“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This quote is applicable more often than we’d care to admit. In a world where technology seems to be growing faster than we can track, its impact on how officers perform their duties evolves quickly, you’d think that how we respond to calls for service might be changing just as fast. For some, that’s just not so. One example: calls for response to domestic violence incidents.
While technology can certainly provide us more information than previously available prior to our response after we’ve been dispatched, the tactics of response to and during such calls for service haven’t changed in decades. As early as the 1970s law enforcement professionals were being taught a few tactics that have remained throughout the years.
In the “old days” there was very little information available about an address you were dispatched to. Unless the officers had enough experience with a given address to know it, they were “flying blind.” In today’s world, automated computer-aided-dispatch and big data help to avoid that. When officers are dispatched to a given address there is usually information available about the address, the residents, vehicles registered there, etc. If anyone in the house has an open warrant (or multiples), it’s usually known beforehand. Approach slowly. Gather intel from what you can hear. And deploy from your patrol vehicle with equal care. Get everything you can from dispatch and your MDT before you approach—it never hurts to know more.
Since we can’t be “cloaked” or invisible as we approach, we can call less attention to ourselves along the way. Instead of rolling up in the driveway of the call location with lights flashing and siren blaring, turn all the emergency equipment off when you’re two blocks away (give or take depending on your setting). The idea is that the perpetrator doesn’t hear you coming and therefore doesn’t have as much time to set up a possible trap for you. Park at least two doors away and approach on foot.
Always have two. Domestic violence calls are still one of the most dangerous types of calls law enforcement can respond to. While it’s understood that some jurisdictions are so vast with such a low density of population that having reasonably close backup isn’t possible, if it’s possible, always have backup. Responding to a domestic violence call by yourself is never a good idea. After all, we always want to outnumber the combatants and at a domestic, there are at least two.
Gather intel outside before announcing presence.
Before you walk up and knock on the door, stop and see what you can hear. There are two extremes and either can be a challenge. At one end of the spectrum there is hearing shouts, crashes, screams, etc. Such can give you warning that the situation inside is ugly and you’re going to have to referee that violence and take control of the scene. The other end of the spectrum is complete quiet stillness. That either means everything is over and all you have to do is talk to the folks pleasantly or it means that one half of the domestic has emerged the victor and you’re going to have to secure the scene while evidence techs respond and the homicide investigators take control of the scene. Either way, gather some intelligence before you knock on that door.
NEVER stand in front of the door.
People get shot through the door. Stand off to the side and make sure you avoid being easily seen through windows when you knock.
Separate them but stay in sight of your partner.
Yes, you are a referee to some extent. Separating the combatants is one goal. That said, keep your partner within line of sight. Optimally, if you can put the combatants in positions where they can’t see each other but you can see your partner, that’s the goal.
Stay out of the kitchen.
There are typically butcher’s blocks full of knives in the kitchen. Why would you ever want to take someone who is already upset someplace where they can easily grab one of a half dozen or more knives? And even if there’s no butcher block, you know there is a drawer (or two) full of knives and other kitchen accouterments that can be used as weapons. Don’t go in there if it’s at all avoidable.
Be mindful of hidden spaces.
When I was in the academy, one scenario involved a pregnant woman, who was one half of a domestic situation, and she was sitting calmly in a recliner in the living room upon the officers’ arrival. Her right hand was out of sight, just hanging over the arm of the chair. What neither responding officer knew was that in that right hand she was holding a revolver. Making sure you can see the hands of people is a primary rule of survival and it applies in domestics. If you can see their hands, pay attention to where they can reach. End table drawers, between cushions, and under tables are all places people hide weapons.
Watch the victim when arresting the perpetrator.
It wouldn’t be a new event for the victim of domestic violence to attack the officers as they arrest the violent offender. The end result is that the officers are suddenly fighting two people instead of one. It happens and more often than any of us like to admit. Be aware of the possibility and be ready to respond to it.
Advise the victim of potential events.
Assuming you get the perpetrator into handcuffs and out the door safely, make sure you advise the victim of what might realistically happen. If the perpetrator doesn’t have a criminal history, does have a steady job, and if any children are involved, they may well be released on personal recognizance or on a low bail after having been processed through the arrest and charging system. That means they’ll be coming home in a few hours. The victim, if at all possible, should find someplace else to be on a semi-permanent basis until the case shakes out in court.
Leave together just like you arrived.
Being alone on the scene, even after everything is secured and calmed down, is still not the best situation to be in. Sure, we respond to non-violent calls for service all the time, but domestics are different. Even after the violent half is arrested and gone, the potential for angry family members, old boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. to show up is high. You came together; leave together. The arrestee can wait in the patrol vehicle, properly handcuffed, searched and secured, while you finish advising the victim as necessary. Then leave. Together.