By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety
The emotionally charged nature of domestic violence calls is just one reason they can be so volatile. Difficulties can arise at various stages of a domestic violence investigation, from the likely possibility that the offender will be at the scene to the high rate of victim recantations.
Just this month, the city of Columbus, Georgia, was sued for fining domestic violence victims who declined to press charges against their partners. One of the attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights who filed the federal lawsuit said the city’s policy “sounds like something out of the 19th century.”
As we wrap up Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we should reflect upon the realities of domestic violence and what more needs to be done to ensure victims are receiving appropriate assistance. “The main thing is to understand the gravity of these situations,” said Jeremy Nikolow, an 11-year veteran officer in central Florida. “We can’t just think ‘Tom and Jean are arguing again’ and overlook how serious it could be.”
Maintaining an alert and open mind, as well as taking the time to conduct a thorough investigation, is essential to ensure domestic violence cases receive due attention and are handled correctly.
Patience is Key
Responding officers should expect to be patient on domestic violence cases. This was a focus of the recent officer training session Nikolow conducted in Pennsylvania on behalf of Transitions, an advocacy center for battered women. The intensive eight-hour session, Domestic Violence Evidence Collection and Preservation, included a discussion of domestic violence cases, officer safety, the impact on those involved, the use of technology, and best practices for handling evidence.
“Newer officers might get impatient, but you have to question everyone separately and it can take a while,” said Nikolow. “You may have to interview the same person multiple times or ask them to retell their story in a different order.”
These interviewing techniques are especially important in cases where it isn’t clear who is the offender and who is the victim. It’s not uncommon for there to be conflicting voices on the scene or for the person who called in turn out to be the suspect. For example, although women are statistically more likely than men to be the victims of domestic abuse, that isn’t always the case. In fact, one in seven men have been victims of severe physical violence by a partner.
Officers should also be prepared for the chance that a victim will act out against them when they see their partner taken into custody. “It could be out of fear because they realize it’s their child’s father and he’s their financial support,” said Nikolow. “If the victim doesn’t want to cooperate by talking about what happened and probable cause for arrest is not there, the only thing you can do is ask good, thorough questions, document what you can, and check back later.”
Think Outside the Scene
Just like any other crime, the evidence is essential when a domestic violence case is taken to court. This includes both evidence collection and preservation, such as ensuring that chain of custody is properly documented. Some of the evidence – such as a house in disarray or visible signs of assault – might be apparent right away, but officers shouldn’t be limited to what they can immediately see.
For example, Nikolow recommends systematically looking for injuries on the victim from head to toe so nothing goes unnoticed. “It could be hair that’s been pulled out or ruptured blood vessels in the eyes from being strangled,” he said. “Look for finger marks, bruises or defensive lacerations on a victim’s arms.”
It is also worth taking a moment to consider all the different kinds of evidence that could be available in the given situation. Text messages, social media posts or a multitude of phone calls can all be proof of a threatening situation or harassment. In one particular case, Nikolow recalls using the Find My iPhone app on a victim’s phone to track down his location.
Officers should also think about canvassing the area. This is especially true in the cases where the victim is reluctant to respond to questioning and evidence is scarce. “It could be as simple as knocking on some doors to see if anybody saw or heard something,” said Nikolow. “Are there surveillance cameras at a nearby business or home security cameras pointed in the right direction?”
Continuing to Build a Solution
For most domestic violence cases, a digital camera and audio recorder is enough to collect evidence, said Nikolow. This is good news for the smaller agencies that don’t have as much funding for equipment. However, it can be a different story when it comes to training opportunities.
Unfortunately, training opportunities for domestic violence situations vary greatly across the country. In some states, such as Florida, advanced training is funded by the state or through a group of donors. However, in agencies where there might only be a handful of staff, officers don’t have the same opportunities because they are all needed to cover the streets.
In these situations, Nikolow recommends looking online for training materials or breaking the training up over the course of several sessions instead of teaching it in a single block. There is also the possibility of sending one officer to a training session with the agreement that the officer is responsible for bringing the information back and sharing it with the department.
Ultimately, the primary goal in domestic violence cases is the safety and well-being of the victim, but police can only do so much after a call is placed. Police officers aren’t equipped to offer counselling to victims, so agencies should aim to work with the appropriate organizations to provide victims with the help they need.
“We’ve seen police integration with domestic violence centers and some agencies, like mine, now have an in-house victims’ advocate,” said Nikolow. “We’re starting to bridge the gap between police and the community so victims have resources they need.”