Domestic Violence & 1st Responders

Domestic Violence is often referred to as the Revolving Door Syndrome within the criminal justice system, as well as the fire/emergency medical services, police officers, prosecutors, victim specialists, judges, firefighters, and medics routinely encountering similar issues that intersect their professional roles. From newcomers to the tenured and highly experienced, the challenges, frustrations, and stressors they encounter with domestic violence can be constant and compelling.

For firefighters and medics, who arrive on the scene of a domestic, they are frequently confronted with a volatile situation in which there may be one or more injured parties with emotions running high. Captain Roberto Hernandez of the Washington D.C. Fire/EMS Department recalls a time when he responded to a domestic call and, upon his arrival, a chair came flying out of a dwelling door. A woman had thrown the chair at her husband. When the ambulance responded, both parties involved in this domestic turned on the ambulance crew and threw the chair at them almost injuring Capt. Hernandez's partner. "We have no idea what we're going to find behind that door," says Hernandez.

Similarly, Captain Edward Blunt, a 28-year veteran of the Arlington County Virginia Fire/EMS Department, has been in situations where he felt he was in danger and backed out and waited for police to arrive. In one instance, he arrived on a domestic in which a lady answered the door who was visibly bloodied and battered. Her husband, who was a big man, walked out with a baseball bat in hand.

Battalion Chief Regil Aster, of the Fairfax County Virginia Fire/EMS Department also finds the issue of safety a challenge. "Things can go bad rather quickly. The wife or husband can turn. A lot of times we have to wait off scene before police arrive and clear the scene," says Aster. He also acknowledges the frustration of returning to the same home repeatedly.

Safety is paramount for emergency responders. "I would be looking for police to take the lead role in the domestic and to protect the firefighters and medics at the scene so they don't get hurt," says Edward Tomaszewski, a retired New York City firefighter.

Detective Robin Bennett of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department relates that one of the biggest frustrations police officers encounter is the fact that victims frequently minimize what occurred. She admits defendants will sweet talk the victim back in to the situation. Moreover, victims may not appear in court and, consequently, the case is not prosecuted. Equally frustrating, she notes, is the dismissal rate.

Detective Harry Lee of the Los Angeles Police Department, who regularly handles domestic violence cases, says it is frustrating trying to locate a victim to confirm the incident after it has occurred and, when he does, she tells him she lied. He cites an example where he spent 30 days on case in which the victim said she lied because she was drunk. She accused the police officers as well as the detectives of lying. The District Attorney placed the victim on the stand; she relayed this to the judge and, subsequently, the charges were dropped.

Detective Lee admits it is also frustrating trying to talk to children who may have been present during the incident. In addition, he acknowledges the time spent in court is stressful particularly when he may have been in court all day waiting on a case to be called only to have it dismissed. Seeing the same victims repeatedly return with domestic violence problems is also frustrating. Despite these factors, he maintains a healthy perspective. "If you help out one family, it's worth it. You get very frustrated but realize we did our best," says Detective Lee.

Corporal Anthony Chuckerel, of the Montgomery County Maryland Police Department, concurs that responding to the same address more than once is frustrating. He acknowledges that uncooperative parties in a criminal investigation and victims who may flip over to the abuser side are also problematic.

Officer Ron Stevens, of the Sensitive Crimes Division of the Milwaukee Police Department, acknowledges the frustration of victims who are in crisis and upset at the time of the violent incident. They will come to court, admit they are back together with the defendant, and want to drop the charges. Officer Stevens emphasizes, however, it is important not to have a why bother? attitude. "You can't stereotype and put everyone in the same boat. You still have to make the effort," he says. Despite the frustrations, he recognizes the importance of being fair, doing the right thing, and not permitting anxieties and emotions to get the best of you. "Do the best you can. You are making a difference," he advises.

Kara Schurman, the Domestic Violence Liaison of the Milwaukee Police Department, who interacts with Officer Stevens and provides victim services, also finds it frustrating when victims do not come to court after officers and prosecutors have expended a lot of time on a case. Schurman understands she cannot become desensitized, and she has learned how to maintain a healthy perspective. "I have seen a lot of things. Be concerned. Your heart has to be behind it when you do this kind of work," she emphasizes. She understands the nature of the repetitive cycle. "I don't go into a case expecting a victim to end the relationship," she says. Ms. Schurman feels it is important for victims to know they have someone to count on.

Christina Miles, the Director of the Family Violence Division of the State's Attorney's Office for Montgomery County Maryland, agrees. "We have to keep in mind we have to do what we have to do and be there for the victims," she says. She finds it both frustrating and stressful to see children caught in the middle of a domestic violence situation. Ms. Miles is also disheartened with married victims' utilization of the Marital Privilege law in Maryland which is a one-time option allowing a legally married spouse to drop charges against the abuser spouse. "It's a one hit rule. It's frustrating," she says.

"I find it fairly challenging and very difficult getting a victim to understand that she can make the system work for her instead of against her," says Teri LaJeunesse, the Director of the Victim/Witness Division of the Greene County Ohio Prosecutor's Office. She recognizes that when victims do realize what it means to go forward with prosecution, it is not uncommon for "some sense of waffling and wavering to exist. "

Prosecutors often feel as though they are beating their heads against the wall in cases of domestic violence. Heather Jones, the Franklin County Kansas County Attorney, admits one of the most frustrating issues is the lack of victim cooperation and the whole cycle of violence. "It's still extremely frustrating to go after these folks without the cooperation of the victim," says Ms. Jones. She acknowledges that the victim will often present herself to the court differently than she does to the prosecutor. Though she admits judges have come a long way, a huge frustration still exists with the system with the perception that an offender will get a mere slap on the wrist the first time around. "Sometimes the system, as a whole, is a total failure no matter what I do or what law enforcement does," she says.

The Honorable Hassan El-Amin, of the Prince Georges County Maryland General District Court, presides regularly over the designated domestic violence court. Experienced on domestic violence issues, Judge El-Amin has observed an increased receptivity towards intervention in domestic violence cases. He notes the Enlightenment Approach has worked, and he often orders offenders to attend Dr. Steven Stosny's Core Values Workshop where offenders learn to recognize their reasons for anger in relation to their own inadequacies and in directing anger to their loved ones. "I like his course. People who finish can tell me mechanisms they are using to control anger to avoid triggers that, heretofore, have set them off," says Judge El-Amin.

"I've seen so many men who have pretty women and they've reduced women to where they're just surviving and knocked down their self-image. Some people have developed chronic dependency on the domestic violence court to arbitrate their disputes and how to micromanage their relationships. Our function is to separate warring parties so peace can happen," says Judge El-Amin.

There are common denominators with the challenges, stressors, and frustrations that are shared among professionals who routinely work with domestic violence cases. Recognition of their existence and awareness on how to cope with these factors is critical for them to continue effectively in their professional pursuits. Jeffery S. Gray, a retired Prince George's County Maryland police detective and a 27-year veteran of the department who was the supervisor of the domestic violence unit, offers some good advice: "Without a doubt, domestic violence is one of the most perplexing and challenging types of crime we deal with but it's a crime that involves love and emotion. You just need to accept that challenge and take it on with an open mind and realize you're not going to change the world but if you can help one victim and/or one abuser in breaking the cycle of domestic violence, the difference you have made is ever so rewarding."