“Domestic violence is the most prevalent crime that police come in contact with and is the number one source of violent crime against women and children,” says Richard Johnson, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice. In one year 1.3 million women in the U.S. are physically assaulted by a spouse or intimate partner; of the 3,800 women murdered annually, 33 percent are the result of domestic violence. Further, domestic violence contributes to other crimes–the vast majority of inmates in U.S. prisons grew up in abusive environments.
In an attempt to understand what happens in domestic violence calls, Johnson has pursued three general lines of inquiry: the likelihood of assault on a police officer, analysis of firearms incidences and the possibility of predicting a physical assault on an officer.
Domestic violence is the crime that police officers encounter most often, Johnson notes. In the late 60s, the U.S. Department of Justice said that it was the most dangerous call a police officer could make. But there were no data. Studies conducted in the 80s found that statement not to be true (because the databases of the time did not separate the types of calls); academicians thus began to play down the dangers of domestic violence. The problem was, even if domestic violence was third or fourth on the list (after ambush, robberies and traffic stops), it was still dangerous and still the cause of police deaths. When he examined the data, he found that, from 1980 through 2006, 514,711 officer assaults occurred nationally. By extrapolating from other research, Johnson was able to calculate that domestic violence is the cause of 113,236 officer assaults. That statistic, if correct, means that 4,194 assaults occur each year on officers handling domestic violence cases. “Clearly,” he says, “domestic violence calls are not danger free.”
Further, Johnson notes, whereas officer murders have decreased for a number of reasons (better protective gear, better training, better weaponry), he found that officer survival statistics in domestic violence cases have remained stable. When he analyzed FBI data and searched newspaper accounts for the years 1999 through 2003, he found 143 firearm assaults on 225 officers responding to domestic violence calls. Of those, at least one officer was wounded in 67 of the incidents and one officer killed in 27.
To determine survival characteristics in domestic violence cases, Johnson analyzed the 143 firearm assaults as to the day of week, time of day, place, type of weapon, presence of witnesses, offender background, and officer behavior. He found that survival was mostly under officer control—in particular, was the officer wearing body armor. Johnson also found that officers are twice as likely to survive an attack with every yard distant from the shooter; officers are also twice as likely to survive if they are able to return fire.
Johnson subsequently wanted to determine if he could use existing data to predict officer assaults. What are the characteristics of domestic violence calls that lead to assaults on officers? When he examined assailant characteristics, he found a one in four chance of assault if five distinct variables were present: (1) unemployment, (2) residence with the victim, (3) alcohol use (drugs seem not to be an issue), (4) property damage, and (5) hostile demeanor. If none of those characteristics were present, no assault occurred in any of the cases in the study.
These results led Johnson to develop a training presentation to help law enforcement officers screen calls for the level of danger. Dispatchers can be trained to collect details from the caller. The presentation has been mailed to all police departments in the Midwest that employ 500 or more officers. Several states have incorporated the presentation into in-service training on a statewide basis and several municipalities have also independently adopted the program.
“It’s important to remember,” Johnson says, “that even though domestic violence does not result as many assaults and murders as some other police duties, it still presents dangers. We need to do anything we can to predict a dangerous situation and save lives.”
Johnson became interested in police encounters with domestic violence as a consequence of his service as first a patrol officer, then a probation officer and finally a criminal investigator assigned to child sexual assault cases. “It took an emotional toll,” he says. Since he enjoyed teaching and writing and had taught at a community college and written for police journals, he decided academic life would suit.