The two most dangerous encounters that law enforcement will become involved with during their careers are traffic stops and domestic violence incidents. These two incidents may become extremely volatile and can escalate rapidly to a life-threatening situation any moment. However, there are two different types of mindsets, as well as safe guards at the officer’s disposal to implement during these two very different encounters. This article will address a more comprehensive approach to domestic violence and the benefits of being mentally equipped and prepared to protect all parties involved using the Plan-Prepare-Protect mindset.

According to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), approximately 20 people in the United States are physically abused by an intimate partner per minute. Over 5 million children are exposed to domestic violence each year, and approximately 90% of these children become eyewitnesses to this type of behavior.  In addition to witnessing the violence first hand, more than 30% of the children become victims themselves, from the same abuser. (NCADA, n.d.)

Domestic situations can be among the most dangerous calls an officer responds to. (Air Force Medicine)


The mindset of any Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) when responding to any call is the mental approach. The mindset is “training the brain” to think of a plan, prepare and protect. (Publishing, n.d.) When an officer first receives a radio-run or job description, this is when their mindset is set in motion.  For example: The mindset of receiving a radio run for a stranded motorist versus a family dispute are two very different mindsets.  

The officer’s mental approach for a family dispute call should be more attentive, asking central or radio dispatch for as much information as possible, paying attention to every detail from the second you arrive on the block and driving past the address to get a better look and listen to what is going on, if time permits. This mental approach prepares the officer to develop the mindset of how they will handle the call by making them more aware of the situation. The officer or officers can physically and mentally pre-plan all aspects of the encounter and be prepared if violence should escalate rapidly.  

Son shoots home invasion suspect in the head while sisters hide in closet at Houston home

Are you using the right mindset when tackling these situations? (Screenshot from KHOU 11 News)


Situational awareness is the best defense against complacency.  Complacency can become very dangerous for an officer’s personal safety.  Situational awareness, when applied to every aspect of police work, is an officer’s most valuable tool and asset to their well-being, by gaining as much information of the situation before the approach and interaction prepares the mind.

This awareness benefits the mindset of the officer by considering what options they will deploy.  This mindset allows for officers to think, plan and prepare in their heads to expect the unexpected, not only before, but during the encounter as well.  The mindset gives more insight to what could possibly be going on and how you will approach the de-escalation phase of the dispute and moreover, if the situation escalates rapidly, you will have the mindset prepared to react, if needed.

The next and most important components of an officer’s mindset is the officer’s knowledge of different aspects of family law, department’s policy, and criminal procedural law as well as local, state and federal laws with regards to domestic violence.

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An officer’s greatest tool, is their knowledge of these components when faced with applying the legal aspects of domestic violence.

  • Family/household:which includes “common-law” marriages, same sex couples, registered domestic partners, different generations of the same family, siblings, in-laws, persons involved in “intimate relationships”, and persons who live or have lived together in a family-type relationship is very important. (NYPD, PG)
  • Department’s policy:e. a state law may say that you may arrest in domestic violence cases, but your department policy may choose to make an arrest mandatory. (be guided by your legal department)
  • State Laws:must take one of 3 approaches in domestic violence cases:

Arrest is mandatory.

Arrest is preferred.

Arrest is at the officer’s discretion. (Hirchel, 2008).

  • Probable Cause:is the legal standard of proof that exists when facts and circumstances within the police officer’s knowledge would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect in custody has committed that crime. (“FindLaw”, n.d.)

A well-prepared officer’s mindset occurs way before arriving at the scene.  Family disputes are emotional, intense arguments between two or more parties that are expected to be rectified by law enforcement officers that arrive on the scene.  This task takes social, behavioral and psychological skills on the officer’s part to interview, gather evidence, determine probable cause and hold possible offenders accountable for their actions, all by gaining the trust of the victim and while at the same time, reducing the anxiety of the victim or victims from further violence from their abuser.

There are multiple factors that an officer may use that contribute to deciding if probable cause exists in any good investigation. The interview phase is crucial.   Always separate the parties for your safety as well as the parties involved.  Remember this article is not about physical safety, it is to gain an enhanced mindset into domestic violence.  Nevertheless, always remember to remove parties from areas that may have possible weapons easily accessible like the kitchen, not only for you and your partner’s safety, but for the parties involved as well.

Separating all parties, even the children, is important for you, the officer, to gain a more comprehensive look into what really happened.  Separating the parties involved allows each side to tell their stories independently without fear of any retaliation from the abuser.  This also allows the officer to ask questions, gather more evidence, look for physical marks and more importantly determine probable cause. 

A major obstacle in all domestic violence cases is that officers must be aware that victims of domestic violence are not likely to tell the truth, have the abuser arrested or report the incident altogether.  This is why the officer’s mindset is so important in 21stcentury policing and must always evolve and adapt to the task at hand and comprehend why victims of domestic violence are so reluctant to report these crimes.  (“Domestic Violence: Reasons …”  LAPD”, n.d.)

Investigations and gathering evidence may take some time, however, during the interview you have time, take pictures of any injuries or property damage, along with obtaining any social media messages, audio and/or video that may help you determine probable cause.  Remember, the victim may not want your help so interview or talk to neighbors or tenants, they can provide valuable insight to help you make your decision. Try to use the information at your disposal, call central dispatch on a land line if possible and inquire if there is a record log of incidents at this location and for what type of calls.  Also remember that victims may be reluctant to speak up, it is our job to help the victim to realize how important their cooperation is.

Victims of domestic violence fear that if their abuser is arrested, the violence will only escalate further.  It is the officer’s job to provide assistance as well as support to the victim and to assure them that they will not be in danger if they cooperate with law enforcement. (NDVH, n.d.)

Another tool useful to finding the truth or gaining probable cause is the children.  They are a wealth of information and should be heard.  The officer must be aware that domestic violence escalates, if the abuse started with a partner, it could and may have moved on to the children or other members in the household.  The law enforcement community needs to be thorough when exercising their due diligence to investigate domestic violence and possible child abuse.   

Children also have barriers as well; they fear the same repercussion from their abuser as adults.  Interview the children alone and while talking to the child, look for physical marks of abuse as well.  If multiple children are in the household, while one is being interviewed have the others draw a picture of what they witnessed and have them explain it to you in detail.  A very effective method is to have the children use dolls or action figures and have the children play out what they experienced or saw using the action figures. This will also open a channel of communication and allow you to gain more details and information to develop if an arrest is reasonable based on your belief that a crime has been committed and the person you are going to arrest is that person. (Hayne, Patterson,2011)

The law enforcement community and public advocates have reformed many of their policies on domestic violence over the last several decades.  Many departments have adopted must arrest policies as long as probable cause existed. Other departments have established domestic violence units that investigate and assist in actively pursuing restraining orders and/or orders of protection.  Municipalities have worked together to create “community programs” that work jointly with community leaders, religious leaders/groups, social services and criminal justice advocates to provide outlets to support and protect victims of domestic violence.

The front line of defense for any victim is the law enforcement community.  An example of the law enforcement community becoming proactive with this type of training on domestic violence is the National Sheriffs’ Association.  The NSA holds a 2-day training program on “Domestic Violence Intervention” which addresses the mindset in this article with an additional 14 hours of training that will benefit all first responders’. (NSA, n.d.)

As Benjamin Franklin stated, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”  If the law enforcement community implement this mindset of planning, being professional and being prepared on all aspects of domestic violence, not only will law enforcement protect the public, they will be prepared to protect the victims,who needs them the most.


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