Photo courtesy of Salem (Ore.) PD

Photo courtesy of Salem (Ore.) PD

Long gone are the days when law enforcement treated domestic violence as a family's problem and not a real crime. Today, agencies are working to improve their response to such calls. They are making strides in providing victims with assistance and aiding in prosecutions by changing the ways they handle these cases, initially and throughout the criminal justice process.

For example, the Chicago Police Department is in the process of extending its pilot program begun in the 14th district earlier this year. It centers around implementation of a risk assessment form used on all domestic violence calls, and includes working more closely with detectives and advocacy groups. All officers department-wide are also receiving updated comprehensive domestic violence training online.

In addition to employing a full-time, grant-funded domestic violence advocate and working with a team of volunteer advocates, the Salem (Ore.) Police Department provides advanced monthly domestic violence training to patrol officers who volunteered based on interest. These Domestic Violence Response Team officers meet regularly with the DA's office and advocates and are spread across all shifts so that at least one is always available to work a domestic violence call.

"By them being involved in those cases, taking an interest and holding these offenders accountable early on, our prosecution rate went up almost 20%," says Salem PD's Deputy Chief Steve Bellshaw. "We also found our domestic violence homicide rate dropped drastically."

Identifying households at high risk for domestic violence incidents is an important first step in breaking the cycle.

Assess the Situation

A risk assessment form serves as an initial checklist that officers can use on a domestic violence call to determine details about the specific incident as well as any ongoing situation in the household. Asking the right questions at the outset helps to establish the needs of the victim and better understand the scope of the problem. "We want officers to draw a contextual picture of the crime," says Mark Wynn, a former police officer who now serves as a consultant to law enforcement agencies across the country.

Wynn is partial to the Maryland model, also called the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) model, and the Canadian model ODARA (Ontario Domestic Abuse Risk Assessment), which is being used across Canada and in the United States. The Chicago Police Department used several different agencies' assessment forms to develop its own hybrid version consisting of 13 questions. According to Chicago PD's John Escalante, chief of the Bureau of Detectives, the most important questions are the first three on his agency's form:

  • Has the offender ever used or threatened to use a weapon on you, your children, or someone you care about?
  • Has the offender ever threatened to kill you, your children, or someone you care about?
  • Has the offender ever tried to choke you?

These key questions can help to not only identify the risk of violence in a household but also to properly identify the aggressor. Historically, arresting the wrong individual has been one of the major impediments to resolving domestic violence issues in households. A victim of domestic abuse might hit back in self-defense, and then both parties might be arrested or the offender might be able to convince responding officers that the victim is actually the abuser. If the victim is then arrested, once she comes back to the home after reporting an assault she'll most likely suffer worse abuse in retribution, say experts.

"All these risk assessments are really getting officers deeper into the history," says Wynn. "And the deeper you get into the history, the less likely you are to make a mistake by arresting the wrong person."

Work With Others

But a form alone isn't going to solve domestic violence issues. Patrol officers need to work with advocates, prosecutors, and detectives at their agency to ensure the handling of a domestic violence call doesn't simply end when officers leave a residence.

As part of Chicago's citywide domestic violence task force, the Chicago Police Department developed new protocols and now meets on an ongoing basis with all interested parties: the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, the City of Chicago Family and Support Services, and local domestic violence advocate groups.

"We communicated in the past, but it's different when you sit together and meet on a regular basis," says Escalante. "It can't be a police department on its own. You must have the support of prosecutors, city government, domestic violence advocacy groups, and the community as well."

As part of Chicago PD's pilot program, if officers determine a domestic violence crime has occurred and the offender is not on scene, they will send a "flash message" with the person's description so that all officers in the field will be on the lookout for the offender. If a more serious crime has occurred, responding officers will request that detectives immediately come on scene, instead of waiting for subsequent follow-up. In the expanded pilot, officers will also use a tablet to fill out assessment forms, which can then be immediately sent to social services with the victim's permission. This will make assistance easier and more expedient for victims.

In Salem, Ore., members of the police department also realized that if they wanted to improve response to domestic violence calls and the successful prosecution of these crimes they needed to improve victims' access to advocates. "In the vast majority of agencies, if an offender is arrested on a Friday night, the advocate probably makes contact with the victim on Wednesday. So from Friday night until Wednesday, the victim has no support," says Bellshaw. "We needed to fill that gap." Now, advocates are put in touch with victims almost immediately to shepherd them through the entire process.

