Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Information for Professionals

Criminal Justice

Overview of the Issue

Initial Law Enforcement Officer Response

This section provides police with strategies for responding to domestic incidents. It describes the basic functions of enhancing safety of officers and those who have been abused, while also holding offenders accountable for their abusive acts.

Approaching the Scene

Approach the scene of a domestic incident as one of high risk. Obtain all available information from the dispatcher before arriving at the scene and notify the dispatcher upon arrival.

Unless the circumstances of an incident require different measures, you should:

  • Respond as quickly and safely as possible, keeping in mind any inclement weather conditions and other potential driving hazards.

  • Approach the scene inconspicuously.

  • Avoid using sirens or lights in the immediate area of the scene of the incident.

  • Park away from the immediate scene of the incident.

  • Keep a safe exit route in mind.

  • Be alert to weapons, people, and dangerous animals from doors, windows, or nearby vehicles.

  • Check for persons moving away from the immediate scene of the incident.

  • Employ other standard precautionary measures for approaching high-risk scenes.


Initial Contact

Initial contact with the parties involved in a domestic incident can be dangerous for everyone involved, including responding officers. Your safety is paramount, as you will be less able to assist the victim(s) or respond to the offender appropriately if you become injured and/or incapacitated while approaching or in taking control of the scene.

As a responding officer, you should:

  • Always assume that there are firearms or other weapons at the scene.

  • Keep in mind that any time you intervene at a domestic incident, you are approaching a potential homicide, where the perpetrator’s violence can extend to anyone (even you) who threatens his/her own desire for power and control.

  • Realize the potential for police ambush, barricaded suspects, and hostage-taking. Approach the scene cautiously, using cover and safety measures.

  • Look and listen for any indication of activity in and around the residence for personal safety as well as for later documentation as evidence.  

  • Identify yourself as soon as possible – through the door if necessary.

  • Explain the reason for your presence without identifying the person who made the 911 call.

  • Request entry into the home or business. Remember: while domestic violence is NOT a “private problem,” you are entering someone’s home or personal space. Always attempt to do so in as dignified a manner as possible by requesting entry and access to the home/location and the people in it before pursuing more forceful means, if needed.

  • Ask to see the person seeking assistance.

  • Be aware that the victim(s) and children are often terrified that cooperating with you will increase their safety risk once you leave the scene.

Entry

Upon arriving at the scene of any domestic incident:

  • Enter and conduct a search of the premises when written or verbal consent has been given to do so by someone in lawful control of the premises.

  • If refused entry, be persistent about seeing and speaking alone with the person seeking assistance.

  • If refused access to the person seeking assistance, request the dispatcher try to contact the person.

  • Forced entry may be necessary and appropriate when:

    • There is reason to believe that a crime is in progress,

    • A person from inside is visible and you observe that the person is injured, wounded, or otherwise in need of assistance,

    • A person from inside the residence calls out to you for assistance,

    • A person in need of care or supervision has been left alone,

    • There is reason to believe that evidence is being destroyed, or

    • There is a court order.

  • Limit the search to one for other suspects, victims, witnesses, or evidence connected with the incident.
 

Establishing Control of the Scene

As the responding officer on the scene of a domestic incident, you need to quickly and safely take control of the environment and put your safety and that of any potential victims first while managing the perpetrator. You must, as quickly and safely as possible:

  • Identify and secure potential weapons in the surroundings.

  • Separate victim and children from the alleged abuser.

  • Assess injuries (including inquiry about possible internal injuries), administer first aid, and/or notify emergency medical services.

  • Identify all occupants and witnesses on or near the premises.

  • Separate occupants and witnesses from the victim and accused and keep them out of hearing range (to avoid compromising their witness status).


On-Scene Investigation

  • Investigate as any other on-scene criminal investigation by attempting to establish the existence of credible, corroborative evidence.

  • Try to locate and see all persons involved in the incident, including children, as safely as possible for yourself and others at the scene.

  • Document all statements made by the victim, the suspect, and all accessible witnesses, particularly those statements that may be admissible as evidence as exceptions to the hearsay rule such as:
    • Excited utterances,

    • Present sense impressions, and

    • Statements made for medical treatment.
  • Determine if any such statements were made to the dispatcher and take appropriate measures to secure and preserve such evidence, e.g., 911 recordings.

Necessary Definitions:

  • Excited Utterance is a statement about a startling event or condition made while the person speaking is still emotionally reacting to that event or condition. The statement must be made close to the time of the startling event, although not necessarily immediately, and there is no set time limit. Whether a statement is an excited utterance is a fact-specific question, based on whether the person is so startled, excited, or upset by the event that they have no time to think about their reaction or make up a story.

