Of all the calls police respond to, many officers consider domestic violence calls the most potentially volatile, dangerous and complex.
Because the state might prosecute in domestic violence cases regardless of whether the victim cooperates, it needs to build as strong a case as possible against the perpetrator.
The state relies on the police to carefully document all domestic violence calls. How do police use strategy and technology to build a domestic violence case, sometimes without the traditional reliance on witnesses?
Starting in December, deputies at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office will wear cameras on their vests that record both video and audio of all interactions with the public — to corroborate police reports. The goal is to help back up the police, who are on the front lines of this complex social problem.
In late September Lt. Rand Maker of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Wiscasset Police Chief Troy Cline spoke about changes in police response to domestic violence calls over time and how the crime affects police professionally and personally. Maker has 25 years of service in law enforcement, and Cline has 24.
The 911 call
When someone dials 911 to report a “verbal” domestic violence situation, Maker said, the sheriff’s office responds anyway because a verbal argument can easily escalate into physical violence, and, said Maker, “What is reported isn’t always what happened.” No matter who is involved, domestic violence is all about power and control.
Two officers respond to domestic violence calls for officers’ safety and because often multiple people must be interviewed.
Speed and surprise are essential. Officers turn off sirens and lights as they approach the residence. The idea is to respond promptly to the call and collect as much information as possible quickly before people can start manipulating the information flow.
Two police interview the parties separately to identify the “predominant aggressor.” Before, when only one police officer responded, the victim could be interviewed in the presence of the aggressor, which might intimidate her into changing her story. Also, a victim fighting back in self-defense might erroneously be labeled as the aggressor. Separate interviews help delineate the roles.
Building a strong case depends on witnesses, and sometimes those witnesses are children.
Research shows the brains of young children can be harmed on a physiological level by witnessing or hearing domestic violence. For that reason the state takes domestic violence seriously as a threat to the youngest.
In an interview this September, District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said, “Even if we can’t persuade the adult victim to support prosecution, we have to be aware of the harm to the children and may plan to make our case to protect them as much as the actual victim from the assault. So the police have to interview them.”
Seeing the effects of domestic violence on children, and having to interview them, are some of the most stressful parts of domestic violence calls for police officers.
“Everyone loves their parents, and [being] a domestic abuser doesn’t necessarily mean that they haven’t been a good parent in the past,” said Maker, noting that the police at the sheriff’s office avoid physically restraining the parent in front of children to reduce any trauma. “They may already have witnessed their mom or their dad being assaulted.”
Effect on police
While a field training officer in Biddeford, Cline was the first to arrive at a domestic violence scene in which a woman was killed. “The reality that you’ve lost a victim affects the public, but it doubly affects the police. You have to grapple with that, and you do that the best you can.”
Both Cline and Maker watch their deputies carefully for signs of increased stress; many times talking with a counselor can help. Debriefings, where police share information and analyze the situations, to see where things might be improved, also help.
On-the-job training is key. “A domestic violence call is one of the most difficult calls an officer can respond to,” said Cline. “I’ve been doing the job for 24 years, so I can pretty much read people and tell how people are going to respond. It isn’t a perfect science, but it’s something I’ve gained over the years. You get that sixth sense. You see things a new officer wouldn’t necessarily see. Experience is huge.”
Said Maker, “The really essential key to policing is to get out there and learn how to communicate with people. You can be stern with some people, and they’ll talk with you. Other people, they’ll shut right down. It’s all about how you read people.”
The day after a call, police may follow up with the victim. The visit gives them more information, such as better pictures of bruising or injuries. Sometimes the police will find a defendant at a victim’s residence, which is a bail violation. Police also connect people with resources for the issues they might be facing. Police fax the incident logs of domestic violence calls to New Hope for Women, a domestic violence resource agency in Rockland, covering Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo and Knox counties.
Although victims recanting on their stories can frustrate the police sometimes, Cline understands the complexity.
“People are suspicious [of the police],” Cline said. “Domestic violence is a very touchy situation; you are possibly taking the bread maker of the family out of the house, and how would [the victim] survive now? You might be taking that family member away, and that wasn’t what the victim wanted. The victim will sometimes recant their statement, maybe out of fear, or for the sake of the children.”
Sometimes victims say police officers lied. To back up their case, the police try to get audio or video recordings of the victims. A written report saying that one person threatened to kill another doesn’t have the same effect as a recording showing how upset the victim is.
The audio or video taken by the vests will only be admissible as evidence in court if it is considered an “excited utterance.” An excited utterance is when a person, under the influence of an exciting event, makes a statement about it spontaneously, without premeditation. If the victim just sounds angry, the judge may not admit that recording as evidence, said Rushlau, the district attorney, because the person had a chance to think about it. An excited utterance recording can be admissible in court even if the victim does not testify. So, potentially, this new technology might make it possible for the victim to not have to appear in court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine considers the new cameras a win-win. Rachel Myers Healy, director of communications, said, “With the proper privacy protections in place, body-mounted cameras … can both protect the public against police misconduct and, at the same time, help protect police against false accusations of abuse.” The vests are currently worn in other states across the country.
New Hope for Women Education Director Meg Klingelhofer said the agency is always glad to hear of ways to make law enforcement’s job safer and easier. “In terms of the impact on victims of dating and domestic violence, we can see the potential of the audio/video being very helpful to police for writing police reports and determining the predominant aggressor over time,” she said.
“It is important that it is not used out of context in a court proceeding, however. It is so common for the perpetrator, whose behavior is based in the need for power and control, to seem calm and collected immediately after an assault, whereas the victim, who has just been terrorized, will not.”
The difference between today and the 1970s and ‘80s is striking. Thirty years ago, police and society at large treated domestic violence as a private issue. Police would tell the aggressor to take a walk and cool off, even when there were obvious signs of violence. That has all changed today.
“I tell my officers that I intend to be proactive, not reactive. I tell them I am pro-arrest; if there is any inkling that there may have been domestic violence, an arrest will be made, and, if in the case an arrest isn’t made, the report documents why, so that I can review that the following morning. My officers have done an outstanding job of doing that,” Cline said.
The public is also more aware of domestic violence. Said Maker, “Twenty years ago, if a man and woman were involved in an argument, people wouldn’t call the police. That’s not happening today, which is good. We are getting calls from neighbors, relatives, friends.”
Honora Perkins is a freelance writer specializing in advocacy journalism. She lives in Alna.