Risk assessment: Dispatchers need domestic violence training too
Police officers are safer when dispatchers know which risk-assessment questions to ask
This article is for officers and dispatchers. It stems in part from the author's publication in the California District Attorneys Association, Prosecutor’s Brief: An Overview of Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment Tools.
Domestic violence responses are some of the most dangerous calls officers face.
The more dispatchers know about the implications of domestic violence the better they will understand what callers are telling them, which will help dispatchers ask better risk assessment questions to gather information for responding officers. With an increased awareness of salient risk factors, our in-field investigations and reports will be more comprehensive, leaving prosecutors with more information on which to assess each case, likely leading to higher filing rates.
KNOW THESE 5 RISK FACTORS FOR HIGH-RISK DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Dispatchers must recognize the high-risk variables that predict danger and death in domestic violence calls. Dispatchers need to know what these factors mean for 911 callers and responding officers. Known as the DA-5, this danger assessment tool has significant predictive validity. 
- Strangulation: Strangulation increases the risks of serious injury or death by over 700%, which is important for dispatchers and officers to understand. 
- Firearms: The same can be said about possession of guns, which increases the risk by 500%. 
- Jealousy: When it comes to obsessive jealousy, keep in mind that 75% of women who have been killed or almost killed by their intimate partners had been previously stalked by that partner. 
- Fear: A victim’s personal fear that they are at risk of serious injury or death is a valid harbinger and something we must listen to.
- Worsening abuse: Lastly, an indication that the abuse is getting worse suggests a predictively high-risk pattern. Most officers would want to know if these risk factors were present when responding to any domestic violence call.
Understanding these five risk factors will help dispatchers recognize potentially high-risk calls so that they can inform responding officers. When victims are at risk so are officers. Dispatchers can also offer valuable safety-planning information to callers including support, education and resources.
TRAIN SMARTER, NOT HARDER
Realistically, dispatchers don’t need to do more training than they are already doing. Instead, dispatchers can simply reorganize the questions they are asking to reveal signs of increased risk.
For these reasons, the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center (SRFJC) created a domestic violence risk assessment training for dispatchers. I and my training partner, Client Services Director at the SRFJC Joyce Bilyeu, used the 5-item Danger Assessment as a guide to help dispatchers focus on high-risk variables.
Our primary goal is to provide dispatchers information about the nuances of domestic violence as well as the five risk factors and encourage them to use these risk factors in their conversations with callers. Our extended goal is to share this training with officers, discuss the DA-5, and talk about how they can follow up at the scene to gather more comprehensive information. Our larger goal is to get better reports to the district attorney’s office, thereby enhancing filing rates.
DISPATCHER TRAINING IN ACTION
We just finished our first round of training with the Folsom Police Department in California. Dispatchers were receptive and engaged.
Shortly after our first training, we learned that by recognizing the implications of strangulation, a dispatcher was able to elicit and clarify more detailed information from a caller about past strangulation. Even though strangulation was not part of this particular incident, the dispatcher recognized that past strangulation increased this caller’s current risk of injury or death. This dispatcher understood the link between domestic violence, strangulation and violent behavior, which presented a potential risk of violence to responding officers as well. 
We are excited to branch out to other departments and expand this training narrative. It is past time for dispatchers to be trained in domestic violence recognition.
“It is vital that 911 dispatchers understand the magnitude of asking the right questions in the right way while taking the call of domestic violence,” said Jamie Genz, Communications Supervisor for the Folsom Police Department. “The domestic violence/strangulation training allowed us to look at the situation from the victim’s perspective and gain insight into the many different resources available at the Family Justice Center. The training was incredibly valuable, and I would highly recommend that all dispatchers attend.”
Recanting victims present a real concern when it comes to prosecuting domestic violence cases. When this happens, expert witnesses will opine on the dynamics of domestic violence and tell juries why victims recant. Prosecutors will bring in 911 tapes so juries can listen to the initial call. As long as 911 dispatchers are in the process of clarifying the nature and degree of the ongoing emergency, these tapes may be used in court.  Evidentiary problems may arise outside of this clarification, when, for example, a dispatcher goes past the nature of the ongoing emergency into a question/answer narrative with the caller. However, we believe that each DA-5 question can be integrated into the 911 interaction in order to properly clarify the nature of the ongoing emergency.
In Sacramento County, we have a terrific collaboration with the district attorney’s office. They worked with us to understand their needs relating to the evidentiary value of 911 tapes where the DA-5 is used. Their input helped us to refine our training outline.
THREE STEPS TO REVAMPING DISPATCHER TRAINING
- Reach out and engage dispatch managers about training. The message here is twofold: Dispatchers are already asking most of these questions, and this training allows them to re-organize their thoughts to focus on known risk factors.
- Reach out to your district attorney’s office and get them involved in discussions about the admissibility of 911 tapes where these risk assessment questions are integrated into 911 calls. Remember, the ongoing emergency is not a static event. Each emergency has nuances and degrees of trauma that can only be understood with adequate training. Dispatchers must be able to clarify the nature and degree of each emergency. In the case of domestic violence calls, this requires training.
- Use a valid risk assessment tool as a way for dispatchers to focus on high-risk variables related to the ongoing emergency. The DA-5 is just one example of how dispatchers can gain a better understanding of domestic violence and high-risk variables. You can, of course, use any valid risk variable you wish. We used the DA-5 because it has been researched, was recently revised, and stems from Dr. Jacqueline Campbell’s often used 20-item danger assessment. In fact, the 20- item danger assessment or other tools designed for law enforcement (LA/LAP, DA-LE, and APRAIS) can then be used by responding officers to follow up with victims at the scene.  Keep in mind that we are not asking dispatchers to score this assessment tool or follow-up with appropriate referrals like an officer would do in the field. This is simply a new adaptation of known risk factors.
The DA-5 is a modified version of the 20-Item Danger Assessment for use in fast-paced environments such as healthcare settings. It is a quick and simple tool consisting of the five questions discussed above. However, the DA-5 was not tested within the 911 dispatch environment. Furthermore, there is no tested pathway or established protocol for follow-up after dispatchers use the DA-5 (other than to send officers to the scene). For these reasons we are not asking dispatchers to use the DA-5 in a clinical manner; simply to gather risk-related information in an organized way and pass this information on to responding officers.
Using a risk assessment tool can offer a wide range of benefits, including increasing victims’ self-protective behaviors while decreasing the frequency and severity of violence.  This may translate into fewer return calls for service. Other benefits that have been noted in studies include increasing arrests and convictions, informing pre-trial release conditions, and increasing victim cooperation, trust, and satisfaction with the criminal justice system.
For more information about this training, contact me or Joyce Bilyeu at the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center at 916/875-4673, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
1. Jill T, Messing, et al., Validation and Adaption of the Danger Assessment-5: A Brief Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 2017, 73: 3220-3230.
2. See materials provided by the Training Institute on Strangulating Prevention.
3. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Facts About Gun Violence Factsheet.
4. Stalking Resource Center. StalkingFactSheet (familyjusticecenter.org)
5. Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. The Disturbing Connection Between Mass Shootings and Domestic Violence.
6. Always contact your county’s district attorney’s office for guidance on the evidentiary value of 911 tapes when using risk assessment questions.
8. Messing J, Campbell J, Webster D, Brown S, Patchell B, Wilson J. The Oklahoma Lethality Assessment Study: A quasi-experimental evaluation of the lethality Assessment Program. Social Science Review, 2015, 89:3, 499-530.