Responding to domestic violence calls during COVID-19

How to maximize your odds for a safe and effective response


Recent stories on Police One and elsewhere inform us of the impact COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders have had on victims of domestic violence. 

There are a few things to keep in mind.

One obvious issue is the inability to separate the victim and abuser because of shelter-in-place orders.

Officers will see emotional and psychological reactions in victims ranging from an increase in hypervigilance and anxiety to hopelessness and depression. (Photo/Pixabay)
Officers will see emotional and psychological reactions in victims ranging from an increase in hypervigilance and anxiety to hopelessness and depression. (Photo/Pixabay)

Victims, especially those with children, typically look for times where they can get away to reduce the tension such as going to the grocery store, a friend’s house, or maybe a walk,. This is, now, not an option. Spending the night with family, meeting up with a friend, or stopping by a shelter for advice is likewise not an option.

Another concern is that of coercive control. If present to any extent, it will only get worse. Intimidation and isolation are hallmarks of coercive control. Being stuck in an abusive environment with no place to go will only empower an already controlling abuser. Victims are a captive audience at risk for an increased sense of hopelessness and even self-isolation.

Officers will see emotional and psychological reactions ranging from an increase in hypervigilance and anxiety to hopelessness and depression. Any preexisting environment of intimidation will only get worse. No overtly dramatic intimidation, but a passive glance, a look in the abuser's eyes, tone of voice and body posture. These things may signal an imminent threat to victims like a big red flag but go unnoticed by officers unless they look for it.       

An increase in intimidation and threats, coupled with a depressing sense of isolation, may impair a victim’s willingness to call the police. We may get more calls from neighbors or family members, meaning that officers may only have third-party information and lack details they would otherwise need for a safe and effective response.

Finances may be stretched due to lay-offs or the inability to bring in money. The use of alcohol and drugs as a way to cope, by both abusers and victims, may become more frequent. Children may now see more intense and frequent violence. They may become emotionally dysregulated – acting out or shutting down.  

The cultural implications of domestic violence may also get worse. Cultures that don’t like to call or don’t trust the police will become even more isolated. For example, a victim may be intimidated into believing officers will not respond in the first place. In response, they may run out of coping skills, leaving only two options: fight back or submit.     

Officers may be justifiably frustrated by a victim’s lack of cooperation and/or recantation. This may only get worse, resulting in more frequent return calls for service. When officers do respond, they can expect an environment of increased tension with even less cooperation – not a good thing. Here are some things to consider for a safe and effective response.  

For responding officers

Getting good information quickly is important. Dispatchers, as well as officers, may want to minimally assess for the following five variables:

1. An increase in frequency and severity of abuse. This is one of the best predictors of future violence. It may be predictive of an abusive cycle or intermittent abuse, the latter being even more emotionally and psychologically damaging.

2. Possession or access to firearms including threats involving deadly weapons. Possession or access to firearms increases lethality by over 500%. Don’t forget to ask victims if they have weapons that may be taken and used by their abusers. 

3. The victim’s perception of danger. Trust a victim’s instincts. I am not suggesting you blindly believe everything they tell you. However, victims are the best predictors of future abuse. If a victim feels they are in danger absent any obvious signs of physical abuse, ask them why they feel this way. It is not uncommon for a victim who has experienced little if any physical abuse to tell me their abuser is highly unpredictable, or flashes into intense rages at the slightest provocation, or is now drinking more often or using drugs. These things may create an instinctive fear that the abuser is capable of anything.   

4. Any strangulation is predictive of lethality. It often happens more than once, however, victims may not report strangulation unless they are asked. Strangulation increases lethality by over 750%. The 20-item Danger Assessment (DA) and the 5-item Danger Assessment (DA-5) were recently revised to include questions that reflect the implications of strangulation. The Danger Assessment Training Center (DA-TA) has prepared a brief strangulation protocol as a follow-up to “yes” answers in response to these questions. The DA-TA Brief Strangulation Protocol helps officers respond more effectively and knowledgeably in situations that may involve strangulation. The most up-to-date training on strangulation can be found at https://www.strangulationtraininginstitute.com/.     

5. Look for obsessive jealousy. This is an unstable and immature mindset often seen in clinical assessments. Indications of ownership or possession may be predictive of future abuse including stalking. It leads to a lack of empathy and self-centered behavior. Reports indicate that 75% to 85% of victims who were killed or almost killed by their abusers had been previously stalked by them.           

The DA-5 as a brief risk assessment tool

The original Danger Assessment was shortened in 2009 to DA-5. It is a quick and easy risk assessment tool developed for fast-paced environments such as healthcare settings. The recently revised DA-5 was studied and shown to have significant predictive validity by Messing, Campbell, & Snider (2017).

As a retired officer, I can imagine the benefits of having a completed DA-5 on my computer screen before even responding to the scene. I can also imagine how this tool might help dispatchers ask more follow-up questions. But can a tool like this help officers with a safer response? Can it help officers get more and better information quickly? Could it eventually lead to more prosecutions and conviction through better and more comprehensive reports? I believe the answer to these questions is yes.

Keep in mind that anyone using risk assessment tools must understand why they are using them, the benefits of using a particular tool, the nuances of scoring and how risk assessment tools fit into follow-up response and safety-planning. There are terrific models currently in place such as the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) and the Arizona Intimate Partner Risk Assessment Inventory System (APRAIS)

Getting more information like this can help officers assess for restraining orders. Not every case will be helped by such a protective order. Sometimes an arrest or separation followed by a restraining order may further anger a serious abuser, leading to threats, stalking or worse. In cases like this, it is important to have protocols for follow-up and safety planning. Other times a restraining order is just what a victim needs. The more information officers have, such as that gleaned from a brief risk assessment tool, the better decisions they can make when it comes to restraining orders, referrals, follow-up and safety planning.   

My partner, Joyce Bilyeu, Director of Client Services with the  Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center, and I are available for consult and training on this topic. Visit http://www.hopethriveshere.org/ or call 916/875-4652.

References

Messing J, Campbell J, Webster D, Brown S, Patchell B, Wilson J. The Oklahoma Lethality Assessment Study: A quasi-experimental evaluation of the lethality assessment program. Social Science Review, 2015, Vol. 89, No. 3, pp. 499-530.  

Messing J, Campbell J, Snider C. Validation and Adaptation of the Danger Assessment-5: A brief intimate partner violence risk assessment. J Adv Nurs. 2017;73:3220-3230.

Stark E. Coercive Control: How men entrap women in personal life. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Websdale N. Protecting Victims of Intimate Partner Violence: Arizona’s emerging risk assessment model. The Police Chief, April 2018, pp. 42-47.

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