Oftentimes peace officers intuitively know what statistics prove true. In this case, domestic disputes top the list of calls leading to line of duty deaths (LODD).
The murder of a rookie Pennsylvania State Trooper Landon Weaver last week was the latest LODD resulting from a domestic dispute.
Of the 64 firearms-related killings of police in 2016, domestic disputes topped the list of circumstances ending in an officer’s death, according to a report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).
Fifteen of the murders happened during the course of dealing with a domestic dispute. Next in line were “suspicious person” calls, which led to 13 officer deaths the NLEOMF report showed.
The murder of Weaver last week followed a deadly domestic dispute call less than two weeks earlier, in Georgia, where two officers who were best friends died as they responded to a call in an apartment complex.
“They’re emotionally-fueled incidents,” said Lt. Randy Sutton, a retired Nevada police officer and author who is a spokesman for Blue Lives Matter. “There’s often alcohol or substance abuse involved, and it exacerbates the situation. Very often you can’t talk someone down because they’re so charged up with emotion.”
In domestic calls, Sutton said, perpetrators have an advantage not duplicated in many other scenarios – they’re on their turf, or familiar surroundings, in contrast to police officers responding to a call at the location, reported Fox News.
“Someone’s home can be a dangerous place to be for a police officer,” Sutton said, “they know where things are – guns, kitchen knives, a baseball bat, an iron.”
“The police have to try to control the movement of the people in the home, and very often there are children there.”
When laws changed to mandate arrest in domestic violence, responding to such incidents grew more dangerous, Sutton said.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Department conducted an investigation into the murder of two officers in October. Officer Jose “Gil” Vega and Officer Lesley Zerebny, with Palm Spring Police Department, were gunned down during a domestic dispute between a son and his parents.
“So many times we get called to a domestic dispute and we wonder, ‘What happened in this relationship that got so bad that police were called,’” said Lt. William Hutchinson, who oversees training and knew both Vega and Zerebny well.
“We get called into an already volatile situation,” Hutchinson said, “people are heated, it takes a while for them to calm down. The problem is that now you put in a third party, a stranger, the police officer, and we’re the person who makes the final decision about what happens.”
It is not unusual for the person calling police for help does so as leverage against a loved one, relayed Hutchinson. When police make an arrest, the person does not like the end result.
“People get angry and they flip,” he said.
The person accused of murdering the Palm Springs officers was known to police, Hutchinson noted. “He was a known gang member,” he said.
Published reports said he told his father shortly before Vega and Zerebny showed up that he wanted to kill police officers.
Dave and Betsy Smith are retired police officers from Arizona. They conduct law enforcement training seminars across the country.
“There’s been an uptick in ambushes on police and often domestics are tied to that. A guy will kill Mama and the kids, and then wait for cops” to shoot at them, Smith said.
The deaths of Vega and Zerebny had a profound impact on those in the Palm Springs Police Department.
“It’s one of those situations that forever changes your department,” Hutchinson said. “Everybody there has probably had the conversation with their spouse quitting. You wonder ‘Why do we keep doing this job?’”
Hutchinson said the department will examine what changes need to be made in terms of training and procedures when responding to domestic disputes. “We’ll look at what went wrong, what went right,” he said.