly train their officers to look for signs of abuse, understand protective orders, and understand their rights to arrest during domestic violence. Officers that arrive on scene should be confident and knowledgeable of their response to domestic violence. When officers are not confident due to department policy that is not clearly implemented, that is when officers get hurt and let the abuser remain in control of the situation. Completing the domestic incident report should not be just another piece of paperwork that officers casually fill out similar to an accident report. Officers should not only be highly trained, but certified under a separate state course to have the ability fill out a domestic incident report. Like many social problems in American history it takes a strong group to stand up and make it clear that it is not acceptable. May that strong group be the police.
Back to Policing Specific Communities