On Law Enforcement’s Response to Domestic Violence During COVID-19

by ICADV Law Enforcement Training Consultant Dottie Davis

Trigger Warning: This guest blog provides guidance to members of dispatch and law enforcement as they respond to the probable increase in the prevalence of intimate partner violence during the COVID-19 quarantine, and the potential for increased lethality during this period. The article addresses strangulation and other forms of domestic violence that may be triggering for some readers.

Communities have shifted their resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and law enforcement is no exception. In this uncertain time in the United States, police officers continue to be on the front lines by responding to calls for service

However, according to Chief Steven R. Casstevens, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police: “Initial reports suggest overall crime in the U.S. has dipped in the last few weeks following calls from authorities to stay indoors and practice social distancing.  While it’s too early to tell how this will play out, so far we’re seeing a reduction in crime and a reduction in calls for service for law enforcement.”

While it is true there are fewer businesses open and fewer motorists on the streets, lowering crimes such as armed robberies and vehicle thefts, another crime continues to rampantly occur behind closed doors.  In fact, the perpetrators of this crime have always preferred the home as their primary location to break the law.  Most domestic violence occurs within our nation’s homes without fear of detection.  It centers around power and control and uses isolation as one of the tactics to carry out its harmful acts.

Our governor’s Executive Order to stay at home means that domestic violence calls for service to the police must be treated with high priority, now more than ever.  Many of those experiencing domestic violence may be employed in non-essential positions and cannot escape to go to work to call the police.  Their children are no longer able to go to school and confide in the nurse, counselor or School Resource Officer.  We know that in households where the abuser is now unemployed, the lethality for the victim increases.  And if the children are not the biological children of the perpetrator, they too are at higher risk of homicide.

These requests for service begin with the dispatcher who must screen more thoroughly and relay all information to the officers responding.  We know that many 911 hang-ups are often crimes of domestic violence in progress.  When our dispatchers call back to the number and are told that the police are not needed, do they still dispatch officers?  Do they think of questions that could be asked such as, “If you really don’t need the police, can you give me a number between 1 and 5?”

It is important that the dispatcher listens for background information for the presence of children or multiple people within the home.  This information is important for the responding officers to have, as there may be more than one victim and several witnesses to the events.

While asking if there are weapons in the home is an important question, it might be followed up with “What does the perpetrator have in their hands?” as victims are often assaulted with a variety of items that are accessible to the abuser.  On every domestic violence call, the dispatcher should ask if the victim has been strangled, but not necessarily in those words.  They might ask if the suspect ever put his hands about her throat and applied pressure, or at any time were they unable to breathe.

We know that surviving people experiencing strangulation assaults are 750 percent more likely of becoming a homicide victim (Glass, et al 2008).  And the same individuals who use strangulation as a technique to batter their victim, are also highly likely to feloniously assault or murder law enforcement officers (Gwinn & Strack).  Therefore, officers need to know this information for the safety of everyone involved, including themselves.

Law enforcement officers must now more than ever be tactically sound when responding to homes where domestic violence has been reported.  The suspect has had days, if not weeks of confinement to plan their assault and defend their “property” which includes their partner and other family members in the home.

On March 29, 2020, we saw three Phoenix police officers shot while responding to a domestic disturbance.  A commander who was just months from his retirement succumbed to his injuries.  The other two officers are expected to physically recover.  Research tells us that nearly half of all officers who are murdered responding to domestic violence calls for service are killed before they have made physical contact with the suspect.  For many reasons, now is the time to put our complacency aside. People experiencing domestic violence are counting on you.

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