The tone sounded in my ear letting me know I had another call. Looking over at my ALI/ANI, I saw the call came in on a 9-1-1 trunk line. "9-1-1, what is your emergency?" I asked. A boy's voice responded. He sounded young; a teenager. What he told me has stuck with me through all the years and all the calls. He said he shot his step-father. I could hear a woman crying in the background.
Hotting the call into radio, I began my questioning. The boy was scared. His voice trembled. As I continued to ask the questions I was trained to ask, the story began to change. He did not shoot his step-dad. His mom did. After years of being a victim of domestic violence, she had put a final stop to the abuse. Checking the premise history, I saw a long list of domestic violence and check welfare calls. This had been going on for a long time.
Worried about his mother, the boy began to ask me questions. What was going to happen to her? Would she go to jail? As calmly and empathetically as I could, I explained what the officers would probably do when they got there. I stayed on the phone trying to reassure him. Once the officers arrived, I hung up. Frustrated, I took my break and thought about the boy and his mother. Questions ran through my mind; common questions. Why did she stay? What happened during all those other calls? Why couldn't the police protect her? I knew I would not find my answers that day. Over the next few years, I studied domestic violence. The information I learned made me a better operator. It kept me from getting frustrated.
Dynamics of Domestic Violence
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. 16,800 homicides occur a year. 2.2 million dollars are spent annually in medical treatment. Domestic violence doesn't have a demographic. Economic status, race, age, religion, nationality and educational background won't determine who becomes an abuser or a victim. Most cases are never reported to the police.
As a police telecommunications operator, a majority of my calls involved domestic violence. We truly are the first line of defense for those reaching out for help. It's easy to get frustrated and jaded. We're going back out there - AGAIN?. I've heard the same sentiment from officers. Along with the myriad of calls, domestic violence standards within the department constantly evolved, more so than any other type of crime. Domestic violence calls were one of the only calls we could not cancel even at the victim's request. The dynamic of the crime prevented that from being an option. Domestic violence is also one of the most dangerous calls the police can go to. Helping the victim and protecting our officers must be a top priority for operators. An understanding of domestic violence can help us do our job better.
Domestic violence is about power and control via fear and intimidation. It is a form of oppression whether the victim is male or female. Along with physical injury, it deals with psychological trauma. It is the mental issues formed from the abuse which make the dynamic hard to comprehend. Victims suffer from fears of public humiliation, threats to take the children, threats to harm animals, disbelief, ridicule and shame. Individuals dealing with cultural barriers often worry about immigration status and language hurdles. Facing the unknown American legal system, especially those who come from countries with oppressive governments, can cause them to keep silent about their abuse rather than face hostile law enforcement. This hostility, unfortunately, is not always just perceived. Frustration about domestic violence and the inability to do something about the abuse can make officers and operators bitter.
Special populations often face their own brand of fears. Older women can deal with traditional or cultural ideology making them stay in an abusive relationship. Financial dependence also plays a role frequently. Still a predominately patriarchal society, men who are victims fear dealing with ridicule, shame and emasculation. Rural victims face isolation, few support networks and small town politics. Same sex couples, still not viewed as falling under domestic violence statutes in several states, fear being outed and homophobic law enforcement. Teenagers deal with social pressure and fear family response if they tell. Although not an inclusive list of special populations, the fears here can help operators understand why victims are reluctant to call the police. When a victim does call, it is our duty to make their plea for help as easy as possible.
What we can do
We must stay positive. Although it's hard to continue to dispatch to the same family over and over again, we can't control the choices people make. We can hope for the best, give the most accurate advice we have been trained to give and continue to be a life-line for them. During my victims advocacy training, I learned Every call is one more call closer to them leaving. Avoid getting bitter and hostile. No matter what the victim tells you, especially when you just took a vicious, violent call just to have them call back in two minutes to tell you everything is fine and they don't want the police to come, stay neutral. You're job is not to judge, but to dispatch help when they ask - no matter how many times they ask. Finally, learn about the dynamics of domestic violence. The more you know the easier it is to emphasize with the victim. Understanding why victims stay can shield against frustration. You might be able to help those around you, including officers, fight being jaded as well. Information is extremely powerful.
Domestic violence is a huge problem for our society. As community resources, including the police department, continue to get together to help find solutions, we are one step closer to easing the fear, shame and pain of one more victim. To be the best first-responder we can be, according to Kappeler and Gaines' Community Policing, "(we must) become educated in the context, not just the control, of crime."