    • Examples include:  

      • "Look out! We're going to crash!"

      • "I think he's crazy. He's shooting at us!"

      • “It’s my boyfriend. He beat with that belt over there! I thought he was going to kill me!” 
    • Statements that qualify as excited utterances are admissible at trial as an exception to the hearsay rule under the belief that a statement made under such stress is likely to be trustworthy. Because of this, whoever hears the person’s excited utterance can testify at trial as to what the person said. 
    • Regarding excited utterances:

      • The person speaking does not necessarily have to “blurt out” the statement. It can be in response to your question (or anyone else’s question) asked for purposes of officer safety, securing the scene, or preliminary investigation.

      • There is no set time limit between the event and the statement, but you must document what the person speaking did between those times (e.g., she drove 15 minutes to her mother’s house to drop off the kids without stopping to talk, then drove right back to report to police).

    • The statement does not have to be made to a 911 operator or responding police officer. It can be made to anyone and by anyone, so it is important to identify and interview:

      • Anyone who the witness or victim spoke with prior to your arriving on the scene.

      • Anyone who witnessed the incident.

      • Responding EMT, paramedic, other EMS or ambulance personnel.

      • Friend, neighbor, or family member that the victim immediately called.

      • Co-worker, delivery person, or any other such person in the area at the time the person was speaking.

      • Nurse, doctor, or any other hospital personnel.

      • Anyone else in the area while the person speaking was under the stress of the startling event.

    • In order to determine if the statement of the person emotionally reacting to the event or condition qualifies as an excited utterance, document the following information on a signed written deposition and forward to the District Attorney’s Office:

      • The exact words, if known, in quotation marks, of the person speaking. (Do NOT put the words in quotation marks if they are NOT the exact words of the person speaking.)

      • Description of the emotional condition of the person speaking, e.g., crying, shaking, constantly repeating, “Why did he do this to me?”

      • Description of the physical condition of the person speaking, e.g., rubbing left shoulder, torn or disheveled clothes, smeared makeup.

      • Circumstances of how and when the statement was made, e.g., blurted out upon arrival at scene, in response to my question, “What happened here?”

      • Approximate time between the time of the incident and the time that the person said the words.

  • Present Sense Impression is a statement describing or explaining an event or condition made while the person speaking was experiencing or witnessing the event or condition, or immediately afterward. For this exception to the hearsay rule to apply, the person speaking need not be excited or emotionally affected by the event or condition. The trustworthiness of the statement arises from its timing. The requirement of immediacy, or near immediacy, reduces the chance of false statements or loss of memory.

    • Example: "it's cold" or "we're going really fast".

 

Evidence Collection

Police must:

  • Collect evidence so if the victim does not testify, the prosecution may still go forward.

  • Make cases where a victim’s statement corroborates the rest of the evidence collected, not one that is based only on the victim’s testimony.

  • Take photographs whenever possible, including:

    • Physical injuries

    • Property damage

    • Children at the scene

  • Document statements whenever possible, including:

    • Excited utterances

    • Present sense impressions

    • Victim statements made about their physical and emotional condition

    • Suspect spontaneous admissions

    • Children’s statements

    • Witnesses and others with knowledge of the current or prior incidents

  • Collect any weapon used and charge appropriately
For more information on Evidence Collection, please refer to: Observations, Statements and Reports: A Law Enforcement Checklist

Enforcing an Order of Protection

  • Determine if any person at the domestic incident is bound by an order of protection.

  • If the person has not yet been served with the order of protection, serve it immediately. If you do not have a hard copy of the order at the scene, have another officer immediately get a copy and bring it to you. 

  • If the accused, after having been served with the order, refuses to comply with the order, follow the arrest provisions for the appropriate degree of criminal contempt and any other charges as required by departmental policy.

  • Similarly, when you observe any violations of a known probation or parole condition at a domestic incident, arrest the accused. This may include the presence of the accused at the home of the victim if the order of protection and/or the conditions of Probation or Parole prohibit such contact.

 

Interviewing (Victim, Accused, Witnesses, Children)

  • Enhance the victim’s and children’s safety and privacy at the scene by interviewing them in an area apart from the accused, witnesses, and bystanders, whenever possible.

    • Remember that what you see upon arrival may be misleading.

    • The abuser may appear calm and in control, assuring you that there has only been a minor argument, whereas the actual victim may appear upset and angry, or even displaying a “flat affect” (no emotion at all).

  • Never make presumptions based on first impressions. Gather evidence, investigate thoroughly, and listen carefully before acting.