Police response to Domestic Violence

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and domestic violence.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray – whether an arrest is made or not.  This affords them a window into the chaos within the effected family system and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold. At these times the communication between family and police may be operationalized, improved and redefined.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.

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Police are building bridges and throwing life savers

WESTBOROUGH, MA  – March 30, 2017  Police officers are being trained in crisis intervention techniques across the country and Canada. This training offers plenty of practice role-playing scenarios that come directly off of the call sheets affording a reality-based training opportunity. I recently spent time riding with members of the San Antonio PD mental health unit and have the greatest respect for the officers with whom I rode.  In contrast, some departments regularly have highly trained clinicians riding with officers bringing expertise in mental illness and abnormal behavior across the thin blue line.  It is thought that by sharing knowledge at working with unpredictable, drugged out, psychotic and delusional and angry who police encounter on a daily basis better outcomes may be achieved. No single model is best and all are still in the growing stages of establishing protocols for bringing those most disturbed individuals in from the margins. More and more officers are receiving CIT training every year.

The important part of crisis intervention training comes in the interdisciplinary relationships that are forged in by this methodology. Trust and respect between the police and its citizens builds slowly one person at a time.  Community policing is not a new concept but fiscal priorities often prevent its full implementation.  Just the same, there must be trust and respect between the police and the purveyors of crisis intervention and mental health risk assessment including doctors, nurses, and health care practitioners. This also takes time and training and the shared belief in the model.


“When officers are faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures,” according to Grace Gatpandan, spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department


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Michael Sefton, Ph.D. in 2017 photograph

The use of force continuum belies each officer contact and guides the process when police are called upon to defuse a dangerous encounter. It is best that a mental health contact be made long before violent threats are made – long before terminal rage erodes personal judgment. The community policing doctrine affords this front end contact and encourages officers to know the people living on the beat.

POLICE ENCOUNTERS WITH MENTALLY ILL CITIZENS

The Boston Globe Spotlight series on police encounters with the mentally ill cites one distraught parent who was quoted “I only wanted the police to disarm him not shoot him dead.” Unfortunately for this family, when faced with lethal violence it is the behavior of the subject that drives the ship in terms of what will or will not happen.  “When faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures”. All too often people fail to see the cause – effect relationship between citizens with guns or other lethal weapons and the police officer response.  The use of force continuum follows the principle of causation by guiding police decision making based on the level of threat.

What came first the threat or the police action?  It is the primary action of the citizen the evokes the lethal response by police.  If citizens dropped weapons and listened to police officer directives during these high energy and chaotic events there would be fewer deaths.  To say they lack training in mental health is preposterous.  Almost as preposterous as saying if they were better parents the mentally ill subject might not aim his gun at police or threaten his mother with a knife.  No, the responsibility lies with the mental decision-making and subsequent behavior of the subject himself.  If mental illness drives the violent behavior than all weapons and substance use must be carefully controlled and eliminated.  When people attend psychotherapy sessions and 12-step recovery programs the proclivity for violence is greatly reduced.  Inevitably, drug abuse is a co-morbid factor that alters perception and fuels underlying anger and violent tendencies.  Who is responsible for this? When drug addition or alcoholism begin – all emotional growth including adult “problem solving” begins to fail until it is fraught with uncontrolled, impulsive violence. Rather than placing blame, greater emphasis on sobriety, counseling and developing emotional resiliency should be encouraged.


Lowery, W. (2015) DISTRAUGHT PEOPLE, DEADLY RESULTS: Officers often lack the training to approach the mentally unstable, experts say. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/06/30/distraught-people-deadly-results/?utm_term=.86e44d33dfab Taken March 5, 2017

Saluting a fallen brother and bringing him home

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 18, 2017 Most people leave their homes and go to work.  Many work in sales or IT or perhaps they teach school.  It doesn’t matter because that all changes when you are a member of the fire service or a brother police officer. Then you become a member of a family that many say takes a hold of you like no other.  There is a bond among fire fighters and a respect that runs deep within the fire service – the family of firemen.  The bonds are forged in the hours of training, answering calls, and sitting chewing on the issue of the day.  And then one day someone goes down.  In police service it’s called the “oh shit” moment when something happens so quickly that your response is purely defensive sometimes too late as in the case of the Flagstaff, AZ 24-year old officer whose body camera recorded the oh shit moment that took his life last year.

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Boston Globe photo

Firefighter funeral traditions show our deep gratitude and respect for the honorable contribution they make to society. When a firefighter dies, he is considered a “fallen hero” and his funeral will indicate such an honor.    D. Theobald

The fire service is even more protective of its ceremonial reverence for the ultimate sacrifice made by a heroic fallen firefighter.  Everything stops. Every one steps up and does whatever is needed to support the surviving family and each other. Someone is usually assigned to stay with the bereaved family 24 hours a day. The ritual of bringing home a fallen fire fighter is age-old. Firefighters remain with the body and bring it home with care and reverence afforded a fallen hero.  This custom was once again brought to bear when Watertown, MA firefighter Joseph Toscano, 54 died while fighting a 2-alarm house fire this week.  The death of a fire fighter is a rare occurrence but happens frequently enough that most people can remember the show of reverence from members of the fire service everywhere.  In 2014, 2 Boston firefighters were killed in a wind-driven conflagration on Beacon Hill and who can forget the 6 Worcester firefighters who lost their lives in December 1999, or the Hotel Vendome fire in Boston that took the lives of 9 Boston firefighters over 40 years ago.

