Understanding Domestic Violence

For police officers, handling domestic violence calls can be one of the most frustrating areas of law enforcement work. This frustration is not because cops don't know what to do; they do indeed know the WHAT of handling domestic violence cases.  Officers need, therefore, a better grip on their understanding of the WHY of domestic violence incidents.

For police officers, handling domestic violence calls can be one of the most frustrating areas of law enforcement work. This frustration is not because cops don't know what to do; they do indeed know the WHAT of handling domestic violence cases.

The frustration coming from trying to deal with the overall dynamics of domestic violence (DV) cases: why victims remain in destructive relationships, why victims show such hesitation at having their abuser punished.

Officers need, therefore, a better grip on their understanding of the WHY of domestic violence incidents.

Officers first need to understand that these frustrations will not go away. The secret to reducing them to a tolerable level involves changing only their own way of regarding DV incidents. By re-adjusting their perspective on DV issues, cops can better understand these incidents and develop more reasonable expectations on how DV cases should work out, as well as obtain better overall investigative results.

To take a look at how to re-adjust perspectives, we need only examine how we perceive other crimes, the re-apply that understanding to DV incidents.

By looking at the crime of the sexual abuse of children and taking an honest look at our perceptions of these incidents, we can increase our understanding of the nature of crime in general, and of DV incidents in specific.

Relationships and Crime

To begin, let's look at an example. When I was a public affairs officer, I was often asked to address adults and children on the topic of, "stranger danger." Parent groups and schools are very interested in learning how to protect children from being abducted by strangers. For the general public, as well as police officers, the fear of strangers is a very predominating theme in child safety.

But think about how many cases you have worked on, or that your agency has been involved with, where children have been kidnapped by strangers.

You'll be able to remember a few cases only, if any. Also, try to recall if you know anyone, or have ever met someone who was a victim of a stranger abduction. The chances are, you never have. Despite the general perceptions regarding "stranger danger," the abduction of a child by a stranger is in actuality, a very rare occurrence.

Now consider the number of cases you have worked on personally, or that your agency has handled, in which a child was sexually assaulted by a member of their immediate family or extended family. The numbers will be much greater. As terrible as it is to realize, the true dangers to our children do not come from strangers, but conversely, children's risks come from those they know and probably trust. This is the point of my example, that CRIME IS VERY OFTEN BASED ON RELATIONSHIPS, and the closer the relationship, the greater the potential for a more heinous crime.

While this phenomenon of relationships is not uncommon in other areas of criminal activity, nowhere is it more relevant than in the crimes of sexual assaults against children. And if we want success in our investigations of these cases, we need a basic understanding of the victim's perspective of the relationship.


Understanding the victim's viewpoint, not only as it relates to what happened to them, but also as it relates to their relationship with their abuser, is tantamount to a successful investigation. To investigate sex crimes against children, we have to understand the victim. They are not required, but have no motivation, to understand us. And for us to have this understanding there are four characteristics of child victims of sexual assault that we need to recognize.

Child victims of sexual assault very often feel a sense of responsibility for what has happened to them. These victims think that if they had, or had not, acted in a certain way, they would not have been victimized. This sense of coparticipation in the act, false though it may be, is often commensurate with the strength of the relationship. As well, a corresponding sense of guilt often accompanies this mistaken sense of responsibility held by the victim.

Child victims of sexual assault don't want a cop in their lives. Only rarely, it at all, does a child victim contact the police of their own volition. What has happened to them is intimate, embarrassing, and from their perspective, better off forgotten. Very often these victims have little, if any, understanding of what happened to them and they are at a loss about how to answer an officer's questions. The last thing they want to do is to have to tell a stranger, a cop of otherwise, about a private activity they have been made to feel they are a participant of.

What the victim does want is for either the abuse to stop if it is an ongoing situation, or to forget that it has ever happened to them in the first place. They don't want to move to a strange home, they don't want to see a counselor, they don't want their lives disrupted, and very often, they do not want their abuser arrested, or even forced to leave the house. Victims want the abuse to stop, nothing more.

The child victim usually has multiple dependencies on the abuser. The abuser is an integral part of the victim's life. There are emotional, financial, and psychological dependencies for the victim, even if the victim cannot recognize and articulate how they are dependent. Often the abuse is only one part of a complex relationship shared by the victim and the abuser. In many cases the other aspects of the relationship have created a bond of loyalty that is strong enough to resist our attempts to convince the victim to violate the secrecy upon which the abuse is dependent.

