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Domestic Disturbance Officer Survival Reminder

As a fresh faced newly sworn Deputy Sheriff many moons ago handling domestic disturbances was a source of concern for me.  Tactically I was aware based on my academy training that domestics were a serious danger to me and other law enforcement personnel.  But I was also cognizant that at a single 21 that I had no marital experience on which to relate and talking to folks who had been together longer than I’d been on this Earth was strange.

The first domestic I responded to had at its root cause – alcohol.  The male half had been drinking which irritated the female half and…the downward spiral of the domestic had begun.  In the years since I’ve responded to an unknown number of domestics involving all manner of relationships – married, living together, same sex couples, kids, relatives on and on.  Flash forward 29 years and a brief return to nightshift patrol based on lack of manpower had me once again arriving on scene with a “what seems to be the problem” or “what’s going on tonight folks.”

Things Change, Things Remain the Same

In descending order of frequency the following list of “causes” of domestics are noted:

  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse
  • Dysfunctional people
  • Infidelity
  • Money issues
  • All of the above…

Alcohol abuse was and still is at the center of the storm.  Recently I handled my first “Bath Salts” domestic the other night.  Actually it was more of a suicide threat call, i.e. “I’ll show you how much I love you and how screwed up on bath salts I am by killing myself…”

Intervention tactics have changed over the years.  We used to opt for mediation.  Matter-of-fact we were even taught positioning diagrams in the basic academy when mediating such as the “Z” where partners could view each other as they talked to the respective parties.  These techniques are outdated.  Officers responding to domestics should certainly not handle the situation by themselves if at all possible.  In multiple participant scenarios there is simply too much to deal with and if violence breaks out, one riot – one ranger odds are not good.  A far better method is the Contact/Cover tactic developed by the San Diego Police Department years ago wherein one officer handles the business of the encounter and the other officer covers his partner and resists distraction.

Today’s recommendation is to arrest if there has been any violence at all.  What’s nice about arrest is that you’re pretty much guaranteed you won’t have to come back that night – unless the rest of the family starts a donnybrook. 

The problem is that most jails are full and aren’t taking un-sentenced misdemeanors so arrest is oftentimes not possible with summons and release the only option.  If you summons and release will you be back to the same address?

Tactics

  • Each call is handled safely through the use of sound tactics regardless of how many times you’ve been to the location that shift or on prior shifts.  It is dangerous to use poor tactics, enter into a location or situation based on there not having been any violence in the past.
  • Don’t be predictable.  Officer deaths due to ambush are on the rise, don’t park directly in front of the address.
  • Colonel Custer rushed his men and himself into a dangerous situation resulting in their violent death.  Develop Intel on the way to the call by reading the notes.  Pause at the patrol unit to observe and listen, then once again stop and listen before you knock on the door.
  • When entering look for obvious weapons (I once handled a domestic where the male half had just gotten home from hunting.  The house was rife with all manner of guns and other weapons).  If you see them, you secure them first.
  • Listen to your gut instincts.  Our subconscious oftentimes perceives threats that our conscious mind disregards.
  • Pay attention to suspect’s body language.  85% or more of all communication is non-verbal.  What is their body language saying?  Is it in congruence with their words?
  • Effective listening and communication tactics are still the best way to go.  Calming things down and finding a solution to get through the night is better than yelling back at the participants.
  • The police are there to restore the peace not fix long standing marital or family issues.  Sometimes simply asking, “Folks, what can we do to get through the night?” works with a voluntary response of, “I’ll spend the night somewhere else.”
  • Be wary of uninvolved third parties.  Threats can sometimes come from people not involved with the original call.  On a recent domestic fight we settled down the original combatants only to have to deal with another occupant of the house.  Could be that while you’re handcuffing Ma or Pa some other family member attempts to assault you.
  • Be decisive – when arrest is necessary or the application of force required don’t hem and haw, act decisively. 

Wrap-Up

Domestics have been and continue to be a source of high-risk for responding law enforcement officers.  Fueled by pent-up anger and copious amount of intoxicants marital or cohabitation “bliss” can turn into a fecal storm with law enforcement officers forced to enter the fray.  No, this is not some professional wrestling side show or mixed martial arts throw down and no, you’re not wearing a referee uniform – it just sometimes feels that way.  Domestic disturbance calls oftentimes have deep rooted and long standing causes that you don’t need or want to know about.  Arrest safely if there’s been any violence and probable cause exists.  Attempt to quell the combatants and find out a way to get them through the crisis if possible but never forget your personal safety and what’s at stake.  Emotions and people run high on domestic calls and sometimes when you walk through the door you’re perceive as the enemy not the knight in shining armor.  Be ready, work smart and have pre-trained and practiced skills with which to resort if Mom and Pop get violent and turn on you.

 

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About The Author:

Kevin Davis is a full-time officer assigned to the training bureau where he specializes in use of force, firearms and tactical training. With over 23 years in law enforcement, his previous experience includes patrol, corrections, narcotics and he is a former team leader and lead instructor for his agency's SWAT team with over 500 call-outs in tactical operations.

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