Most incidents of domestic violence are committed behind closed doors, shielded from police patrols and witnesses. And chances are an abuser will lie when law enforcement is called. Survivors can, in turn, become jaded toward police. They can feel like they’re not being heard or believed; they can become more isolated than they already are. It’s an unfortunate, all-too-often occurrence. That’s why preparation and knowledge about how to talk to police is key.
Here are 10 tips for talking to police that will help a survivor yield the most positive outcome.
The Initial Call
1. Call from a safe place. If you are in immediate fear of your safety and can safely extricate yourself from the situation, do so, then call the police from another location. If you’re unable to leave, dial 911 and give the call-taker a brief synopsis of why you need help. In worst-case scenarios where you can’t let on you’ve called, dial 911 and leave the line open so the 911 operator can identify your location and send help. Calling from a cell phone often will not give the operator your exact address, but may give a general GPS area. So whenever possible, voice your exact location. It is also important survivors report the abuse as soon as it occurs, and not wait to call until a later date. Often times, delayed reporting can affect the chances that an abuser is appropriately charged in court.
2. Give pertinent information. While on the phone with the 911 operator, state your name and why you’re calling—“he hit me” or “she’s threatening me.” If you are able, tell the operator if your abuser has any weapons, whether or not you need medical attention, if there are any children present and whether or not there are any court orders being violated.
3. Reporting delayed acts. If you aren’t in immediate danger but still wish to file a police report, call the department’s nonemergency line. Then, be available for when an officer calls you back to take your report, which may be minutes or hours later, depending on the volume priority calls. If it’s unsafe for police to call you back at your home or on your cell, make sure you give them a number that is safe and that you’re near, such as your office or a neighbor’s house.
Speaking with Officers
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4. Separate yourself from your abuser. Officers should interview you and your abuser separately, but if they don’t, ask to speak privately, away from the offender or any children.
5. Take a few deep breaths. In an emergency, emotions run high, but you’ll be better able to report the facts to police if you can remain calm. Because batterers aren’t the ones victimized, they can sound more calm and rational when police arrive, says Alesha Durfee, PhD, associate professor at Arizona State University in the School of Social Transformation. “I hate saying that because there are good reasons for the victim to feel the way they do, but anything you can do to try and calm down and respond to questions will be beneficial.”
6. Start at the beginning of the current incident. Police will start with an open-ended question like, “What happened?” This is your chance to tell them the facts. Walk them through the specific events of the incident and what led up to you calling for help.
“By the time a victim is open to making a report, often they get caught up in wanting to tell the history of their abuse,” says Kelli Dillon, a domestic violence survivor and victim advocate. “Some feel this will make their story more credible.” But it’s best to stick to what happened today, at least initially. See number 9 below for when it’s best to give more details.
7. Tell the truth. Abuse isn’t easy to talk about, but officers need to know what happened in order to make an arrest or know how to help you. Don’t lie about the facts of the case or you’ll risk your credibility and officers may not be able to appropriately assess the situation. For instance, if you invited the offender over, say so. That’s not a crime. But saying he or she showed up unannounced will hurt your case when officers determine otherwise.
8. Say how you feel. Police may come off as very “matter of fact,” but the truth is, law enforcement and prosecution is comprised of people with feelings. If you are in fear for your life, tell them that. When police can articulate such things in a report, it gives your case higher priority.
9. Give background where appropriate. The officers will likely ask you a series of questions called a lethality assessment or danger assessment. If they don’t, be sure to mention if your partner has ever threatened you with a weapon, threatened to kill you or your children, strangled you or threatened or attempted to kill themselves. Mentioning drug or alcohol abuse by your abuser also can be helpful. These are all red flags to police and should help get your case the attention it deserves.
10. Ask for resources. Request to speak with a domestic violence advocate whether or not an arrest is made. If an arrest is not made and you do not feel safe staying where you’re at, ask to make arrangements with a local shelter while still in police presence.
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