By Jean Reynolds

Domestic violence calls present a number of challenges to police officers. One problem is sorting out what happened before you arrived—a task that can be complicated because the partners may have differing stories. Sometimes the victim may even refuse to press charges. You are required to make an arrest even if the partner does not want to prosecute. Another challenge is maintaining control of a volatile and potentially dangerous situation. Experienced officers say that additional violence may suddenly erupt after the police officer decides.

Here are some guidelines for dealing effectively with a domestic violence situation:

  •  Ask about weapons and secure them as soon as you arrive (perhaps by locking them in your patrol car). Even a legal weapon should be removed from the scene.
  • Check for injuries and call for medical help if necessary. It’s a good idea to photograph the injuries to support allegations of violence if there’s a court hearing later.
  • Scan the area for signs that there’s been a physical fight: broken dishes, bloodstains, scratches, or a heavy item (such as a frying pan or baseball bat) that’s out of place. Be sure to document what you found.
  • Separate the partners to minimize interruptions and arguments while you sort out what happened.
  • Consider calling for a backup if you sense that that more violence might erupt while you’re there.
  • If children are present, make sure they have a safe place to stay. Consider also whether they can help you piece together what happened. If you decide to interview children, choose a location where the adult combatants can’t eavesdrop or interfere.

In domestic violence situations you should be aware of a phenomenon that psychologists call the “rule of three.” (Other names are “drama triangle” and “Karpman triangle.”) Any time three people are involved in a situation, two of them may launch an attack against the third—verbally or physically.

This means that if you side with a woman in an argument, the male partner may turn on you. If you criticize a woman for her bad temper, the male may defend her and attack you. In volatile situations, then, you should think about having a fourth person at the scene—usually another officer—so that the “rule of three” is no longer an issue.

It’s equally important to avoid the blame-the-victim syndrome that’s common in domestic violence investigations. Victims are usually smaller and weaker than their attackers, and they may not have a way to support themselves or a place to go. Most seriously, statistics show that death is more likely to occur at the point of leaving than at any other time in a relationship. Your job is to prosecute the aggressor, not the victim.

Once you’ve determined which partner was the aggressor, make sure the victim has a safe place to go. Provide a referral to a victim’s advocacy organization for future counseling and assistance.

A domestic dispute can have long-lasting effects that go far beyond the two people who were fighting. Workplaces, schools, hospitals, courtrooms—and, ultimately, taxpayers—all bear some of the costs of intimate violence. Police officers are uniquely positioned to intervene when a couple is fighting. Always take domestic calls seriously and strive to do whatever you can to stop the pattern of violence.