"Giving that support and giving services quickly helps keep victims more involved in the criminal justice process. So we have a higher rate of prosecution," Bellshaw says.

Salem PD officers also now work more closely with advocates on a regular basis. This helps officers better understand the viewpoint and needs of victims, which can lead to a better initial report based on a sense of understanding and trust. However, such rapport can still be difficult for officers to establish.

Barriers to Reporting

It can be difficult, but it's important for officers to remember that a victim of domestic violence might not be fully cooperating because of the bad situation she or he is in. There are many barriers to reporting that may not be immediately recognized.

"If they’ve been with this person for a long time, if they're financially relying on this person, if they're part of a bigger family and deportation issues are involved, or if there are children involved it's really hard to say, 'I'm sending Daddy to prison,'" says Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

These are the same reasons that many domestic violence victims who cooperate in the early stages of a case decide to withdraw their assistance. The other major reason is fear of suffering more severe abuse by the offender if he is released or acquitted. Experts say the most dangerous time for an abuse victim is after reporting abuse. Officers need to keep in mind that all of these factors are valid, and part of a victim's reality.

"It's up to police leaders to explain to officers why they're doing it [victims are not showing up to court], and work on that frustration so officers will be more motivated to work these cases in the future," says Wynn.

Training and a close relationship with those who assist victims can help all officers see domestic violence cases from the victim's point of view. And this can be key in working such cases.

"Our goal should be to remove the victim from the cycle of violence," says Escalante. "Whether it's repeat or the first time, we must be sympathetic to that victim's plight, and use that training to get the victim some help if we can."

This can be even more of an issue with couples that don't fit the traditional profile of a domestic violence situation, such as same-sex couples, transgender people, and immigrants who might be worried about deportation.

"It's our job to keep an open mind. The crime is a crime. A victim doesn't choose to be a victim, offenders choose to offend," says Bellshaw. "It's our job to help no matter who they are; social standing, race, gender, none of those things make a difference.

As an advocate for domestic violence victims, Fernandez is interested in promoting best practices regarding domestic violence response and advocacy and creating programs from a victim-centered point of view. Her organization strives to enhance officers' awareness of the frequent connection of domestic violence to stalking and sex assault, as well as bring attention to the ways in which the criminal justice process can affect victims.

From a victim's perspective, arrest and prosecution aren't always the best solution, Fernandez says. "I think we need to start thinking creatively about how we handle domestic violence situations because putting someone in jail can have other detrimental consequences," she says.

While Fernandez doesn't believe arrest and incarceration are never warranted, she'd like to see more availability of alternatives such as programs to provide counseling and training to rehabilitate offenders in certain cases. She'd like officers to understand that for those who have been abused, prosecution is not the goal. "At the end of the day, you don't necessarily want your partner put in jail. You'd like your partner to come back and be your partner rather than your persecutor."

Investment in the Future

Taking the longview, experts say if you can keep a domestic violence situation from escalating, you may prevent a homicide. And you may prevent the children in violent households from growing up to become violent themselves.

Mark Wynn survived domestic abuse at the hands of his step-father yet grew up to become a police officer. He credits his mother's strong influence with keeping him from turning to crime as so many other children in his position have. His background has led to a particular interest in helping victimized children.

"Children who witness domestic violence are four times more likely to be arrested by the police than children who don't, six to seven times more likely to commit suicide, and 89% of runaways come from homes of domestic violence," says Wynn. "Before you leave the scene, the biggest thing we should be telling children as police officers is, 'It's not your fault.'"

Wynn is enthusiastic and optimistic about law enforcement's proactive response to domestic violence, especially with respect to its effect on the new generation. "Now we're reacting, but we're also preventative when you look at the possibility of future violence and homicide," he says.

Salem PD's Bellshaw sees this trend as a literal financial investment as well. "It costs me a bit of overtime each month for training. But I'd rather pay that to teach them how to investigate domestic violence calls than pay overtime in a homicide or felony assault investigation," he says. "These homes are where our bank robbers and drug dealers are being raised. If you change that situation, you're going to teach these kids how to solve problems without violence, with coping mechanisms. That's your crime prevention, 10 to 20 years down the road. You have to pay attention to that."