9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Changing Times: The Dispatcher's Role in Domestic Violence

Who is the first on scene of domestic violence? It's not the police officer. From a crime scene perspective, evidentiary and forensic point of view, the first person at the scene of the domestic dispute or most other cases and incidents is the person who answers the call for help.

The call taker or dispatcher collects, interprets and records information important to the investigation and to officer and victim safety. From the time the call come is, to the time officers arrive, is the dispatcher's responsibility. They can make or break an investigation, save countless hours of legwork, explore the scene with the victim, the frame of mind of the caller and the potential attacker. While on the phone the call is most likely being recorded. The tape is an official log and journal, a true transcript of a crime, available in the future, should a lawsuit be brought as a result of a claim for breach of duty.

Domestic violence is a hot issue in America, as evidenced by such high profile cases as the arrest of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his wife, Nicole. The news reports and media replays of 911 tapes with a screaming Nicole being instructed by a dispatcher to stay on the phone raises an important question. Shouldn't the dispatcher explore alternatives such as leaving or barricading with the caller and encourage selection of the best course of action? What is the difference between an abused spouse and a dead abuser? The primary duties of the police agencies are to protect victims and prevent crime.

It is clear that our dispatchers should not be ordered to always keep the caller on the line. Instead, in-depth training on how to handle people in crises is paramount. A trained dispatcher should explore options with the callers, so the victim can choose an action plan that best suits the situation. When a department orders their dispatchers to keep a victim on the line, they may have to face the scrutiny of our civil courts through litigatioin brought by the victim, for improper instructions.

It has been reported that a woman is beaten every 18 seconds, and each year as many as 1,200 kill the men who abuse them. As with Nicole Simpson, how many of these women made other calls for help? To whom? Were any of them made to police? If so, who answered the police phone and listened to their cries for help? Where did the system break down?

When the dispatcher answers a cry for help, many different sounds are heard, unheard or misinterpreted. Silence, a dial tone, screaming, and even gunshots, are not uncommon. Gun shots are often mistakenly described as pops or claps and subsequently responding officers are not properly warned of possible shots fired. Let's consider the breakdowns that may occur when the call is received by the dispatcher.

First: The dispatcher may not have been trained regarding the elements of a crime. The dispatcher may be presented with statements by a witness (victim) that a crime is in progress and no action is taken. For example, a call is received from a person who is scared her boyfriend is going to harm her, that he is not there, but across the street. He has repeatedly called, harassed, followed and threatened her. The victim states she is concerned for her safety. Your dispatcher is probably aware that officers have gone to the location in the past only to find the complaints unfounded. On this occasion, no officer is dispatched and the woman is killed. You now have a tape recording that a violation was reported which met the statutory criteria for stalking. This violation requires an arrest be made, but the first person at the scene, the dispatcher, took no action. This is vicarious liability in its purest sense.

Second: The call taker fell prey to stereotyping the call and/or did not exercise good listening skills. Dispatchers often fall victim to what is called the 300 Call Syndrome, which results from receiving similar calls. The dispatcher begins to make assumptions and fails to listen to what the caller is really saying. This can be very dangerous since no two calls are alike.

In domestic violence situations, dispatcher listening skills are frequently challenged. The victim may be hysterical, speak softly or use codes. Hysteria is confusing and upsetting to many dispatchers. Callers may speak softly or use codes if the abuser is present or near the phone, both of these will challenge the call takers intuitive and communication skills. The call taker must be trained and prepared to LISTEN.

Third: Interpersonal skills break down after dispatching the officer to a reported disturbance. For example, despite being dispatched, the assigned officer chooses not to go (been there before) or because the suspect is not on the premises. Does the dispatcher have the authority to question the officer or bring an unusual situation to a supervisor's attention? Should the dispatcher be able to question authority? We believe so. The formula is:

Step 1: The dispatcher received the information. (The officer, supervisor or chief does not hear the level of anxiety or fear in the caller's voice.)
Step 2: The dispatcher applies: experience, training, departmental policies, procedures and gut instinct to the call (cops use it, reporters use it, and dispatchers should use it too).
Step 3: Action taken. If the action taken is inconsistent or incorrect based upon what the dispatcher hears after applying their experience, training, SOP, and instinct, then the dispatcher should question authority. That means, "Sgt. we need to get an officer over there, she's in trouble!"

Our society has endeavored to educate our police officers, judges, prosecutors and citizens on domestic violence issues. Let us not forget the first person on the scene, the dispatcher. Formal dispatcher training, on how to recognize potential domestic violence situations, will reduce your agency's liability exposure. But, more importantly, lives will be saved.

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