By Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD
Abusers often try to pass themselves off as victims. Help police understand what is really going on
When police arrive at homes after domestic violence incidents, they may not be able to tell at first glance who is the abuser and who is the victim. Abusers often tell false stories, sometimes even calling police themselves and telling the dispatcher that they are victims. The true victims’ injuries may be less immediately visible—after a sexual assault or being strangled, for instance. In contrast, while defending themselves some victims scratch at their abusers, leaving highly visible marks.
This lack of clarity on the scene can lead to unfortunate situations were people who may have been victimized end up being arrested for domestic violence—as if they were the primary aggressor. The primary (or predominant) aggressor is the person who “poses the most serious, ongoing threat.” The primary aggressor may not be the person who struck the first blow in a specific incident.
If the police misidentify the victim as an aggressor, the victim can face harmful legal consequences including domestic violence prosecution, and loss of child custody, housing, and immigration rights. In addition, people who are not identified properly as crime victims may not be eligible for orders of protection, shelter, and funding and psychotherapy through the Victims of Crime Act.
Victims Can Be Arrested
When police have trouble determining the identity of the primary aggressor, they may also arrest the true abuser along with the victim, in a dual arrest. Sometimes, however, true abusers walk away without repercussions—having masterfully manipulated the situation, once again, at least for the moment. Deciding who is the primary aggressor can be particularly difficult for police called to domestic violence incidents in same sex relationships. In fact, in more than a quarter of police domestic violence calls involving same sex couples, both people were arrested, which is vastly higher than for domestic violence calls involving a man and a woman (Herschel, 2007, as cited in The Advocates for Human Rights, 2018).
Sergeant Jennifer Bartak of the Deerfield, Massachusetts Police Department says, “It’s usually really chaotic when we arrive for a domestic violence call.” She suggests that as emotional as it is, victims should try to be concise and tell police what happened that day first, even if this incident is not the worst. Information on this particular incident will give police a way to intervene. Then, once police have information about this specific incident, the victim can describe past abuse, so police will have a fuller picture.
Dos and Don’ts When Police Arrive
To make sure police understand what is going on, consider doing the following:
- Immediately contact a trusted family member or friend who can come over to support you, back up your story, and stay with your children, if needed.
- Insist on speaking with the police out of the abuser’s eyesight and hearing range. Tell the police if you do not want to discuss certain things in front of children who may be present.
- Describe aspects of the assaults that may not be immediately visible. For example, “He raped me,” or, “He bit my breast,” or “He had his hands around my neck and was squeezing and I thought he was going to kill me.”
- Tell the police you need medical care if you were strangled, lost consciousness, were sexually assaulted, or have other painful injuries including head trauma.
- After you have described this one incident, tell them about patterns. For example, “I am afraid every single day” or “She threatens me all the time” or “The kids are terrified of him,” or “He has been controlling me for ten years.”
- If you have evidence such as photographs or videos of previous assaults, show these to the police. This article tells you how to store evidence safely, even if the abuser destroys your phone.
- Inform the police if previous reports have been made, even if they are in other jurisdictions.
- If you have witnesses to this assault or previous assaults, tell the police. For example, “Just knock on my neighbor’s door,” or “Call my sister.”
- Tell the police if the abuser has access to weapons and if you have been threatened with them. If the weapons are in the home, tell the police where to find them.
- Tell the police if the abuser has a criminal history, or abuses drugs or alcohol.
- If the abuser made threats against you, tell the police about these. For example, “He told me he would kill me if I spoke with you,” or, “She said she would run away with our kids if I filed charges,” or “He threatened to send naked pictures of me to my boss if I called the police.”
- If the abuser has committed other crimes against you, tell the police. For instance, “She stole all the money in my bank account,” or “He is keeping me against my will.”
- Police will probably take photographs of the scene, and possibly of injuries. Do not start picking up before they arrive. And if you have injuries that are hidden from view—such as around your neck or under your clothes, tell the police about these. If they are in sensitive areas, they will have medical providers document these injuries.
- Police protocols vary. Bartak reassures victims that if police talk to the children, and even if they call child protective services (CPS), this does not mean the children are going to be taken away. These calls rarely result in child removal. Rather, CPS helps victims achieve safety for themselves and their children.
Finally, police will often ask you to write a statement. Try your best to do this. Court processes can be slow, and having a written statement will allow you to refresh your memory at trial. Since you cannot review the police report, as it has to be impartial at trial, having their statement can help you recall the traumatic events. In some states, you can also use your formal police statement to seek an order of protection, and this will spare you from having to rewrite your account over and over. Ask the police to give you a copy of your statement.
Know what to do before a possible duel arrest occurs. Read, “I Got Arrested, Too. Now What?” for more information.