A city police officer responds to a domestic violence call. When he asks the victim what happened, she begins with, “It all started three months ago…”
Thanks to a new state law and requisite police training, that officer is expected actually hear the victim out, and not to arrest both the victim and her abusive partner.
That change in how city police handle domestic violence calls was at the center of a press conference and officer training session held Thursday afternoon on the fourth floor of police headquarters at 1 Union Ave.
Lt. Renee Dominguez, who heads the department’s Family Services unit, described the department’s mandatory training on the matter thanks to the state’s new “Dominant Aggressor” law, or Public Act No. 18-5, which went into effect throughout Connecticut on Jan. 1, 2019.
Before Jan. 1, police officers throughout the state were required to arrest both parties during domestic violence calls with just four exceptions, including self defense and verbal, non-violent abuse. Starting this month, police officers are mandated to exercise a greater level of discretion in identifying “dominant aggressor,” defined as the person “who poses the most serious ongoing threat in a situation involving the suspected commission of a family violence crime.”
In the 30-plus classes that Dominguez, Sgt. Mary Helland, and Det. Cherelle Carr have taught so far this month, the instructors have told city officers that they now don’t have to arrest both the victim and the aggressor on a domestic violence call. Instead, they can and should identify the one who poses a more serious threat, based on such factors as history of family violence and relative degree of injury, and leave the victim out of handcuffs.
“We’re not revictimizing the victim,” Dominguez said at Thursday’s presser.
Carr agreed. “Victims are now putting trust back in the police,” she said. And no longer have to fear being sent to jail for calling the police about a domestic violence dispute.
Barbara Belluci, a program manager and family violence victim advocate with the Umbrella Center for Domestic Violence Services who has sat in on the department’s new training courses, praised Dominguez and her fellow instructors for the clarity and seriousness with which they have communicated the new laws
“There are a lot of victims out there reluctant to call the police,” she said, because they incorrectly believe that if they call the police, they will be arrested, too.
Carr said that the Geographic Area 23 state court system, which serves New Haven, East Haven, Branford, and a number of other surrounding towns, sees roughly 3,500 domestic violence arrests every year. Before the passage of this law, she said, a full 20 percent of those domestic violence cases were “dual arrests,” meaning both the victim and the aggressor were arrested, charged, and had to go to court.
Helland said that nationally an average 7 percent of domestic violence arrests are dual arrests. With this new law, she said, New Haven and police departments throughout the state expect to see Connecticut’s dual arrest numbers drop accordingly.
In her opening presentation to the roughly 20 officers waiting to be trained, Helland explained that, prior to 1987, Connecticut had no protocols on the books about how police officers should respond to domestic violence calls. The first law passed after that mandated dual arrests on domestic violence calls with no exceptions, and, Helland said, leading to many unnecessary arrests of victims. Not until 2004 did Connecticut add its first exception to the law, which ultimately grew to having four exceptions where officers did not have to arrest both parties in domestic violence disputes.
“Does anybody know the four exceptions?” she asked. Silence. “Anyone?”
The four exceptions before the passage of the new “Dominant Aggressors” law were self defense, verbal abuse, delinquent acts, and parental discipline not constituting abuse.
Three more exceptions have been added to the new law that went into effect in 2019. Those include:
• A “dominant aggressor” clause, whereby officers can determine who poses the more serious threat based on, to quote the law, “the need to protect victims of domestic violence, whether one person acted in defense of self or a third person, the relative degree of any injury, any threats creating fear of physical injury, and any history of family violence between such person, if such history can reasonably be obtained by the peace officer”;
• An “on-campus housing” clause, whereby college students who reside in the same on-campus housing, but are not in a dating relationship, shall not be subject to mandatory dual arrest;
• A “rooming house” clause whereby tenants who reside in the same “dwelling unit” as defined in section 47a-1 of state law, and who not in a dating relationship, shall not be subject to mandatory dual arrest.
“I’ve noticed quite a change in the arrests and in the analysis that the officers have been doing,” Helland said about officer domestic violence responses since Jan. 1. “We’ve noticed less dual arrests. We’ve noticed better investigations, a little more analysis going into it. Because once you go into it and you know you’re not mandated to make these dual arrests, you automatically change your investigation to be a little more specific so you can actually do the analysis properly.”
No New Training On Officer Involved Domestic Violence
In response to a question about the five city police officers recently arrested on their own domestic violence charges, Dominguez said that officer conduct while off the clock has not been a focus of this new domestic violence response training.
“In this training,” she said, “we haven’t trained anything specific to officer-involved domestics.” The department has focused on training officers on the new law, and that’s it.
But, she said, there are nevertheless benefits to officers discussing domestic violence more frequently, and thinking more critically about what constitutes domestic violence and what the consequences are.
“I think putting all the officers through this brings domestic violence to the forefront,” she said. “It just makes it a topic that is an issue to be discussed in an open forum with all the police officers.”
Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch the full press conference.