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Battles on the Homefront

Domestic violence is a silent epidemic, often leaving its victims fearful, voiceless and uncooperative. To increase the likelihood of a conviction, police should treat the call and investigation as they would a homicide.

March 01, 1996  |  by Kathryn Bourn

An expert witness could use the police descriptions of the couple's behavior to explain that the batterer had released all his frustration by the time the police arrived: therefore, he had moved on to the "honeymoon phase" where he has his "society mask" on, Majors said. In the honeymoon phase, the abuser may be charming, apologetic or cleaning up any messes, she said.

  • Degree of Pain-Ask the victim about her level of pain, particularly in assaults that did not leave visi­ble injuries. For an incident to qualify as at least a misdemeanor assault, the victim must at least have suffered substantial pain. One way to determine the victim's condition is to ask her to rate her level of pain on a scale of one to 10.
  • Victim's Written Statement-Have the victim write a brief statement describing the assault and her injuries. Although the written statement will not be admissible as evidence, it can be used to refute the victim's testimony if she claims the assault never happened. Her written statement also can be used to "refresh" her memory if she claims to have forgot­ten what happened.
  • Defendant's Statements-Separate the couple if the suspected abuser is present when the police respond to the house. While one officer talks to the victim, the other should try to get the abuser's version of what happened. Try to allow for spontaneous state­ments, since these statements may still be admissible in court. However, once the officer has determined the suspect is to be arrested-and makes that known to the suspect-then the officer should give the sus­pect his Miranda warnings.
  • Photographs-Photographs showing the loca­tion and extent of the victim's injuries can help prove how seriously the victim was hurt. Officers should photo­graph any damage to the home where the domestic violence incident occurred. If the victim will not allow herself to be photographed, the officer at least should make a detailed description of her injuries, including their type and location, in the incident repOt1.

After the police have finished with the initial call, they should follow up by listening 10 the 9-1-1 tapes and check­ing back with the victim a few days later. if possible.

  • Follow-Up Investigation-Since bruises typically do not appear until a day or two after an assault, checking back with the victim a few days later is an important part of docu­menting her injuries.

New photographs should be taken at this time. Even if the victim's injuries are not visible, the officer should ask if she is still in pain. Courts often will consider that a victim suf­fered substantial pain-as required by their state's misde­meanor assault statute-if the victim was still feeling pain several days after the assault.

  • 9-1-1 Tapes-A victim's call to 9-1-1 also may be admissible as either an excited utterance or a "present sense impression" exception to the general hearsay rule. A present sense impression is a description made at the same time that the event is being observed. The 9-1-1 tape may give prose­cutors a chance to let a jury hear a victim describe the abuse, even if the victim will not testify.

Some agencies destroy 9-1-1 tapes after a certain time peri­od has elapsed. Therefore, police should try to preserve the tapes of domestic violence reports, since they can be part of the evidence in the case.

  • Explain Process-If police do arrest the abuser, it's imp0l1ant to explain to the victim what happens next in the pro­cess. For instance, many victims assume that their abuser will be sent to jail if he's convicted of a misdemeanor assault; how­ever, a batterer is more likely to be sentenced to counseling.

In Massachusetts, police are required to tell the victim what her rights are. They'll also inform her that she can get a restrain­ing order 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Robbin said.

In states where the decision to file charges is not left up to the victim, police also should explain this aspect to her. Whether or not they make an arrest, police need to ask the victim if she wants to be taken to a crisis shelter.

The Right Attitude

The majority of domestic violence reports to the police will not escalate to the level where the police have probable cause to make an arrest.

Nonetheless, the police response can be extremely impor­tant. Police can make or break the situation by their behavior and attitude, O'Shea said. Even if officers do not make an arrest, they can let both parties know they take domestic vio­lence seriously. Since police are seen as authority figures, their attitude communicates a strong message to the abuser.

Police also can let the victim know she can always call them again. Although law enforcement agencies typically measure their effectiveness by not having to respond to the same homes again and again, "It's probably a success if you got back to the house over and over again," she said, because at least the victim who repeatedly reports domestic violence knows how to get help.

Responding to repeated domestic violence calls from the same couple often frustrates the police. "It's OK to be frus­trated," O'Shea commented. But police should avoid com­municating that frustration to the victim.

Officers should also focus on the investigation of the crime, she said, since it demonstrates that they're not just act­ing as mediators.

The police shouldn't be expected to act as social workers either. That's not their job. "We understand the police can only do so much in their job," Majors said. But referring victims to crisis counselors and shelters is vital. Even if the victim says she doesn't want the information, police should leave her a card with informa­tion about where she can get help. A victim may decide to call for help sev­eral months after the police respond to her house. "You're rarely going to see the impact you've had," O'Shea said.

However, leaving information behind with the victim may not be as helpful in situations where the abuser isn't arrested, Majors said.

The batterer may just rip up the information after the police leave. Or, after being repeatedly told that the abuse is her fault and that she is stupid, the victim may decide that the batterer is correct and decide not to call for counseling.

Rather than leaving it up to the vic­tim to get help, some domestic vio­lence counselors would like the police to pass along the report or at least the victim's name and phone number so they can follow up and offer help to the victim.

If police are not willing to make a policy of releasing the victim's name on their own, they could at least ask her if she would like to be contacted by someone who can provide her with help, Majors said.

"If we initiate (the call) and tell her lots of women go through this, it gives her a sense of relief. It lets her know someone else cares about her." Feeling that other people are concerned about her counteracts the abuser's message that "nobody cares about her like he does," she said.

Training to help police understand the dynamics of domestic violence is crucial to ensuring that officers respond appropriately to these calls.

Such training should also include information to help officers under­stand how racial, ethnic and class differences affect a victim of domes­tic violence.

For instance, some racial or ethnic groups have had mixed experiences with the police or may feel reluctant to tell their stories to a stranger, said Robbin. She added that cultural sensitivity is an important aspect of police training for all cases, not just domestic violence.

Kathyrn Bourn is a deputy district attorney in Clatstop County, Ore.

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