Bruise interpretation: Tips for abuse investigations

In abuse cases, there is no limit to the injuries a police officer or investigator might encounter, and one of the most common injuries seen is bruising

Police officers and detectives frequently investigate abuse cases. In child abuse, elder abuse, and/or domestic abuse cases it’s not uncommon to deal with victims who are scared, unwilling, or unable to tell investigators what happened.  

Victims may be reluctant or unable to share information with investigators for a variety of reasons. Some may be fearful of retaliation or further abuse as in a domestic violence case. Others may be unable to tell you what happened due to a loss of consciousness or in the case of an elderly victim, dementia. Others may be protecting their abuser from arrest and prosecution. 

A valuable resource to have in the investigator’s tool box is a basic understanding of injuries and how they occur. The human body has the potential to offer investigators a great deal of information; knowing a little bit about wounds and wound patterns can help investigators draw some preliminary conclusions about a case, corroborate or dispel a victim or suspect’s story, and even suggest the possible weapon or object used to inflict an injury.  

3 Variables to Consider
In abuse cases, there is no limit to the injuries a police officer or investigator might encounter, and one of the most commonly seen injuries is bruising.  This also happens to be one of the most common injuries victims try to dismiss or explain away, perhaps out of fear, reluctance, or even to protect their abuser.  

Bruising involves the escape or hemorrhage of blood from ruptured blood vessels into the surrounding tissue. The resulting discoloration can usually be seen beneath the surface of the skin but, bruising is an injury that has many variables for investigators to consider.

1.) Location 

•    Large surface areas such as the back or buttocks may reveal more clues than those on a bony narrow structure such as a shin
•    Skin is elastic; therefore, softer body parts may mold around the object at the time of impact or pressure and then return to its original state
•    The contours of the body may concentrate or disperse the force used, affecting the appearance of a bruise
•    Some bruises may be in deep muscle tissue, internal organs or even within the skull and not outwardly visible to police

2.) Force

•    Force will vary at the time an injury is inflicted
•    The body moves to deflect and/or absorb force
•    Clothing can absorb and diffuse force
•    The mark left from an object will vary according to its rigidity, flexibility and the force applied

3.) Age

•    The age of a victim: The very young and the very old tend to bruise more easily
•    The age of a bruise: Although there is no firm rule for determining the age of a bruise, there seems to be some consistency of bruise development over time: 

A.)    Colors of a bruise change from the outer perimeter inward
B.)    Initially having a reddish/blue appearance
C.)    Progressing quickly to purple/black
D.)    Followed by a green and then yellow/brown as it heals
E.)    Yellowing may be seen within approximately 7-10 days

•    Most bruises will disappear within approximately 1-4 weeks

Differences Between Accidental and Abuse Bruises
Although everyone is capable of bumping into something or falling down and bruising themselves, those accidental injuries tend to follow a specific pattern. Such injuries may be seen on extremities such as hands, knees, elbows, or the bony protrusions of the face like eyebrow ridges or cheekbones.  

Conversely, in abuse cases, police officers will typically see bruising to the face, mouth, lips, neck, back, ribs, buttocks, thighs, and genitals. Naturally, other areas of bruising may be observed, but those listed are commonly found in intentional injury cases. 

Abusive bruising may be the result of a victim being punched, kicked, choked, squeezed or held down. Or, they may have been struck with a firm or flexible object ranging from a stick or bat to a belt or electrical cord (or any other striking implement you can think of).  

By carefully scrutinizing a victim’s bruises, investigators may take away some valuable information. 

Things to Look For

1.) Finger Pad Bruises

A.)    Round or oval in shape
B.)    Slightly larger than the fingertips due to skin flexibility
C.)    Due to gripping, squeezing, poking, forceful restraint
D.)    Commonly found on face, neck, thighs, arms 
E.)    Note: A kick or pressure from a barefoot can leave toe pad bruising just as one might see finger pad bruising

2.) Shoe Impressions

A.)   A bruise may form reflecting the imprint of the sole of a shoe if it is distinct, as in a lugged pattern on a boot
B.)   May leave a curved imprint bruise

3.) Wrap-around Bruises

A.)   Bruises from accidental injury tend not to form in a wrapped appearance
B.)   A bruise that wraps around a victim’s wrist, arm, neck or ankle may indicate force
C.)   Look for thumb pad on one side and finger pads on the other

4.) Linear Bruising

A.)   Bruising has many variables but they tend not to follow a linear pattern naturally
B.)   Consider a striking implement as a cause for linear bruising
C.)   May be seen on back, buttock, thighs or arms 
D.)   Linear bruises may appear “broken” on raised portions of the body if striking implement is solid; while a flexible object such as a belt may produce a more consistent and longer linear bruise

5.) Defensive Bruising

A.)   Typically seen on extremities
B.)   Forearms, upper arms, hands and even the feet and legs

The Importance of Documentation
Documenting and preserving the victim’s injuries is an important step in any case.  In abuse cases, be sure to carefully describe the victim’s injuries (appearance and location) and have them photographed, preferably as soon as possible by a forensic technician for further use in the investigation or later in court.

Often, in abuse cases, police officers find themselves advocating for those who are unable to advocate for themselves. Interpreting a victim’s injuries is another investigative tool that can be used to determine what may have happened, confirm or dispel a victim or a suspect’s story and ultimately allow us to help the vulnerable, those who need us the most. 


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