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Training Police to Recognize Domestic Violence

By Dr. Ron Wallace, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

It is important for criminal justice professionals, especially those who work within the community or have regular interactions with the public, to know how to recognize domestic violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence) and how to assist victims.

Police officers are often the first to enter what could potentially be a case of domestic violence. When responding to a disturbance, an officer must be able to not only recognize instances of domestic violence, but also sort out the victim from the perpetrator. While on the surface this might seem like a simple task, it is not uncommon for both parties to claim victimization in an attempt to avoid arrest. Officers must ask specific and pointed questions to determine what happened at the scene.

[Related: New Research Suggests Women Are Just as Likely as Men to be Perpetrators of Domestic Violence]

Minneapolis Study Sought Most Effective Deterrent to Domestic Violence

The city of Minneapolis conducted an experiment in the early 1980s to determine how law enforcement handled domestic violence calls. Known as the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment, researchers Lawrence W. Sherman and Richard A. Berk used a lottery system to assign response tactics to officers responding to domestic violence calls.

Based upon the order in which the call was answered, the officers would either (1) arrest the suspect; (2) instruct the suspect to leave the scene for a period of at least eight hours; or (3) give some form of advice to the suspect and victim, which might include mediation by the officer. Later, a research representative would follow up on the case to determine whether domestic violence was still occurring.

Flaws in Minneapolis Domestic Violence Study Created Doubt in Final Results

The study found that arrest was the most effective deterrent. However, there were noticeable design flaws in the study. For example, officers had the discretion to bypass the lottery system if they deemed it appropriate to do so. Such inconsistencies led some scholars and practitioners to question the validity of the study’s findings.

Nevertheless, the study was successful in influencing the way police respond to domestic violence calls. Today, most states have adopted one of three approaches to handling domestic violence calls: (1) mandatory arrest; (2) preferred arrest; or (3) arrest at officer discretion.

[Related: The Dangers of Responding to Domestic Violence Scenes]

In some states when both parties claim the other person is the perpetrator, officers are required to arrest both parties. But since this kind of mandatory arrest can lead to the arrest of the actual victim if he or she is falsely accused by the perpetrator, it has resulted in concern and opposition from some victim advocate groups.

Probation and Parole Officers Also Need to Recognize Domestic Violence

Police on the street are not the only ones who have a role in identifying and responding to cases of domestic violence. Probation and parole officers are another group within the criminal justice system who are likely to encounter cases of domestic violence during routine home or work visits. The victim could be the offender under their supervision or a close intimate contact of the offender.

Probation and parole officers must receive specific training to help them recognize domestic violence because it may not be obvious during a home or office visit. One thing in particular to keep in mind is that the perpetrator may or may not be the offender being supervised. It is possible that the offender is actually a victim of abuse, especially in cases where the offender is a female. Regardless of whether the individual being abused is the intimate partner of the offender or the offender themselves, they must still be treated as a potential victim of abuse.

Where Officers Can Seek Domestic Violence Training

Some agencies offer training that specifically addresses how to deal with and recognize domestic violence situations. If an officer does not have agency training available, other options exist. The following is a short list of organizations that provide information and/or training on domestic violence for criminal justice professionals:

Officers Should Avoid Counseling in Domestic Violence Cases

Even with training that addresses how to respond to and recognize domestic violence situations, law enforcement, as well as probation and parole officers, must avoid counseling potential victims. Officers are not equipped to address the long-term issues that victims face and should leave that to the expertise of counseling professionals. The best thing officers can do is refer victims to professionals who can provide adequate and specialized counseling to help them overcome the abuse.

The most important responsibilities of law enforcement is to recognize the signs of domestic violence, document what happened at the scene, and help keep the victim safe. Once the victim is away from the aggressor, officers should then refer the victim to the appropriate professionals who are trained to handle the long-term issues facing victims of domestic violence.

Recognize Domestic Violence About the Author: Dr. Ron Wallace is a criminal justice professional with more than 30 years of experience in both the public and private sectors. He has worked with criminal justice agencies nationwide as a consultant on various projects and has several years of teaching experience at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Dr. Wallace currently serves as an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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