Watertown, Massachusetts has seen its share of catastrophe in recent years in the police and now fire services. The funeral will be attended by thousands of local firefighters and those from across the United States. Fire houses in Watertown, Boston, and elsewhere will make accommodations for out of town brothers and sisters attending the funeral. No member of the fraternal family is ever turned away.  The coffin will be on display for those of us so moved to pass by and offer a final salute to the firefighter and his family.  The honor guard will stand at head and foot in solemn deference for the ultimate sacrifice. The surviving spouse will be strong as she has been for many years over many calls for service.  Her husband has helped so many people.  He has seen much and has dealt with this before.  But as the flag draped coffin is moved into place the release of emotion will be palpable for all.  The fire chief will present the folded flag to Maureen Toscano his wife of over 20 years.  He will offer words of comfort to his five children. They will never be forgotten because they are part of the extended family of firefighters.  The 150-year old ritual of bagpipes will play Amazing Grace while men from Newton, Boston and Cambridge stand guard at the Watertown fire houses to allow every Watertown firefighter to attend the service. To grieve and begin the healing process.

A Catholic Mass will be held.  The streets of Randolf where the family lives will be lined with a sea of blue uniforms each one holding back tears – having been through this before.

As Watertown firefighter Joseph Toscano knows it could well have been any one of his brother officers who fell that day and he would never have stood by for that.  A heroic effort was made to save the life of Joseph Toscano by members of the Watertown Fire, EMS and Police departments. He was rushed to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge – the same place where MBTA Officer Richard “Dic” Donohue was rushed after the 8 minute firefight during the search for the marathon bombers in 2013.  Officer Donahue survived but lost nearly all of the blood in his body. Donahue retired from the Transit Police in 2016 after his promotion to sergeant and deals with chronic pain on a daily basis.  Emergency crews at Mt. Auburn were not able to revive Joe Toscano.

His body was carefully moved from the chief medical examiner’s office in Boston – just 5 miles away to Randolf – but he was never alone. Members of his department including his chief rode on Watertown Engine 1 and a ladder truck leading the hearse and a legion of police officers.  Firefighters from neighboring cities stood along highway overpass with hand salute as Firefighter Toscano was headed home. Among the most powerful of ceremonial rituals is “the last call.”  This occurs when the fallen officer is called on the fire band radio for all to hear – “Firefight Toscano come in….” there is silence.  The fallen officer’s call sign is again dispatched – silence once more.   Finally, the dispatcher indicates that the fallen officer has gone “10-7” signaling that he is no longer on duty – in this case signaling – the end of his watch.  A bell sounds 15 times indicating the firefighters final call.  Often the dispatcher will say something like “You have served your community with honor and reverence, good sir, we will take the watch from here.  Rest in peace – Firefighter Toscano and know you are a hero and will never be forgotten.”


Firefighter’s Prayer


When I am called to duty, God,
wherever flames may rage,
give me strength to save a life,
whatever be its age.
Help me embrace a little child
before it is too late,
or save an older person from
the horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert,
and hear the weakest shout,
quickly and efficiently
to put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling,
to give the best in me,
to guard my friend and neighbor,
and protect his property.
And if according to Your will
I must answer death’s call,
bless with your protecting hand,
my family one and all.

Aftermath Intervention: Police first to the threshold

Necessary first steps for bringing chaotic families in from the margins


NEW BRAINTREE, MA  Domestic violence happens in family systems that are secretive, chaotic, and dysfunctional.  This lifestyle pushes them into the margins of society – often detached from the communities in which they live.  More often than not, this is the way they choose to live.

The abusive spouse makes his efforts known within the system by his barbaric authoritarian demands.  He keeps his spouse isolated as a way of controlling and manipulating whatever truth exists among these disparate family members.  The consequence of this isolation leaves women without a sense of “self” – alone an emotional orphan vulnerable to his threat of abandonment and ultimately, annihilation.

In previous blogs, I have published some of the obvious psychosocial consequences of this coercion, including the lack of employment, a paucity of extended family support, no source of independent financial resources, and limited social contacts.  Any sign of independence, signals to the abuser that he has not done enough to demoralize his intimate partner.

Successful intervention for these families must slowly bring them back from the margins into the social milieu.  Sometimes this happens when teachers attempt to engage parents in a dialogue about the child’s particular needs or when children demonstrate an interest in team sports.  Arguably, the resistance to this is so intense that the violent spouse will pull up stakes and move his family at the first sign of public scrutiny.  Why?

The underlying threat to the status quo raises anger and resentment in a narcissistic abuser who, like Snow White, expects one hundred percent loyalty and compliance.  All signs of independence are squashed – usually punished out of fear and loathing that is always percolating.

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and DV.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray.  This affords them a window into the chaos and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.

There are inherent problems with any notion that police officers will return to the scene of bad domestic calls where there may have been a violent arrest only days before.  This stems from the adversarial model that exists in most law enforcement agencies where follow-up to criminal activity is rarely conducted by front line officers.   Many departments delegate follow-up investigations to detectives or in rare case civilian personnel.  This schism lacks fundamental adherence to the community policing mantra of building relationships between the police and its citizenry.

Community policing has long espoused the partnership between police and citizens.  The positive benefits to this create bridges between the two that may benefit officers at times of need – including the de facto extra set of eyes when serious crimes are reported.  But the model goes two ways and requires that police return to their calls and establish protocols for defusing future events meanwhile processing and understanding the current actions of recent police encounters. When done effectively the most difficult families may be kept off the police radar screens for longer periods of time that can be a good thing when it comes to manpower deployment and officer safety.