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Emerging Police Protocols
As a result of the 1994 federal anticrime bill, which included the Violence Against Women Act, most police and sheriff's departments now have written protocols for domestic violence. Law-enforcement officers are required to keep you safe if you are being abused by your intimate partner and to act as liaisons in a network of interventions to help you get away from the abuse. And now in most states they must arrest your abusive partner.
If police fail to keep you safe, they are liable. This liability grew out of a class-action suit in California in 1977 in which three female attorneys sued the Oakland Police Department and the city of Oakland on behalf of women abused by violent men. This suit, the first in the domestic violence movement, resulted in new police procedures, police training, and city funding for local domestic violence shelters. In 1985 a woman in Torrington, Connecticut, won a $2-million settlement from the city for failure of the police department to protect her from her husband'sviolence. This case, the first tried in federal court, was a catalyst in Connecticut's passage of the 1986 Family Violence and Response Act, which now mandates arrest in domestic violence cases when probable cause exists.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act resulted from years of persistent lobbying by women's groups. Its passage created Justice Department funding to local communities to train the police and the courts in the realities of domestic violence, and to coordinate efforts to help women to safety. It also provided for the national domestic violence hot line, launched in 1996, so that a woman anywhere in the United States can be connected to the resources she needs to get away from a violent partner.
A New Police Sensitivity
Federal funds have helped develop domestic violence protocols in about half the nation's police departments and sheriff's offices. In large metropolitan areas, police department specialists in community affairs and crime prevention have been joined by domestic violence officers, whose job is to help you get the social and human services you need. However, in some communities these officers are not always on duty at night or on weekends, when many domestic violence incidents take place. (Sunday night is the most common time for domestic violence according to a study of their state by the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women.)
In many communities where police have taken domestic violence seriously, their response has generally been applauded. In their first year of operation--with the help of federal grants--the Domestic Violence Unit of the Metro Nashville Police Department investigated eighteen thousand domestic violence calls and reduced Nashville's domestic homicide rate by 71 percent. In the New York City Police Department, a domestic violence police program began in 1983, but it was not until 1994--eleven years later--that all precincts were required to have a domestic violence officer. Whether or not there are domestic violence specialists in your community, all officers must follow the new rules.
In rural areas the reality may be different. While police may be just as concerned and cooperative, their availability might be limited by the great distances and isolation. You might be served by a single county sheriff or deputy, or have to rely on state police. If you live in a remote corner of a districtwith only one officer and another crime is happening at the same time, you may never get emergency help when you need it. It is therefore essential to develop a safety plan and be connected to a network of advocates who can help.
What to Tell the Police When You Call
If you are in immediate danger, always call 911 and try to give as much information as you can. The more the police know before they arrive, the more effective they will be. In a handful of communities, the police dispatcher can run a computer background check immediately in order to let the responding officers know whether there have been similar calls to your address in the past, if an order of protection is in effect, or if a gun is registered to anyone. Although police computer networks are improving--in Hawaii there is a model plan to have computers in the police cars--most background checking goes through channels at the police station or the state capital or a central registry during normal business hours.
Most of this information is determined later, after the police have filed a report at the station house, so the more information you can provide, the better they can help you.
Try to tell them
*if you and your abuser are at the same location
*if you are being threatened with a weapon
*if there are children present
*if the assault is still in progress
*if a protective order exists
*if anyone has been using drugs or drinking
*how badly you or anyone else is injured
*if you are disabled