10/19/2007

Aggressor ID picks up where mandatory arrest left off

The complexities of domestic violence cases require policies to help police comprehend abuse situations

The Sun Journal

LEWISTON, Maine — The Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the Maine Department of Public Safety, the Maine Coalition toDomestic Violence and Rep. Deb Simpson, D-Auburn, united this past legislative session around LD 1309, a bill adopting police policies and education about proper "predominant aggressor" identification and enforcement.The International Association of Chiefs of Police defines predominant aggressor as "the person who poses the most serious ongoing threat," while realizing "an injury resulting from...self-defense is neither abuse nor a crime."

Since 1984, mandatory arrest laws have been implemented to punish and deter domestic abuse. The complexity of domestic violence requires a judicial response that encourages police, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, bail commissioners, etc. to understand the context of domestic violence and examine each case individually.

Criminalizing domestic violence with mandatory arrest laws started with the concept batterers wouldn't stop until the community thought of their actions as crimes. Activists also believed criminalization would stigmatize the batterer.

As time passed, the Legislature enacted laws giving officers more arrest authority, victims more protection with bail conditions and protective orders and required police to have better domestic violence policies and training.

Yet, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety, the crime of Domestic Assault, as reported to police, occurs every 96 minutes. (Maine Department of Public Safety, Uniform Crime Report, 2005.) Mandatory arrest was encouraged by most police agencies to help stop the crime, but not as the sole response to domestic violence. Mandatory arrest was meant to work with other means to domestic violence.

Mandatory arrest transformed the justice system response nationally, but with costs. It has led to increased dual arrests and female victims arrested for domestic violence. Numerous studies show the drastic increase in female arrests is not from an increase of women perpetrators, but from women protecting themselves.

To address these problems, many states adopted predominant aggressor language to contextualize domestic violence and recognize that acts of violence might be self-defense. By its volatile nature, domestic violence crimes are layered in power and control manipulations. Victims use complex strategies to reduce risks for themselves and their children. They are always considering myriad consequences when pursuing options for safety.

If the victim calls police, pursues a protective order or leaves the abuser, it may curtail immediate abuse. Yet these options may escalate perpetrators violence, including threats against children or the victim.

Half of the homicides in Maine from 1996 to 2006 stemmed from domestic violence. Predominant aggressor identification is the next step to support the abused, hold batterers accountable and increase public safety.

Predominant aggressor does not refer to who struck first. It applies when both parties use violence towards each other, but the distinction occurs when the victim is in fear of imminent bodily injury.

The predominant aggressor is most responsible for the violence, used a higher level of violence, has an established history of violence and represents an ongoing threat of violence. To determine who used more substantial force, officers are trained to examine level of injuries, the history of violence, as well as answering who is afraid of who.

At the academy, new law enforcement officers are taught to assess situations where danger is imminent and use appropriate force to subdue the threat, to protect themselves or protect another, as anyone can.

It is important for police to identify predominant aggressors to avoid arresting the wrong party or both parties. By failing to hold batterers accountable, police would hand the batterer another tool to control their partner.

Also, survivors of domestic violence are often primary caregivers for children. This creates situations in which the true victims will be re-victimized by the criminal justice system if a parent is improperly arrested.

Proper predominant aggressor identification and enforcement is not new for Maine. It's part of basic academy training; in the last seven years, about 700 law enforcement officers have been trained in these new techniques.

But there are about 2,500 full-time and 1,000 part-time officers in Maine. This mandate will provide training for all officers, not only recent graduates. It also ensures police adopt predominant aggressor identification protocols in responding to a domestic violence call. This will provide a consistent response for all citizens across Maine.

Through additional training, officers will develop a greater understanding of domestic violence's complexities. For the court system, predominant aggressor identification will provide for more thorough investigations, so prosecutors and courts can better hold batterers accountable for criminal behavior.

Utilizing predominant aggressor identification will also provide an accurate account of the immediate crisis and a holistic view of the situation as well. This gives more tools to the justice system to increase safety for victims, and their families, hold batterers accountable and add to the stigma of being a batterer.John B. Rogers is director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Gretchen Ziemer is the advocate training and legislative coordinator for the Maine Coalition toDomestic Violence.  
 
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