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Going the Extra Step for Domestic Abuse Victims

Domestic trouble calls are one of the most common police responses, often requiring what seems an inordinate amount of time and work managing matters that are usually - and frustratingly – not even criminal in nature.  While the police can occasionally provide clear legal answers that satisfy both sides, these calls often involve what amounts to little more than officers loosely refereeing disputes between two people, one or both of whom may be unwilling or even unable to rationally problem-solve their differences or give up any ground to the other, with little or no real authority to simply and definitively settle the dispute outright.  More often than not the bulk of what you are called upon to handle are really civil disputes – relationship or marital complaints, child or property custody disagreements, or the product of communication deficiencies – better handled in the counseling office or before a judge or professional mediator. 

As most cops who respond to these incidents can attest, however, many of the folks who generate most these calls quickly fall into the “frequent flyer” category; they are the couples, parent/child dyad, or home that, when you hear the name or address dispatched you know what’s in store when you get there because you’ve been so many times before.

When “domestic trouble” morphs into “domestic abuse” or when frustrated disputants turn their anger physically onto property or police, or lash out in ways that cause unreasonable alarm to others in the community, law enforcement’s path becomes much clearer; in these cases it can be almost a relief to find someone has actually committed a crime!  At least overt law-breaking has defined responses and responsibilities that set in motion a chain of events within an officer’s control and authority.  The downside, of course, is the unpredictability and danger this shift brings to everyone involved, including responding officers.

It’s no surprise these calls are such a source of officer cynicism, or that doing “just enough” or the bare minimum required on any single call becomes de rigeour because, well, you’re just going to wind up going there again for a rehash in a week or two.  Nothing you say or do is going to make a difference so why bother going above and beyond?  And even if you do make an arrest the likelihood of the victim going forward with a prosecution is minimal, so why not do just enough to meet your legal mandate and no more? 

As one who’s been to and handled a few hundred or so of these types of calls, I understand a judicious officer is one who knows how and when to pick the right battles… and how and when to sit back, conserve energy for the ones that can be won, and let the chips fall where they may on the rest. Cynical maybe, but reality based.

But, as that same officer – and one with more than a bit of understanding of human nature, a pretty well-developed sense of helping others overcome fear and find motivation, and timing – I also know that, with patience and empathy, victims can find the courage to actually move forward and leave dysfunctional relationships behind. Despite the seeming hopelessness of so many cases you have probably responded to the truth is many victims do eventually make positive choices, leave or change abusive and dysfunctional relationships.  As a cop you CAN actually make a difference in people’s lives! 

Early in my career I had the opportunity to be part of a department-wide initiative we called the “Domestic Violence Team.”  Consisting of a core group of founding members made up of line patrol officers, detectives, supervisors/administrators, and department social workers, our broad mission was to influence agency response to domestic trouble/violence calls through policy and best practice implementation.  Out of this arose a small subset of patrol officers, myself included, designated as “Domestic Violence Follow-up Officers” charged with outreach and follow-up with the victims in all cases of domestic violence, as wells as certain instances where evidence suggested there were other forms of abuse (emotional, financial, etc) in addition to or beyond physical violence. 

Although the mission and goals of the our DV Team were ultimately met and it was eventually phased out, and the work of the DV Follow-up officers passed from a patrol responsibility to investigations and the social workers, a lot was learned about victims and victimization that helped or agency become more responsive to their needs.  Personally, I took away important lessons from my time with the team and while conducting outreach, follow-up, and more in-depth investigations that influences me in how I work with these often fragile victims today. 

The Danger and Power of Misinformation

One of the most important lessons I took away from those early experiences was that many of the victims who seemingly won’t leave actually believe they can’t leave.  Ingrained fears, perceptions, and misinformation made them feel trapped in abusive circumstances or that accessing police or social services might not be merely fruitless but against their interests.  Althea’s practice has brought her into contact with scores of clients who expressed these same fears and beliefs to her.  We’ve each become the other’s sounding board, educating one another about the dynamics of these relationships from our individual professional perspectives and offering ideas, feedback, and guidance for how best to help others.  At times she has even suggested clients contact me directly with questions best answered by someone in law enforcement, and out of these I’ve been able to dispel some of the common misconceptions people have that create the fear and uncertainty that stifles positive change.

The fears people hold vary widely but become entrenched unless somehow directly addressed, and by someone with the authority and confidence to explain the truth or provide solid evidence to the contrary; when someone is in an abusive relationship they often become emotionally isolated from all but their abusive partner, leading to a dearth of accurate information.  A canny abuser will even use this to control and confuse their victim.  In extreme cases, the power and influence of the abuser is believed to be so great it reaches into the courts, legal circles, or even law enforcement so that “you don’t understand.  He has powerful friends everywhere!  He knows people who have lots of clout and know how to make things happen!”  While in some jurisdictions there might be truth to this, in general it’s merely a perception planted and nurtured by the abuser that, when exposed to the light of truth, proves completely false.  Understandably, when someone believes they are under the sway of someone so all-powerful and influential, and has become so isolated to have no way to prove otherwise, the fear of leaving or challenging that person is overwhelming.

Isolation is the key obstacle to overcome.  Isolation allows an abuser to assume a position of power, keep their partner in an off-balance or subordinate role, and control information flowing in and out of the household.  Taking control of the information a victim receives and ensuring it is accurate is a critical first step in helping them escape abuse. 

As police officers you are in a position to overcome abusive isolation and the misinformation it breeds.  In our next article we will look at how to identify isolated victims, establish rapport, and go beyond enforcement to educate and empower them to escape or make effective change.