Over the course of my career, I have learned that a domestic violence complaint is not only one of the most dangerous calls for service, but may even be the most deadly for law enforcement officers. Many people are unaware of the dangers involved and why law enforcement officers take the actions they do while on this type of call.
For a moment, put yourselves in our shoes. We watch an incident unfold in real time, not in minutes, hours, or days after the fact. We do not have the luxury of assuming that the scene is stable based on the information we receive from a caller or 911 operators. More times than not, the information we initially get as we are responding to the scene is vastly different from the situation we are presented with upon arrival. Not everyone understands the fluidity. Emotions can swing 180 degrees, from calmness to a deadly force encounter in hundredths of a second. This makes domestic violence complaints volatile and complicated. With that in mind, you can understand the instantaneous need for the officer(s) to take control of the incident. Typically, this is done with verbal commands, separating the parties involved. This is not to isolate any one party, but to defuse the situation as quickly as possible. Depending on the initial observations, one or all of the subjects potentially involved may even be handcuffed. That decision is made by the responding officers for their safety and the safety of others. In other words, this may be the only way we have to ensure the person(s) will not attack one another, or the law enforcement officers. Remember; no two complaints are exactly the same, with the factors continuing to change moment by moment.
We give everyone the opportunity to have their say about what occurred and how it started. In some cases we know the history of a relationship, but more often we do not. Depending on what we find during an investigation, if no charges are filed, we may act in a counseling role. We may serve as moderators allowing for the argument to dissipate. More often than not, this is the case, and everybody does the right thing and moves on.
However, domestic violence calls often involve physical violence. This can be a male subject physically harming a female subject or vice versa. It can also involve siblings, other family members, and even associates who are directly involved. This is the dynamic event we arrive to and it’s total chaos. We have an immediate duty to restore order and prevent further escalation. With such a dynamic situation, emotions are running high. The common denominator for all persons involved is law enforcement. This is where many issues arise. The officers are taking action to prevent further escalation and other family members take exception turning their hostilities towards the officer(s). Trust me when I say we all have families and are fiercely loyal to them. We understand the thinking when somebody says that’s my brother, sister, dad, mom, aunt, uncle, grandmother, or grandfather. It is the whole thought of, “I can say or do something to my family but hell hath no fury if an outsider gets involved in family business.” We completely get it, really we do! But if the situation has gotten so out of control that emergency services are called, it’s not a normal disagreement. It means it has escalated beyond what the average person thinks a disagreement is. And so now we are involved and under the law must take action. Law enforcement is empowered to make an arrest(s) and it is obligated to do so under certain circumstances. This leaves the decision on whether or not to file charges out of the hands of the persons involved. This decision is not taken lightly, especially when children are involved and present. The agony children witness during these calls for service tugs at each and every fiber of our hearts.
After everything calms and is more stable, we inform victim(s) of additional assistance that is available to them. There are a vast amount of resources available to victims. But, we can’t make victims seek help; we can only provide them with the tools to do so. But remember, we can’t help, if we do not have the information. Typically domestic violence gets worse as time goes on. Once the behavior is to the point of making threats and physical violence, it does not subside over time. Statistically it gets worse without some form of intervention.
Lt. Michael C. Stewart
St. Mary Parish Sheriff's Office