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Putting Out the Fire

As the San Diego Police Department has discovered, developing a comprehensive police pertaining to domestic violence calls will quell the fires in the courtroom and also curb the number of homicides.

March 01, 1996  |  by John Pentelei-Molnar

James and Cindy were having another marital argument. James was holding down two jobs, working 60 hours a week, and liked to have a few beers when he got home from an exhausting day. Cindy was tired of his drinking and wanted to let him know about it.

After exchanging harsh words, James smacked Cindy across the face, splitting her lip. Neighbors, hearing the argument, called for police. Police arrived on the scene and began to sort out the mess. Cindy, however, did not want to press charges.

"Sorry," replied the responding officer. "James is going to jail for felony spousal abuse." Before you go scurrying to your training manuals to find out how some­one can be arrested for a felony when the basic crime is a misdemeanor, take a look at how San Diego (Calif.) police have managed to curb the number of domestic abuse homicides.

Through an innovative domestic abuse policy, San Diego now has one of the lowest rates of domestic vio­lence homicides in the country. In fact, domestic violence homicides have dropped from n in 1991 to approxi­mately seven in 1995. In addition, the city's documentation procedures and victim assistance programs have also been highly effective in reducing the number of repeatable assaults.

Tracking the Numbers

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 22,540 murders were com­mitted in the United States in 1992.

Of those, the relationship between the victim and suspect was known 61 percent of the time. Of that, 15 percent of the murders where the relationship between the victim and the assailant was known had involved a victim described in police records as an "inti­mate." This means that the victim was a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend, girl­friend or intimate partner.

In San Diego, the definition of "inti­mate" goes a few steps further by incorporating cohabitants, former cohabitants, persons with whom the suspect has had a child, and homosexu­al partners. This means that just about anyone who has any type of intimate contact with another individual—regardless of the length of time or depth of commitment—can be arrested for domestic violence crimes.

This is an important ingredient to an effective domestic violence policy because, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report based on 1992 statistics, only 34 percent of the victims of domes­tic violence were attacked by spouses. Another 15 percent were attacked by ex­-spouses, with a overwhelming 51 percent being attacked by boyfriends and girl­friends. This latter statistic is what caused the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) to revise its definition of who can be a victim of domestic violence.

Putting Policies in Place

The department has discovered first-hand that it's essential to have a comprehensive policy and procedural process in place to deal with domestic violence situations. According to the 1990 Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics Survey (LEMAS), 93 percent of agencies that have more than 100 officers and 77 percent of the sheriff's departments have written policies concerning domestic disturbances. Additionally, 45 percent of these large departments, and 40 percent of the sheriff's departments have special domestic violence units.

The most important ingredient to an effective domestic violence policy is properly addressing the initial response and procedure of the responding officer. What you do as the primary officer will often determine what happens in couId-whether an effective arrest will be conducted and whether or not proper evidence will be collected.

The following is a basic primer on handling effective domestic violence calls, with the basic precept modeled after the San Diego Police Depart­ment's domestic violence policy.

The Initial Response

According to Section 273.5 of the California Penal Code, spousal abuse, or the infliction of corporal injury upon a member of opposite sex with whom the suspect is cohabitating, or on the mother or father of their child is con­sidered a felony.

But when responding to a domestic violence call, remember that the situation can involve many other crimes as well. It could involve simple battery, assault, kid­napping, trespassing, murder, stalking, terrorist threats, spousal rape and many others. The key is to never assume that the people you're going to encounter are merely involved in the types of squabbles that mom and dad used to get in over the television remote.

Second, always remember that domestic violence situations are some of the most volatile environments that you will encounter; therefore, they can pose an extreme risk to officers. Domestic violence stems from a power struggle between two individuals, which is fueled by raw emotions.

The sight of a loved one being cart­ed away by an arresting officer can transform a seemingly calm situation into an instant brawl. Therefore, it is important to ensure that you always have adequate numbers of officers to deal with the situation.

In San Diego, for instance, domestic violence calls are designated as "priori­ty one" calls; therefore, a cover unit is always sent to make sure that two offi­cers are present. If the fight is ongoing when the 9-1-1 call is made, additional officers are often sent out. This ensures that officer safety is maintained.

Remember, while the people you deal with may not get along, it is unaccept­able for you to become another victim of the situation.

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