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Monday, March 19, 2012

Cop school: Domestic violence

Week 3 of the Fairfax County Citizens Police Academy included several presentations at the Mount Vernon Police Station.

Heath and Wallace
“My dad is drunk. He’s kicking my mom in the head,” said the 14-year-old girl on the 911 call, as her younger sister was screaming in the background. The police dispatcher helped the girl remain calm while getting the location and providing instructions to protect the younger children. Four minutes later, police officers were on the scene and took the man into custody. He was charged with malicious wounding and is still in prison.

Det. Melissa Wallace and victim services specialist Sarai Heath, both based at the Mount Vernon Police Station, played the recording of that call to illustrate the kind of situations they deal with every day.

Wallace, a sworn police officer, investigates domestic violence cases, helps victims prepare for court, and enforces protective orders. Heath, a civilian police department employee, provides immediate and direct help to victims of all violent crimes, including assaults, robberies, burglaries, and home invasions, as well as domestic violence.
“We meet people at the worst time of their lives,” Heath said. She helps victims of domestic violence retrieve clothing from their homes, provides access to translators if needed, accompanies them to sexual assault nurse exams, provides transportation to court, and refers them to counseling and other community resources.

Domestic violence, defined as “assault and battery against a family or household member,” is a class 1 misdemeanor, Wallace said. Offenders can be jailed for up to 12 months. They are more likely to get jail time if they have a lengthy criminal record or caused serious injuries. A person already convicted of domestic violence twice is charged with a felony if arrested again.

Sorting out the facts

An officer who responds to a domestic violence case must sort out what happened, including the nature of the relationship of the people in conflict and who was the aggressor, which is sometimes difficult if a neighbor called the police.

To be considered domestic violence, the victim must be a family or household member, meaning a spouse, former spouse, parent or stepparent, child or stepchild, sibling or half sibling, grandparent, grandchild, in-law who lives in the home, child in common, homosexual partner, or part of a couple who have been living together within the last 12 months. If the victim doesn’t fall into one of those categories, the aggressor is charged with regular assault.

The arresting officer must take into custody the person who was the “predominant physical aggressor, based on the totality of the circumstances,” Wallace said. In the past, officers were instructed to arrest the “first aggressor,” but that doesn’t take into account the type of situation where “a woman slaps her husband and he punches her so hard, he breaks her teeth.”

“We have to take in the whole story and figure out what makes the most sense” in determining who was the aggressor, Wallace said. She considers factors like the severity of the injuries, whether there are self-defense wounds, statements by witnesses, prior complaints of family abuse, and the need to protect the health and safety of family members.

It’s not always men who are the aggressors, she noted. Twenty percent of people arrested for domestic violence are female.

Whenever someone is arrested for domestic violence, the officer must ask the magistrate to issue a 24-hour emergency protective order. That gives the victim time to request a preliminary permanent protective order, which prohibits the offender from having any contact with the victim. That’s important, Wallace said, because violation of a protective order results in mandatory jail time.

In the majority of cases, the victim goes back to an abusive relationship, she said, usually because the victim is lonely, because the abuser promises it won’t  happen again, or because she doesn’t have enough money to support herself and her children on her own. Many victims go back six or seven times before they leave for good 

When Wallace conducts follow-up interviews with victims, they sometimes change their stories, saying the assault wasn’t so bad. She uses the taped statements from the initial interview and 911 recording—where you might hear someone saying “stop hitting me” in the background—to refresh their memories, as well as photos of wounds and broken furniture. A victim might say she bumped into a wall, but photos can prove wounds are bite marks or were caused by a belt or blunt object.

Aggressors in domestic violence situations are often charged with related offenses like malicious wounding, obstructing someone from calling 911, abduction (preventing someone from fleeing), breaking and entering, making threats on the phone or computer, or stalking. 

Stalking is dangerous

“Stalking is hard to prove,” Wallace said. “It’s not just calling someone a few times and asking for a date. Creepy doesn’t equal criminal. An ex-boyfriend who parks outside a woman’s apartment or goes to the Starbucks where she works is not committing a crime, but it doesn’t mean he’s not on the path to stalking.”

Legally, stalking refers to conduct that puts the victim or a member of the victim’s family or household “in reasonable fear of death, criminal sexual assault, or bodily injury.”

When stalking is combined with physical abuse, there’s a strong likelihood the victim will be killed, Wallace said. Eighty-one percent of people who had been stalked by a former intimate partner had been physically abused by their stalker.

In these cases, Heath advises victims to leave the area and change their names. “Once someone gets to the point where they want to kill someone, a piece of paper is not going to stop them,” she said.

So how do Wallace and Heath deal with such traumatic jobs? It’s very stressful, Wallace said. “I’ve lost a few nights of sleep, especially when children are involved.”
“We’re equipped with a lot of resiliency,” Heath said. “We have to disassociate the work we do from our personal lives. And we see the value in what we do.”

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