Over the years, many things have changed about the way law enforcement officers respond to reports of domestic violence. Long gone are the "bad old days" in which too much of society felt that a woman was a man's property to do with as he pleased, even if it pleased him to beat, torture, and sexually degrade her. Today, peace officers appropriately investigate the reported crime and, if they determine that probable cause exists, charge and (frequently) jail the batterer as the criminal that he is. Indeed, things have changed.
But one part of the domestic violence scenario that remains unchanged is its extreme danger for the law enforcement officer sent to restore order out of mayhem. Annual FBI statistics documenting American law enforcement officers killed and assaulted show police intervention in a domestic violence crime to be at least as dangerous an undertaking today as it has ever been. As evidence of the hazard, consider the following recent, real-life examples of American law enforcement officers murdered while responding to domestic violence crimes:
A sheriff's department sergeant with 20 years of experience arrived at a reported domestic violence call just after midnight. He entered the residence alone, then telephoned for backup. When assisting officers arrived they discovered the sergeant in a violent struggle with an adult male armed with a knife. Before the other officers could intervene the sergeant was stabbed fatally in the neck.
A fourteen-year veteran officer was killed while investigating a domestic dispute. The officer was assisting another policeman who had stopped a vehicle after seeing a man and woman struggling inside. While the officers were interviewing the woman, the adult male fled in the vehicle to a relative's home. The officers pursued and as they approached the residence on foot they were fired on with a .38-caliber revolver from a window. The victim officer was hit fatally in the upper torso. A second officer was wounded.
A sheriff's deputy was shot to death on a domestic violence call. The officer confronted the male half of the disturbance at a residence and was attempting to question him when the 70-year old produced a shotgun and fired twice. The officer was struck fatally in the head and neck. A second deputy was fired at as he arrived and, in turn, shot and killed the suspect.
While it is important to devote a great deal of attention to the legal and procedural aspects of handling a domestic violence call, it is even more vital that all peace officers are extremely knowledgeable about the tactics and techniques required to survive a domestic violence intervention. These measures are made even more important due to the reality that many domestic violence scenes are made more hazardous by the presence of alcohol, drugs, and deadly weapons. Fortunately, what most officers have learned and practiced as basic street survival skills will go a long way toward assuring their safety at the scene of domestic violence. These skills include the following:
Learn as much as possible about what you will be facing on a call. That means questioning your dispatcher, if necessary, as well as victims and witnesses on-scene. Some of the queries you will need answered are obvious: Are weapons involved? What kind? How many participants are there? Has an offender fled? If so, what is his description and where has he gone? Is there a prior record of violence involving this subject or address, including violence against officers?
The most important source of information on exactly what you are facing will be your own observations. Take a moment when you arrive to stop, look, and listen. If the altercation is taking place inside, what can you hear? Can you see through a partially open door or window? What do your senses tell you about weapons, number of people present, and in-progress crimes? What threats have you heard? Don't be in a rush to commit yourself unless someone's life is clearly in imminent danger. The pause to collect information also will give you a chance to gather your wits, formulate a plan of attack, and allow your backup time to arrive.
Keep Surprise on Your Side
You want to arrive at the scene of domestic violence without the bad guy knowing you are there. You need to catch him unaware, not have it happen the other way around. That means you avoid announcing your approach with sirens, flashing lights, squealing tires, and the slamming of car doors.
Once you arrive, quiet any noisy giveaways such as a squawking portable radio or jangling keys. Approach on foot from other than the "expected" route of travel, just in case someone is waiting to ambush you. That may mean parking a few addresses down the street or around the corner and moving through front yards instead of parking in front of the involved address and marching up the front walk.
More than one or two of your peers have been murdered by domestic assailants who knew that the police had been called and then hid in wait to kill a "meddling cop." That's not a fate you want to have repeated yet again.
Never Go It Alone
It seems there are fewer and fewer absolutes in law enforcement, but here is one of them: Never try to handle a domestic violence call alone. Too many officers have died violently trying to do just that. It may indeed happen that a domestic violence scenario begins to develop right in front of you with no advance warning. You may indeed have to get involved promptly to protect someone from imminent and serious harm. If you must act without help in such a situation, by all means do so. But do call for backup before you get involved. Once the action starts, you may not have another opportunity.
On a dispatched call of domestic violence, coordinate with your assist unit so the two of you approach together. Communicate with one another so that each knows what the other is planning to do. Consider using hand signals or coded word cues. Implement your best contact-and-cover tactics so that one officer acts while the other serves as a "lifeguard" or cover.
Do not get trapped into a mindset that requires one contact officer and one cover. Obtain as much assistance as you think you may need. You can send extra help away a lot more easily than you can assemble it quickly after the situation has already gone sour. If you recognize the dispatched address or parties involved as ingredients for resistance or assaults on officers, get plenty of help on the way before you even go to the scene. Depending on what develops, a whole handful of peacekeepers may be required to restore order in relative safety. Never be bashful about asking for help.
Follow Officer Safety Basics
You have practically memorized them since the academy. All of them come into play while you are attempting to remain healthy during a domestic violence intervention. Stay sharp for sudden changes in the people or the situation. Watch the hands of all those involved, including those of the victim and apparent bystanders who may suddenly decide to get involved.
Avoid making dangerous assumptions about anyone's apparent level of threat to you. "Victims" and "onlookers" have, on occasion, inflicted grievous injuries on their rescuers.
Maintain a good reactionary gap of several feet between yourself and others present to give yourself time to respond effectively to a sudden attack. Watch your positioning and keep your weapon side turned away from potential attackers.
