The Law in Your Life

Family

Domestic Violence: The Police, What to Expect

"Will the police really enforce the law?" This is one of the most prevalent questions from victims who seek help from our Plan Attorneys, and may be getting ready to leave or break the relationship. Plan Attorneys can give you an accurate assessment of the legal requirements which must be followed by the police in responding to your situation. For example, in many states, the police must respond to your call for assistance, and, if there is evidence of injuries and evidence that these injuries were inflicted by a domestic partner, they must arrest the partner.

This evidence in many states is either called probable cause, or something similar, and usually includes:

  • Your statement of what happened;
  • Actual injury to the victim or children of the victim;
  • Actual damage to things like clothing or personal items of the victim;
  • Damage to furniture or other property in the living area of the victim;
  • Signs of a break-in to an apartment, house, car or other property;
  • Statements from neighbors or family members or friends as to circumstances; and/or
  • Statements of independent witnesses who actually witnessed specific conduct.

Arrests are made in many circumstances, once the police officer makes his field evaluation of the evidence. [Arrests can also be made at a later time, after the police officer, his/her supervisor and/or the prosecutor review the evidence.] The decision to arrest depends upon the crime committed, or alleged to have been committed. For example, little discretion is afforded the police officer in cases where it is established [remember not necessarily proven at this stage] that a felony was likely committed by the partner. It is important to note that the police in many states must make an arrest, even if you change your mind, if there is evidence that a felony, as defined by your state's law, has been committed.

If the conduct fits into the category of misdemeanor, the police office, depending upon the state law, may give the officer more leeway to determine if arrest is required. Often, this is based on whether the victim is willing to prosecute and be a witness against the partner in court when the time comes.

Two concepts might be noted at this point. First, in some states in which this author has practiced, the police were required by either state law or department policy to arrest a partner even when the victim said they did not want to press charges. Second, this mandatory arrest policy arose from the frustration the police department experienced in earlier years where they were willing to arrest a person, but the partner persuaded the victim[in many instances at gunpoint, knifepoint or by threatening the children] to "drop the charges."

Other Actions Not Rising to the Felony or Misdemeanor Level. These are the most frustrating to many victims because they can become a constant source of harassment or provocation. Examples include: slashing the victim's car tires, calling them at work repeatedly, calling them all night, publishing damaging statements about them, and other types of actions. Without a domestic violence situation, these crimes might be called petty offenses. But within the domestic violence framework, these actions can be frustrating and can often cause job-threatening situations. As a result, in these situations, the victim has to really examine the risks of calling the police, since the police powers may be limited. However, the partner is now aware of your actions in calling the police and escalation of their actions might be the end result.

Additional Support. The police can, in situations described above, make a report of your claims, take photographs of damage, interview witnesses and examine evidence that points to the partner as the perpetrator. Several of these reports on file, so long as there is some additional evidence other than your own testimony, might prompt the police to examine your situation more closely and make a determination if any charges can be filed. They can also help you find domestic violence resources and offer their assistance in the event that you desire to discuss this matter with a local prosecutor, if you have access in your community.

In short, the criminal justice system is more help than it was in past decades. Domestic violence victims can receive a tremendous amount of community resources and police protection. However, your situation is unique to you. Each situation is different, and as such, each situation requires the professional advisement of trained professionals. Counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and lawyers can all be of assistance to domestic violence victims. Our program has trained lawyers ready to help, if it is needed. Victims can get help, and with the help of employers providing confidential access to these resources, many more victims will be served.

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