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How does your police department respond to a domestic disturbance call?

Two recent incidents remind us about how volatile and unpredictable these calls are; review and share your agency’s domestic disturbance response policy internally

Domestic disturbance calls are highly unpredictable. They are high priority and high risk for police officers. In the past week, officers in two cities were ambushed when responding to domestic dispute calls. Last Saturday in Palm Springs, California, Officers Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny were fatally shot through the closed front door and another officer was wounded. It was reported the suspect had body armor and several high capacity magazines. After a 12-hour standoff, the suspect was captured and taken into custody. A few days later, Boston police officers responded to a domestic dispute call and two were critically wounded by a man armed with an assault rifle and wearing body armor. Nine other Boston police officers were treated for stress and minor injuries. The suspect was eventually shot and killed in a gunfire exchange.

Findings from an NLEOMF report reveal that domestic dispute calls for service signified the largest fatal types of calls and were also the primary cause of law enforcement fatalities. Officers must respond cautiously and with heightened situational awareness to every domestic dispute call, whether it’s your first or your fourth visit to a residence. PERF issued a survey of 358 agencies, and the results indicate that eight percent of the calls an agency receives are related to a domestic dispute. At first glance, eight percent may not seem like a large number, but when you consider a call volume of a large agency averaging 600,000 911 calls per year, that equals approximately 48,000 domestic dispute calls per year. For a smaller agency with 100,000 911 calls per year, this equates to 800 domestic dispute calls. Most domestic dispute calls will result in a quick resolution, but there is always a significant risk that the call can turn fatal.

Review your department’s policy
While the majority of U.S. police departments have domestic dispute response protocols, the events this past week in Palm Springs and Boston should warrant a review of your existing policy and perhaps be addressed during your next roll call. At a minimum, it is worthwhile to disseminate your department’s current policy and make sure to include your 911 dispatchers and call takers in your distribution. The telecommunicators will be able to glean whether there are firearms at the residence, the overall tone of the scene and help determine if there are any warrants, active protection orders or possibly court mental health orders.

The PERF report offers common practices from police departments about their domestic disturbance response protocols.

• Treat the call as a high priority.
• Determine if there are firearms on the premises.
• Require two officers to respond.
• Determine, in advance, whether to use sirens and lights or not.
• Separate the parties when on site.
• Be sensitive to the victim’s needs and requests.
• Assist victims with information on filing emergency protection orders.
• Plan and determine the best way to follow up with the victim.
• Collect evidence.
• Use lethality assessment tools.

Domestic violence in America
Millions of men and women are victims of domestic violence and police officers are often called to resolve domestic disputes. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and many police departments are taking action to help build awareness of this significant public health concern. Police departments are encouraging individuals to reach out to them during times of crisis and educating victims about where to go for additional aid and safety.

In light of the recent events this week and as a matter of officer safety, it is also important for police departments to revisit their current policies and procedures on how to respond to a domestic disturbance call.

Heather R. Cotter has been working with public safety professionals for 20 years and understands the resource challenges and constraints agencies face. Heather is a Captain in the United States Army Reserve and holds two master’s degrees from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. Contact her at