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To domestic violence trainers: We get it

By Dr. Joel F. Shults
Chief, Adams State College Police Department

I’ll admit it. When I was a Neanderthal cop in the 1970s I didn’t know about the domestic violence cycle. I couldn’t arrest unless the victim signed a complaint. Restraining orders were complex and women’s shelters were non-existent. We did all the wrong things – talked to couples together, mediated a truce then got the heck out of their house, threatened that we’d better not have to come back there again tonight, made one of them leave and cool off, or treated it as a temporary embarrassment that really wasn’t any of our business. Ask any old timer they’ll tell you the drill.

Slowly we started seeing laws and services for women change. Then came the training from man haters and cop haters lecturing us about how the advocates from among the academics and social activists knew the truth about family disturbance calls while us ignorant cops were brutal and crude and just making everything worse. Ask a cop what they learned in domestic violence training back then and they’d say, “Woman good, man bad”. We were a tough, eye-rolling crowd. And yet even with the left-wing activists ramming it down our blue collar throats, the law enforcement profession responded. We became enlightened. We began to understand that a punch in the nose shouldn’t be acceptable just because the victim is sleeping with the perpetrator. We studied the research and accepted the science of offender behavior and the studies of victimology that made sense of the seemingly illogical behavior of battered women.

Now the tide may have turned and it is the trainers that need some enlightenment. Although the police profession is still working on understanding all of the complicated social and legal issues involved with domestic violence, many trainers are not tuned in to the police culture in order to best present effective training in the subject. The risk of alienating police officers can be dramatically reduced with attention to these five keys:

1) Assume the positive – It’s safe to assume that we care about victims and families. Sure, we’ll still be frustrated by the frequent fliers, the non-cooperating victims, the system abusers – but none of us think it’s ok for one person to abuse another. You can also assume we know the basic theories being taught in the academy and that we don’t hold to the list of “myths about spouse abuse” that were in the sociology text books before some of your audience of police officers were even born. And, by the way, we’re over the “cops aren’t social workers” argument. We know that we are social workers. If you want to review that information or remind us of those basics that’s great. But believe me, it won’t be the first time we’ve seen this stuff.

2) Talk tactics and officer safety – Acknowledge the reality of danger and volatility that we already know from experience. Give us the statistics that go beyond how many officers are killed dealing with domestics. Tell us at what points in the event that lethality risk is greatest. Talk to us about civil standbys and restraining orders. Make liberal use of case studies of actual events. Give us the psychology of the victim and offender and methods to counter the threats. Provide the incentives to deal effectively with each encounter, explaining that our routines and responses are being measured by the offenders and used against us. Explain how one officer’s mismanagement of a domestic violence case can endanger the next officer who responds.

3) Use the “F” word – Felony. Teach us detective techniques to look for felony charges. Show us how we are preventing major crimes by dealing effectively with domestic violence at our very next encounter. Remind us that all of the techniques we learn in dealing with these cases – interviewing, evidence collection, use of technology at these crime scenes, behavioral analysis – are transferable skills to other criminal investigations. Remind us that if we get better at domestic violence investigations we get better at everything else. Keep us interested in the other victims of this crime even when the person with the physical wounds is not cooperating. Help us remember the children, extended families, neighbors, and fellow cops who are at risk when these crimes are poorly investigated and prosecuted. Remind us that drug cases and weapons cases and child abuse cases are uncovered during domestic investigations.

4) Show us the research – We are an educated bunch these days. You can talk about research methodology and findings. Cite the studies so that we aren’t led to believe that a bunch of east coast academics in tweed jackets and bifocals are spouting off theories to make the feminists happy. Remind us that best practices are based on evidence, not utopian theories. Give us examples of successful efforts by our peers and how that success is being measured. We live on facts in our world, not theories – give us the facts that are out there about successful strategies of domestic violence intervention and investigation. We will do what works if the facts support the strategies.

5) Don’t blame the cops – Appeal to our professionalism and mission. Don’t keep citing the poorly researched assumption that cops are hugely over represented as domestic violence perpetrators themselves. Stop claiming, or implying, that since the majority of policing is still done by men that this automatically results in female victims being mistreated. Stop accusing officers of sloppy police work as if we only do sloppy work on domestic violence cases – we do sloppy police work on all kinds of calls. Stop talking about how cops bungled domestic violence calls decades ago unless you’re giving us a history lesson. Address the real challenges we face such as limitations of the law, resources, discretion, training, policy, and case management. Give us solutions.

I didn’t lie thirty years ago when I told the oral review board that I wanted to be a cop because I wanted to help people. I still do, and so do the vast majority of police officers I know. Give them the mission, give them the facts, give them the tools, and give them the training and they will rise to the task. We get it.

About the Author

Dr. Shults is a graduate of the IACP’s National Leadership Institute on Violence Against Women. He taught Family Violence and Crisis Intervention as a college professor for over ten years. Dr. Shults currently serves as Chief of the Adams State College Police Department in Colorado, and can be reached through his Web site at www.joelshults.com.



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