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October 2020 | Volume 13 | Issue 10

Domestic violence is one of the most common crimes to which law enforcement officers respond; yet, it is often misunderstood. By understanding what domestic violence is, what the best practices are when responding, and what resources exist to support their work, law enforcement officers and departments can build the skills, capacity, and comfort to address these crimes and those involved with expertise and care. This article will help provide the essentials that officers should know about domestic violence and the importance of having a departmental domestic violence policy. Officers who understand these essentials well will be in a better position to respond in a caring manner to the victims in their communities who need it most.

Domestic violence is abusive behavior in any relationship, as defined by law, which is used to gain or maintain power and control over a current or former intimate partner or family or household member.1 Domestic violence may include physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological actions or threats of actions. Abusers may also commit verbal threats, acts of intimidation, property damage, animal cruelty, elder and child abuse, strangulation, and stalking. The trauma and harm caused by domestic violence can be complex.

Domestic violence cuts across all identities and impacts people in all walks of life. Someone who experiences domestic violence can be a current or former intimate partner, a family or household member, or a person who has or had a child in common with the abuser.

Because these crimes can be multifaceted, complex, and cause devastating pain, a victim-centered and trauma-informed response to domestic violence is essential. This means that officers need to understand that victims of domestic violence can display a wide variety of reactions to the violence; no two victims may express themselves in the same way.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has identified a number of behaviors or emotions officers may see when responding to domestic violence: Winner's Badge

  • Passivity: Victims may be quiet and reserved or appear reluctant to answer questions.
  • Denial: Victims may refuse to acknowledge that the abusive incident occurred, minimize the level of abuse, recant the account, deny allegations, reject further investigation, or defend the suspect. Because domestic violence is predicated on some sort of intimate bond, there can be a reaction to protect a perpetrator who may be someone they care about, are related to, and love.
  • Anger: Victims may appear upset with the suspect and with law enforcement if officers have repeatedly been to the residence for prior reports of abuse, but no arrests have been made. Victims may also show anger if they feel that law enforcement is not providing sufficient protection from the suspect, even if an arrest is made, and may verbally or physically attack officers.
  • Laughing: Victims may laugh or joke. This might feel uncomfortable or be misconstrued as a sign that nothing is wrong, but this can be a normal trauma response.
  • Lack of emotion: Victims may have a flat affect and not show any emotion. This is a normal response to trauma and should not be taken as an indication that the victim did not experience trauma.
  • Fear: Victims may be afraid of retaliation for law enforcement being called, or they may be scared that officers will not take action to stop the violence. Victims may fear that officers will not believe them or that authorities will take their children away, or they may fear law enforcement because of past experiences or cultural norms.

The diversity of human experience makes responding to these complex crimes complicated and sometimes results in a report not being taken seriously—even by law enforcement. We’ve all heard histories of officers telling an abusive partner to just take a walk around the block to cool off, rather than responding to the situation in a victim-centered manner that prioritizes the safety of the victim and recognizes how dangerous and traumatic these perhaps seemingly harmless domestic disputes may seem.

Having a domestic violence policy is a must: A departmental policy that outlines how to respond to domestic violence is the first and most vital step to improving officers’ ability to address domestic violence in their community. It helps officers by making complex dynamics clearer and ultimately helps victims by ensuring a standard, trauma-informed, and victim-centered response to what often is the most painful moment a person might find themselves in.

Fortunately, a department doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel when determining the best way to create a standard way to respond to domestic violence. IACP developed a domestic violence model policy to help departments of any size put in place the priorities, guidelines, and procedures to be followed by law enforcement officers in response to domestic violence calls. This model policy prioritizes all the best practices we know to keep officers safe when responding to domestic violence calls, to support victims in a trauma-informed way, and to hold perpetrators accountable.

IACP’s model policy encourages law enforcement to make an arrest when probable cause exists and when arrest is authorized by law, instead of using dispute mediation, separation, or other law enforcement intervention techniques. Treat all acts of domestic violence as crimes and document them accordingly. Respond with the same protection and sanctions for every domestic violence incident, regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, ability, or religion.

Every response to domestic violence should include screening for self-defense injuries and determining the predominant aggressor. No incident of domestic violence should be investigated without cross screening for sexual assault; strangulation; stalking; and, when appropriate, child, elder, and animal abuse, which can be commonly co-occurring crimes.

Additionally, other crimes often go undetected by first responders or investigators, such as weapons violations, property crimes, violations of court orders, and gang violence. It is crucial for agencies to collaborate and partner with numerous community organizations in order to more effectively respond to additional crimes and best support victims.

In addition to the model policy, all IACP domestic violence resources are available for free.

1. “Need to Know…Domestic Violence,” Alexandria, VA: International Association of Chiefs of Police, April 2019.

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