Officer’s Guide to Domestic Disturbance Calls

Domestic Disturbance

Domestic violence is a broad term that encompasses any action leading to physical or psychological harm, bodily injury, or threats of violence. To be classified as domestic violence, these acts must involve current or former family or household members or individuals in a defined relationship. The definition and factors determining the necessary relationship vary from state to state, so it is crucial for officers to familiarize themselves with the domestic violence laws specific to their jurisdiction.

Understanding the Historical Context

In the 1970s, domestic violence was narrowly defined as a crime committed by a husband against their wife, generally involving physical violence and signs of serious injury. Over time, the definition evolved to include a range of offenses collectively known as domestic violence. Initially, officers had significant discretion in handling domestic violence cases, often opting for separation of the parties without documenting the incident or addressing the underlying pattern of abuse. However, under-enforcement and informal resolutions resulted in increased instances of abuse and even homicide.

To address this issue, domestic violence laws now provide detailed definitions of what constitutes domestic violence and when mandatory arrests must be made. Thus, today’s investigating officers must understand the full spectrum of acts classified as domestic violence, recognizing that it is no longer limited to actions between a husband and wife. Additionally, they must be aware of the expanded definition of victims and perpetrators.

Initial Investigation Procedures

Domestic Disturbance

When responding to a domestic disturbance call, it is important to have at least two officers present. If either or both parties are injured, seeking medical assistance should be a top priority. The parties involved should be separated, with one officer accompanying each. Ideally, the separation should be at a distance that prevents further arguments. The kitchen is not an ideal location for interviews due to the presence of potential weapons.

Domestic violence incidents often involve highly emotional individuals who may act irrationally and violently. It is important to note that both parties have the capacity for violent behavior directed towards the police, making domestic disturbances one of the most dangerous types of calls for officers. For tips on how to facilitate a calm encounter, refer to our guide on de-escalation techniques.

Once separated, officers should listen to each person’s account of the incident. Taking a few minutes to calm them down can help them articulate their version of events clearly. Expect discrepancies between the two stories, as each side may blame the other and paint themselves as the victim. If previous domestic violence incidents are identified, it is crucial to check if an order of protection has been filed and is still active.

Obtaining Essential Information

During the investigation, officers will aim to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What happened?
    Given the divergence in stories, the investigator will have to determine the credibility of each account based on physical evidence or statements from witnesses. Independent witnesses, such as neighbors or children present at the scene, can provide valuable information regarding the disturbance and any preceding instances of abuse or violence.

  2. Was a domestic violence statute violated?
    Officers must be familiar with the specific acts that constitute violations of domestic violence laws in their state. While physical violence is one form of domestic violence, other actions like intimidation, verbal abuse, threatening behavior, or stalking may also fall under the legal definition. It is crucial to understand who can be a victim and who can be accused in a domestic violence scenario, as these parameters may vary depending on the jurisdiction.

  3. Who is the victim, and who is the accused?
    In many cases, both parties may appear aggressive and exhibit signs of physical injury. The officer’s job is to consider all relevant factors and make a determination regarding the victim and the accused. Disinterested third-party statements carry significant weight in this decision-making process. Additionally, prior acts of domestic violence and protective orders should be taken into account. Evaluating injuries can also be a crucial factor in identifying the aggressor, considering defensive wounds and the extent of injuries.

Utilizing Photographic Evidence

Domestic Disturbance

Every officer should have a small digital camera readily available during domestic disturbance investigations. Documenting the scene and its surroundings is vital, including any damaged items or furniture. Photographs of both the victim and the accused should be taken to capture their condition and any injuries sustained. It is also essential to photograph any weapons involved, as they may serve as evidence. These photographs often reveal details that may not be included in the police report, making them indispensable in supporting the investigation. Follow-up meetings with the victim, scheduled 24 to 48 hours after the incident, can help document any evolving injuries and gather additional photographic evidence.

Making an Arrest

Domestic Disturbance

The victim’s reluctance to sign complaints against their domestic partner is a common challenge. Several reasons, such as fear of future abuse, financial dependency, and embarrassment, may discourage victims from taking legal action. In many jurisdictions, it is now mandatory for police officers to file complaints against the accused, safeguarding the victim’s interests and ensuring the complaint remains valid even under duress. All appropriate violations should be charged based on the evidence gathered.

In the event that the identified aggressor flees the scene before the officer’s arrival, every effort should be made to locate and arrest them. If unsuccessful, the officer’s diligent search for the accused and subsequent documentation of their efforts becomes crucial.

Obtaining a Protective Order

Domestic Disturbance

Most states have procedures in place for obtaining emergency restraining or protective orders from judges. During normal business hours, the victim may need to be transported to a courthouse for this purpose, while specific procedures may apply during evenings or weekends. Protective orders typically restrict the accused from contacting the victim or returning to the residence. Violations of these court orders can result in immediate incarceration, often with significant bail requirements.

It is important to note that protective orders are only effective once the accused party has been served. If an accused individual has not been arrested for the domestic violence offense, they most likely have not been served with a restraining order and, therefore, cannot be held liable for violating one. Additionally, in cases where the restraining order prevents the accused from returning home or seeing their children, there is a small risk of escalating violence against the victim.

Seizing Weapons

Some protective orders may require the police to locate and seize firearms or other dangerous weapons in the possession of the accused. Temporary orders may also prohibit the accused from purchasing firearms during the order’s validity. The seized weapons are generally held as evidence until a hearing determines the final disposition of the order. If the protective order is vacated, the weapons should be returned; otherwise, continued possession of firearms becomes a matter for the judge to decide.

Investigating domestic disturbances begins with a strong understanding of the state’s laws. Officers should separate and interview the parties involved, gather witness accounts, and document the scene thoroughly. Once violations of domestic violence laws are established, appropriate arrests should be made, and victims should be offered assistance in obtaining protective orders. A comprehensive investigation is crucial in protecting the victim and ensuring that the accused is held accountable for their actions.

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