EDITOR'S NOTE: October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is the first in a series of articles that will run this month looking at the issue. This first story is from the perspective of law enforcement representatives who handle incidents daily.
Last year the Fort Wayne Police Department had more than 200,000 calls for service. Of that number 12,000 were for domestic violence.
However, that number could be misleading, according to Officer Raquel Foster, FWPD spokeswoman, who said the number is really larger because domestic violence calls often come in as an unknown problem, a disturbance or even phone hang-ups.
“The data is skewed,” says Dottie Davis, FWPD deputy chief and director of training. Also, an arson report or a vandalism call for something like slashed tires can actually be retaliation in a domestic violence case.
The dangers can extend beyond the parties involved to the officers who respond to the call. Between 1996 and 2009, 106 police officers nationwide were killed while responding to domestic violence calls. Firearms killed 97 percent of those officers and 51 percent were killed on approach. Davis said training dispatchers in the proper way to handle these calls is important.
Officers responding to a domestic dispute need to know what types of weapons are in the home. Davis described an incident in Pennsylvania where a man killed three officers who responded to a domestic dispute in his mother's home. When the dispatcher took the call from the mother, the caller was asked if there were firearms in the home. The caller said yes, but they were locked up. The dispatcher, however, never passed on the details.
But responding to any domestic violence situation can be risky.
Responding officers face unpredictable, volatile situations
“Emotions are already high; we are coming in to put the fire out but it has already started,” FWPD Patrolman Jason Anthony said.
Anthony works in the Southeast quadrant, while ex-FWPD Patrolman Christopher Adams worked in the Northwest quadrant; he has since left the area for another job. Both agreed to sit down during the researching of this topic and talk about the hazards they face on a daily basis responding to domestic violence calls.
Davis said an officer arriving on the scene would look for a visible sign of injury or complaint of pain. If either exists, it can be filed as a Class A misdemeanor against the attacker. The victim does not have to cooperate with the officer and the officer does not have to have seen the fight.
A person may have been choked but no marks left on their body, while holding a hand over someone's mouth or nose to block air passages counts as strangulation, as does holding a pillow over a face. Frequently, Davis said, this never leaves marks.
If a child under the age of 16 heard or saw the battery, it becomes a Class B felony charge.
If the call rises to a felony case, officers on the scene call detectives from the Domestic Violence team, document the scene with pictures and interview any witnesses. Those potential witnesses often are children. There is a checklist made up of 11 questions; the list is called the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen. This provides guidance to officers.
Questions range from if the victim has been choked before to does the attacker have a weapon. The victim is also informed of their rights and resources, like shelters. If shelters are not available, officers try and find a family member.
“No one wants to leave a home to go to a shelter,” said Anthony.
“The worst domestic situation is when a neighbor calls, because they don't want you there,” said Adams.
Both officers agreed what bothers them the most about going out to these calls is seeing the children who are caught in the middle.
Working in the Northwest quadrant of Fort Wayne, Adams said he handled two or three domestic violence calls a day.
“We need to break that cycle of violence, and what better way than to send that message to families that your children are getting some very unhealthy messages about what a healthy relationship is,” Davis said.
“Your kids need to know this is serious, the batterer needs to understand this is a serious crime and the victim needs to learn that those children are learning the early lessons about how to treat other people and how two people interact and handle conflict.”
The FWPD dispatches at least two officers to a domestic violence call. Often it's a matter of keeping the couple separated while an officer waits for backup to arrive. Once that happens they take a report from each party.
“It's more about getting the facts. If they are both complaining of pain, I will take both of them in,” Adams said.
Anthony pointed out it isn't just traditional relationships that are involved in domestic violence.
“It not just husbands and wives; there are just as many involving family members or same-sex relationships.”
Anthony said one of his worst domestic calls was for two brothers who had been drinking and were fighting. The older brother was visiting from out of town.
The older brother told the officers he would calm his younger brother down and they would take it inside.
Within two minutes of the police leaving, the younger brother stabbed and killed the older brother. The older brother had seemed confident everything was under control, Anthony said.