Do not allow people to stand behind you. Those involved in the event-the victim included-need to be kept within your sight. You do not want someone returning from the next room with a fatal surprise in hand.
Remain Aware of Your Environment
As every veteran officer knows, little or nothing can change a cooperative individual (particularly an intoxicated one) into a resisting, violent cop-fighter without warning. It is important to remain alert the entire time you are on the scene of a domestic violence complaint. Keep an eye on everyone present for any indication that emotions may be escalating towards more violence against anyone, you included.
The more people you have present, the harder it will be for you and your cover officer to keep track of each person and what he or she is doing. For that reason it will be helpful if you can convince bystanders, relatives, and others to move along someplace else as soon as you have identified them and learned what you need for witness purposes. You don't need a couple of them on your back when you start to make an arrest. You also do not need them taking sides and assaulting either the victim or the suspect while you are otherwise occupied.
Keep the participants in the call away from actual and potential weapons, such as fireplace tools and kitchen implements. Keep them out of the kitchen, if at all possible, due to the ample supply of tools for mayhem available there. The same holds true for the garage, where another supply of hitting and cutting devices may be readily at hand.
Granted, it is always touchy issuing orders to people about where they can and cannot stand, sit or go on their own premises where you are the outsider. But it is also vital to keep them "corralled" where you can keep a watchful eye on everyone to prevent unpleasant surprises. Use your best powers of persuasion and rely on reasonable orders where you must to control a scene that otherwise could get out of hand.
Keep Participants Separated
If possible, you do not want to have the apparent victim and likely suspect in the same room or even within hearing distance of one another while you conduct a domestic violence investigation. Allowing them to remain in close proximity to one another might do more than permit them to yell at each other and otherwise interfere with your investigation. It just may permit a new attack to be launched. Don't do it. At the same time, attempt to maneuver those involved so that you and your backup can see one another as you go about your inquiry. Continue the supervised separation until you are ready to leave the scene, either with someone in custody or following some other solution to the crisis.
Don't Give Them the Upper Hand
Just as in your handling of any other assignment in which you must confront potentially dangerous people, keep close track of your weapons and their location in respect to the people around you. Keep your firearm side turned away from and beyond the reaching distance of potential weapon grabbers. Keep your sidearm snapped snugly into its holster unless you have legitimate cause to have it in your hand. Try to keep your elbow locked down over your holstered weapon if at all possible.
Call on your very best handcuffing and prisoner searching techniques when dealing with a domestic violence suspect. Be sure your prisoner is off-balance and approached from the rear for the arrest process. Cuff him to his rear and then check the handcuffs to be sure they are locked and neither too tight nor too loose.
Search for weapons or anything else your suspect might use to hurt you, himself, or anyone else. Remove these items before you put him into a vehicle for transport. You already should have searched the transport area of your vehicle to ensure that the last "guest" has not left any surprises behind. Repeat your prisoner search as many times as necessary until you are truly convinced any remotely dangerous objects have been removed and secured beyond your prisoner's reach.
Naturally, you will carry out all of your arrest and control maneuvers under the watchful eyes of your cover officer. This is not the time to get in a hurry. Take your time and do it right. It's your life that may be at stake here.
Don't Linger in the Area
If you have a report to complete following a domestic violence encounter, get well out of the neighborhood to do it. Otherwise, the temptation for an involved but not arrested participant to seek you out to get in the last word (or worse) may be simply too great for him to overcome.
If you have a suspect in custody, the safest course of action for the both of you is to get him to a place of custody as quickly as possible. Doing so will reduce the amount of time you are exposed to potential danger from him in your patrol car. At the same time, the danger to him from friends or relatives of his victim will be reduced.
Remember, he is your prisoner, and it is your legal and ethical obligation to keep him safe while he is in your custody, no matter how sorry an example of the human animal he appears to be.
When you are done with the call and out of the presence of those involved, spend a little time reflecting on what went well for you and what you might improve on next time. Would you talk more and act less quickly? Or would you do it the other way around? Did some action or statement of yours seem to inflame the situation? Or did it smooth things out? Remember that every individual and situation you encounter will be different, but it is possible to learn some general lessons from what has gone before.
Think about how you handled things and make some plans for revising your approach, if appropriate, the next time out. Bounce your ideas and observations off of other experienced cops. There may be something you can learn from their combined experiences, as well. That is precisely how law enforcement gets better.
Survive Mentally and Emotionally
Domestic violence intervention can be hard on the peace officer who cannot understand how people can get into such situations and then, seemingly, can't get out. These same officers not infrequently feel sympathy for the victim and justified outrage toward the offender. But almost as frequently they may feel frustration for the shortcomings of the justice system, and of people themselves. If you are having these very common feelings, don't hesitate to talk with your peers or a significant other about what you're experiencing. You are not crazy. You are likely very normal, experiencing normal human reactions to a very abnormal situation.
To ensure your continued, good emotional health, it's important to face one of the realities of police work: You can only do so much. You will not save the world all by yourself. But you can make a big difference by doing your job to the very best of your ability and then going home physically and emotionally healthy at the end of your shift. After all, you cannot help others if you are incapacitated yourself.
Live to Tell the Tale
A lot of bad things can happen on a domestic violence call. But they are a lot more likely to happen if you get lazy or careless about your own survival. While these assignments may never be your favorite thing to do, you can survive them even as you help others to remove themselves from life-endangering situations.
By thinking about the dangers in advance, doing some planning about how to mitigate them and then applying everything you know about street survival, you can make it through to a healthy retirement somewhere down the road. That's truly what surviving domestic violence intervention is all about.
Gerald W. Garner, a longtime Advisory Board member for Police, is a division chief with the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Department.