Domestic Violence Can Be Lethal To Police


So far this year, 46 Arizonans have lost their lives to domestic violence. It remains the leading cause of homicide for women, according to the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

For law enforcement officers, handling domestic disturbance calls is one of the most dangerous aspects of the job.

Officer injury and fatality

According to the FBI, 31.2 percent of officers assaulted between 1992 and 2001 were responding to disturbance calls -- 15.6 percent were killed.

"The biggest issue is officer safety," Gila County Sheriff's Lt. Adam Shepherd said. "Statistically, domestic violence calls late at night or early in the morning and around Christmas are the most dangerous for officers."

FBI statistics back up Shepherd's statement with a reported 45 percent of assaults on officers occurring between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.

The emotionally charged nature of domestic violence frequently is accompanied by drug use or alcohol consumption, which officers say make domestic calls treacherous.

The Payson Police Department responded to 237 domestic disturbances between January and August.

"Emotions are high because the people are either husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend -- there is some kind of love connection there," Payson Police Det. Matt Van Camp said. "What often happens is that we get there and we become the enemy and they are angry with us. Now we have two angry parties and we have to watch our back."

"It can be a very unpredictable situation," Shepherd said. "Except for the fact that the more times you go to one location, the more violent it tends to be."

"You can see the escalation," Van Camp said. "Each time you go back, it's getting louder or lasting longer or going toward the kids. You may go there three times before a crime has occurred, but the fourth time, he pushed her or pulled the phone out of the wall when she tried to call the cops."

Payson Police Sgt. Dean Faust said officers face several challenges when they arrive at a domestic disturbance.

"The big issue is the violence potential," Faust said. "Often the victim really believes it was her fault and doesn't want us to arrest the suspect."

"We separate all the parties involved," Van Camp said. "The case officer talks to everybody and tries to get a clear picture of what occurred. For officer safety, those kind of calls require at least three officers and sometimes you have multiple priority one calls at once. If there aren't enough officers, someone has to wait -- 10 minutes is a long time to wait if someone is beating you."

Both the Payson Police Department and the Gila County Sheriff's Office follow policy and make an arrest if there is evidence of violence.

"We have as close to a zero-tolerance policy as possible," Shepherd said. "We make an arrest if there is any sign of violence."

Often, a situation may not be as cut and dried.

"Sometimes it's hard to figure out where to draw the line," Shepherd said. "You have to use your gut. If there is any doubt about safety, you have no choice but to take somebody."

"It's that gray area within the law that officers have to make as narrow as possible," Van Camp said. "There are many times when you go to a call where there's a lot of yelling and screaming, but no crime has occurred -- but you know it's a volatile situation. Then we can offer to take one of the parties somewhere for the night -- separate them."

Faust said officers try to encourage the victim to get help.

"I encourage them to get out of the situation or at least go somewhere safe for the time being," Faust said. "The frustrating part is that sometimes the victim just doesn't see it -- they can be badly beaten and still don't see it. They are getting (the abuser) out of jail the next day."

"We try to explain the odds that the violence will escalate," Van Camp said. "We aren't qualified to be counselors, but we can educate the victim and let her know what resources are available -- then we let her make the decision."

Officer Ben Moss, who graduated from the police academy two years ago, said much of the 10-month training was spent on domestic violence calls.

"We did a ton of scenarios to practice for those situations since they are so dangerous," Moss said. "Before domestic violence calls weren't viewed as police business and that's not the case anymore -- it's a crime and the academy prepares you for all kinds of situations."

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