Both Anthony and Adams said they get dispatched to the same address multiple times. The hardest thing Anthony said is to not become complacent. One domestic investigation can take up an officer's whole day.
“If it's just a matter of driving someone somewhere else for the night it might not take very long,” Anthony said.
“Alcohol is a factor too. A lot of drunken men like to beat up their mates, and drunken women who get upset about Facebook, text messages and calls. A lot of our calls are Facebook-related, you wouldn't believe it,” Adams said.
“Social media, from texting to Facebook, has really changed the whole dynamics of relationships,” said Anthony.
“My last day on, a woman returned home drunk, went through her boyfriend's texts, found he had been texting someone, woke him up, and the fight was on,” Anthony said.
Adams said he had a case where an ex-boyfriend got on his ex-girlfriend's Facebook page and saw she was talking to other guys. So he went to her house and held her hostage for a day. She finally escaped the next day.
Cases are difficult to prosecute if the parties won't cooperate with the police.
“You can make whatever law you want, but the problem is the dynamics of the relationship. Emotions are high while we are there. She wants him arrested or we make the arrest even if she doesn't. But six months later without her cooperation, the prosecutor's hands are kind of tied,” Anthony said.
Children learn from seeing
The No. 1 predictor of the amount of violent behavior a person exhibits is the behavior of his or her family of origin, Davis said.
If the person who is allegedly battered is pregnant and the batterer knew that person was pregnant, it becomes a Class C felony charge. It does not have to be the partner of that person, Davis said.
“The other thing an officer has to think about with that type of battery is, whether it's strangulation or a punch. What if she is eight months along and she miscarries or has a spontaneous abortion because of the violence, do we have a homicide? We have to think about that angle, too, that's why I am really happy we have these laws that enhance the charges,” Davis said.
Davis said evidence-based prosecution is so important for continued support of the victim going through the justice system.
“The victims often think they are the ones in control of that violence, but it's really the batterer who has total control. The victim can do all types of things to prevent that violence but the batterer keeps changing the rules and boundaries, so (they) will never get it right.” Davis said.
Davis said once police hand off a case to the prosecutor they have no way of knowing if the prosecution was successful. They have no way of gauging if stiffer laws against domestic batterers are making a difference.
“It's not the No.1 call for service, but I do believe this crime breeds other crimes,” Davis said.
An example Davis cited: Kids in the house are in so much turmoil, they learn if they behave in a negative way, they will get attention. So they may go out and do something like shoplift, ending up in court.
“It's negative attention, but it's still attention,” Davis said.
Children often take on the parenting skills and treat the adults like children.
“It's important for us to identify them as multiple victims in the home, so in our police reports we are required by law to identify them by name and age in the report. It helps with the statute, but it also helps to give that child a name and a face,” Davis said.
The other issue, Davis said is sometimes the boys in the house try and protect their mom. Davis recalled a case where a 12-year-old boy witnessed the batterer strangling his mother; he picked up a knife and stabbed the man. Davis said then it becomes a question of how do you treat this child who has committed a crime but is also a victim.
“If you are the cop arriving, what do you do with him? Do you take him to the Allen County Juvenile Center? Do you call the Department of Child Services? The family dynamics are, 'We (the police) are not the good guys.' We come and take somebody away, so instead they pick up a knife,” Davis said.
Allen County allows pretrial diversion for first-time offenders. If they plead not guilty and have no prior convictions, pretrial diversion can be requested. If they complete the batterer's intervention program and stay out of trouble for one year, they will have no conviction on their record. Davis said this means the next time they get arrested the charge is back to a Class A misdemeanor. Had they had the prior conviction for domestic battery on their record their charge would have automatically been a Class D felony regardless of if it were the same victim.
There are pros and cons to the system. Davis said of those who go through the intervention program, two-thirds will recommit, but that also means one-third will not.
There is still a lot of work to do in this arena, she said.
“We have to keep the community aware of what the laws are, how we can help them, and that we are a viable resource.”