The above four characteristics are due to the intimacy of the relationship between the victims and the abuser, a relationship that far exceeds the relationship between a victim and an investigator. In short, the victims of child sexual assault are totally unconcerned with what WE want, despite the nobility, importance and necessity of our investigation. And sexual assault investigators understand this; after all, the victims are children.

But when officers realize that that the above four characteristics are as equally a result of the relationship between the victims and abuser, and not only due to age discrepancies, a more balanced understanding is possible.

Applied Characteristics

The direction of my argument is obvious. Let's transfer these characteristics, or attitudes, to adult victims of domestic violence.

Do victims of domestic violence feel responsible for what is happening to them? DV victims often regard their own behavior as the underlying cause of their victimization. And while this sense of guilt may be the most infrequently occurring characteristic of DV victims, victims often do feel that for any number of reasons, they deserve to be assaulted.

Do DV victims want cops in their lives and in their homes, especially if they've had previous dealings with the police? A DV assault is a private part of a relationship, a crime of intimacy. At other times in their relationship what goes on between these two people is much different that what the responding officers deal with. By their nature, DV assaults are intensely embarrassing for the victim, primarily because of the relationship the victim shares with the abuser. Being assaulted by someone with whom you have a strong emotional relationship is not something you want others to know, much less be questioned about.

Additionally, when the victim fears the abuser will be made aware of everything the police are told, how willing are victims going to be to fully disclose what occurred? When the cops arrive they want information, which is the last thing the victim wants to give us. When disclosure of the abuse will embarrass and shame the victim, as well as set the stage for additional abuse, how much sense for additional abuse, how much sense does it make for investigating officers to get frustrated with an "uncooperative" victim?


What, then, does the victim want? At the very least, what the victim wants is accomplished as soon as the police show up, if not sooner. The victim simply wants the abuse to stop. Is the physical assault aspect of the pattern for domestic violence an everyday occurrence? Usually not, because in maintaining the desired level of control over the relationship, the abuser may only occasionally feel the need to resort to physical force. The victim is aware of this and once the assault is over, a new chance exists for the victim to correct behavior and possibly avoid any future assault.

A DV victim is dependent on the abuser, socially, emotionally and financially. Any threat to the liberty and financial power of the abuser is viewed by the victim as an equally serious threat to themselves. This is the area which is the principal cause of frustration for police officers: specifically that the adult victim of a DV situation does have the ability to change their circumstances, whereas child victims do not. However, because of the relationship nature of their circumstances, DV victims do not believe they have this ability; they do not recognize themselves a being able to make sufficient changes in their lives to ensure that they are no longer victimized.

In fact, for the above reasons, they may be virtually unable to alter their circumstances. Indeed, there is nothing harder for a person to change than their own perceptions, their own belief system upon which their actions are dependent. And besides, the DV victim is doing nothing wrong, it is the abuser whose behavior is criminal and anit-social, not the behavior of the victim, no matter how much we may not understand or agree with it.

An Officer's Role

Can police officers change the victims of domestic violence? No, they can't. Is it the responsibility of the police to change the victims in the first place? Again, the answer is no. The sole responsibility of the police in the investigation of DV cases is to PROTECT THE VICTIM AND HOLD THE ABUSER ACOUNTABLE.

The only aspect of a DV investigation that police officers have the power to change is their own understanding of the relationship issues.

The solution to the frustrations in dealing with domestic violence situations lies within each of us. If we understand and sympathize with the perceptions and point of view of the victims, we can have more reasonable investigative expectations, and with this increased empathy, we can have better results in obtaining the information we need to do our jobs. The fact is: What we are expected to do in domestic violence situations is hard enough.

The only one we can change is ourselves. We must remember that remaining professionally objective is necessary in order to maintain our emotional resources, not only in dealing with incidents of domestic violence, but in all aspects of police work.

Sgt. Magnotti has been with the Wenatchee Police Department since 1986. Prior to making sergeant in 1992, he worked as a patrol officer, sex crimes investigator, patrol supervisor and public affairs officer. He presently supervises the street crime unit and holds a master's degree in Leadership Studies. This is his first contribution to POLICE.

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