Law Enforcement Lessons: How You Can Help Victims of Domestic Violence
The night she finally found the courage to leave her abusive ex-husband, Sue took the youngest of her three daughters and headed straight to a Scottsdale (Ariz.) women’s shelter.
It would be a month before the stay-at-home mom would reemerge.
Sue – whose last name has been withheld at her request – spent 21 years married to a public figure who made a habit of flying into a fit of rage at the slightest provocation. Often, Sue says, no provocation was needed at all.
“He would go from zero to 1000 on the rage scale within seconds. Even if it didn’t have anything to do with me, I was always the victim,” she says.
One night – six months before Sue conjured up the will to leave her ex-husband – he chased her from room to room, threatening violence and finally cornering her in their bathroom. Sue says he had been in a rage all night.
Anticipating a serious altercation, Sue was petrified and feared for her life. She panicked and began to hyperventilate. In a rare moment of compassion, he dialed 9-1-1 as she struggled to breathe. A savvy dispatcher on the other end of the phone heard terror in the sobs in the background and sent the Scottsdale police.
That night is still a painful memory for Sue.
“It was one of many bad nights with a man so charismatic to everyone in the outside world, (yet) so angry and prone to rage in his home,” she recalls. “He was well-spoken and nicely-dressed. Not all abusive people will be disheveled and drunk and obvious losers.”
When the three officers arrived, one escorted her husband out of the home and two others found her on the floor in the upstairs bathroom. The officers sat patiently with her and calmly asked her questions about what happened.
Sue couldn’t bring herself to tell the truth.
“My biggest concern was protecting him. (The officers) tried and tried and I would not say anything,” she recalls. “A woman in an abusive relationship … wants to believe the best in her significant other who she has trusted with her life and children. It is just surreal to be a victim of domestic violence. I wish I would have felt the courage to tell the truth that night.”
That was four years ago.
Domestic violence: understanding the situation
Sadly, Sue’s story is not an uncommon one, says Rose Pogatshnik, program coordinator for the School of Justice Studies at Rasmussen College’s St. Cloud campus.
An 11-year law enforcement veteran, Pogatshnik teaches classes on domestic violence and the role of victims in the criminal justice system.
“One of the most important things we try to teach students is domestic violence is about power and control,” Pogatshnik says. “(When you arrive at the scene) you have to identify the primary aggressor. And bigger or angrier does not always mean the aggressor.”
The danger in failing to identify the aggressor or – what has become more common – simply arresting both individuals, is the impact it can have on the real victim. “You don’t ever want to re-victimize the victim. That first 15 minutes can literally make or break your case, but it can also make or break their lives,” Pogatshnik says.
Reading body language and recognizing subtle cues are also crucial skills for future first-responders.
“I think law enforcement should know that the victim is afraid and has lived a life where they are told by the person who should most love them, that they are never good enough,” Sue says. “If a victim does not talk or is vague, it is not because nothing happened.”
Pogatshnik says the best responding officers are the ones that can quickly size-up a situation, identify who is who and de-escalate the conflict. Those are the exact skills she hopes students take away from their criminal justice degree coursework.
Pogatshnik concedes that officers at the scene have a job to do. She admits that they are there to collect information, not decide right versus wrong. But she reminds her students that when it comes to domestic violence, it’s not just another case. For the victims, it’s a life-changing event.
“If you don’t recognize that, you’ve already lost their trust and probably their cooperation,” Pogatshnik says.
Domestic violence: onward and upward
While that night in early 2009 is still a painful memory for Sue, she says it also reminds her of how far she has come. Since leaving her ex-husband, Sue has reinvented herself. She is living with all three of her children (and two rescue dogs!); she has a full-time job; and she has reclaimed her maiden name.
“I am thankful every day that I was brave enough to leave him,” she says.
And when she thinks back to what happened, she remembers the responding officers with great fondness. She recalls one of them looking her in the eye and promising to “break down the door” to rescue her if they ever received another domestic violence-related call at her address.
“I look back and am so impressed with the officers and the dispatcher,” Sue says. “As I learned more about abusive men (at the shelter), I learned how lucky I was to have those officers come that night.”
Responding to domestic violence calls and helping victims is a tricky business. Officers need to be inquisitive without being invasive; and they need to be compassionate yet remain neutral. If you think you have what it takes to succeed, check out our criminal justice career guide to see your options for the future.