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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

When deciding on a course of action in any domestic violence situation, do not be swayed by the following:

  • The present status of the relationship between the victim and suspect. All that matters is if they have ever had an intimate relationship together.
  • Whether or not the suspect still lives at the victim's residence.
  • The existence or lack of either a tem­porary restraining order or emergency protective order.
  • The financial consequences of an arrest.
    • The victim's history of prior complaints.
    • Emotional state of the victim or the suspect.
    • The existence of non-visible injuries.
    • The location of the incident.
    • The prospect that the victim may not go to court or that a conviction may not be obtained.
    • The public stature of either the suspect or individual: i.e" famous politicians, football stars, etc. Once a crime has been determined to have been com­mitted, then statements must be taken.

    The Investigation

    The first rule, of course, is to inter­view the suspect and victim separately. When initially contacting a suspect, do not immediately Mirandize him or her. At this point, until you have determined both the nature of the crime and relation­ship between the suspect and victim, the suspect is not under arrest for domestic violence. They are simply under deten­tion for investigation, since you have reasonable suspicion to detain them.

    This is critical because many domes­tic violence suspects, based on their agi­tated emotional state, will make admis­sible, spontaneous statements that can be used against them later in court. Let them make all the spontaneous state­ments they want. Furthermore, because the suspect is in a detention status, sim­ply asking general questions like, "Who are you? and "What's Up?" does not constitute interrogation.

    If both the victim and suspect are injured, try to determine who the pri­mary aggressor is. Until then, treat both as suspects, keeping in mind the need for medical help if necessary. Document the victim's condition through photographs, diagrams, etc. Remember some injuries may take days to provide visible documentation, so a follow-up may be required in order to file a felony charge.

    Take photos of torn clothing, smeared blood or makeup, telephones torn from wall sockets, or any other evidence of the disturbance. Further­more, if the victim has a restraining order against the suspect, obtain a copy of the order and valid proof that the order has been served.

    If the victim does not have a tempo­rary restraining order against the sus­pect, then information should be given to them to facilitate this.

    In San Diego, victims are given a two-page sheet that lists telephone numbers for more than 40 different agencies. The list includes numbers for the SDPD's domestic violence unit, various women's shelters and the city Attorney's Office.

    In addition, it also lists information necessary to obtain a temporary restrain­ing order. Furthermore, officers can have an Emergency Protective Order (EPO) issued immediately if they feel the safety of the victim is jeopardized.

    Writing the Report

    As with any crime report, the better your report, the better chance you have of obtaining a conviction in court. When writing your report, remain objective in the documentation of the

    crime. No one likes to see a battered spouse, but you cannot prejudice your report as it may provide ammunition to the defense attorney in court.

    Be sure to include all elements of the crime, the relationship and back­ground of the suspect and victim-and whether or not the victim was advised of a private person's arrest during eval­uation. Of course, describe in detail the origin of the call, the investigation and any evidence and drawings you may want to provide of the scene.

    The San Diego PD has a very thor­ough domestic violence supplemental sheet that is included with every report (see sample on page 62). It clearly doc­uments the physical and emotional condition of the suspect and vic­tim, any medical treatment needed and evidence collected; it also provides dia­grams to indicate injuries. If nothing like this exists at your department, con­sider designing a similar sheet to accu­rately document your cases.

    Also, be sure to accurately label and describe each photograph that you've taken of injuries and the victim's physi­cal condition. Also, be sure to obtain and include any medical reports from the hospital should either the suspect or victim require emergency medical treatment or hospitalization for injuries received during the altercation.

    If necessary, seek the opportunity to impound any firearms that might be pre­sent in the residence. According to sec­tion 12028.5 of the California Penal Code, a peace officer at the scene of a domestic violence incident where threat to human life is imminent can impound a weapon that is either in plain sight or obtained through consensual search for the protection of the victim and officers at the scene.

    Of course, if you don't have the option of consent, clearly document this in your report, while articulating your decision to remove the weapon. Finally, recognize that some injuries do not present themselves immediately; therefore, you may have to do some follow-up work several days later to document any injuries.

    In some cases, this may be done by the detectives in your domestic violence unit. But if your department has no such unit, it becomes your responsibility to ensure that your report is complete and factual.

    A Final Note

    Domestic violence is a serious crime in America that causes irreparable dam­age to families and individuals. As peace officers, it is our responsibility to make an extra effort to do a complete and thorough report on each and every domestic violence situation.

    It is also our responsibility to make sure we do it safely without risk of injury to ourselves and our fellow o/ri­cers. By doing so, we can play a critical role in making those who commit these crimes spend time behind bars thinking about their actions.

    John Pentelei-Molnar is a POST law enforcement trainer and reserve officer for the San Diego Police Department.

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