Introduction – The police as frontline responder to domestic violence

Learning objectives

The aim of this introduction is to support you in your work with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. The learning materials are not tailored to the individual situation of different countries; they include rather generic cases that will need local adaptation.

IMPRODOVA: What happens when you call the police?

The video illustrates the police’s work in cases of domestic violence.

What can be done to support police officers in their work?

The police are one of the key actors in intervention and prevention of domestic violence. However, research (Johnson, 2004) shows that police officers are often frustrated by the behaviour of victims, the operation of criminal courts, their department’s operations and their informal processes, and the complexity of applying the law. Domestic violence is a wicked social problem that cannot be solved by the police alone. Still, it is not a rare phenomenon that police patrols spend valuable time trying to motivate a victim of domestic abuse to leave his or her abusive relationship, and at the same time a crime report cannot be filed on the victim’s request. Police officers want to help the victim but, in some cases, do not know how to do that more effectively. The following should be established, to support the police in this important work.

Firstly, all the police officers who face domestic violence in their work should receive training to understand domestic violence as a phenomenon. They should know their tasks and duties as well as the tasks and duties of the other police officers who work with domestic violence-related issues. They also should understand the duties and procedures of the other actors (e.g. social workers, medical care, NGOs).

Secondly, it is important to work cooperatively in multi-agency teams to effectively intervene in cases of domestic violence. Effective prevention of domestic violence thus requires multi-agency co-operation as well as police officers specialised in domestic violence.

Thirdly, police officers should be provided with user-friendly risk assessment and risk management tools. With the help of these tools, the first encounter can collect important information about domestic violence-related risks. This information is necessary for the multi-agency teams whose duty it is to find ways to support the victim and the perpetrator in getting help. It is also important to understand that due to traumatisation, dependency and/or fear the victim may not leave the abusive relationship but may need help of the multi-agency team several times before he/she is ready to leave an abusive relationship. As the studies show, separation or divorce may be the most dangerous time for a victim to be hurt by their perpetrator again. Therefore, the duty of multi-agency teams is to support the victim to leave an abusive relationship, it is the duty of the police to minimise the risks for victims and to take relevant safety measures to protect the victim.


European Institute for Gender Equality EIGE (2019). A guide to risk assessment and risk management of intimate partner violence against women for police

Johnson, R. R. (2004). Police Officer Frustrations about Handling Domestic Violence Calls. The Police Journal, 77(3), 207–219

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence is an abuse of power within a domestic relationship, between relatives or ex-partners. It involves one person dominating or controlling another, causing intimidation, fear or both. Domestic violence is often experienced as a pattern of abuse that escalates over time.

It is not necessarily physical and can include:

  • sexual abuse
  • emotional or psychological abuse
  • verbal abuse
  • threatening with violence
  • controlling and regulating victim’s everyday behaviour
  • negligence (especially in child or elderly abuse)
  • spiritual abuse
    • including forcing someone to attend religious activities, stopping the person from taking part in their religious or cultural practices, misusing spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to justify abuse and violence
  • stalking and intimidation, including the use of technology
  • social and geographic isolation
  • financial abuse
  • cruelty to pets
  • damage to property

Power and Control Wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP)

The Power and Control Wheel illustrates the most common abusive behaviors and tactics.

Understanding the Power and Control Wheel

Module 1 provides detailed information on the forms and dynamics of domestic violence.

Forms of violence

Physical violence describes any use of physical force or threat to use physical force which compels the victim to do or to abandon something, to suffer, to restrict or to move her/him. It causes pain, fear or humiliation, regardless whether an actual injury was caused.

Psychological violence is the conduct and dissemination of information by which the perpetrator of violence causes fear, humiliation, feelings of inferiority, danger, and other psychological distress in the victim, even when committed by using information and communication technology.

Sexual violence is the conduct of sexual content that the victim does not consent to, is coerced into, or, because of their level of development, does not understand their meaning. It includes the threat of sexual violence and the public disclosure of sexual content about the victim.

Verbal Violence is part of psychological violence. It includes everything said by the perpetrator to or about the victim in order to harm him or her.

Economic violence is the unjustified control or restriction of a victim by disposing of income or property with which the victim independently disposes or manages, or by unjustifiably restricting the disposition or management of joint property of family members, unjustified failure to fulfil financial or property obligations to a family member, or unjustified shifting financial or property liabilities to a family member.

Neglect is a form of violence where the perpetrator abandons the due care of the victim, which is needed due to illness, disability, age, developmental or other personal circumstances.

Stalking is a wilful repeated unwanted contact, pursuit, physical intrusion, observation, restraint in places where the victim moves or other forms of unwanted intrusion into the victim’s life.

Course of an emergency call

In addition to general information, additional information is required, e.g. the circumstances of the call (tone of voice, background sounds …), mode of crime (types of violence), means used (knife, stick, gun …), past unreported violations, specifics of the location of the violation (accessibility …).

Dispatching police patrol to the scene

Information about the alleged offender is provided for the police officers, namely: possession of a weapon, pre-punishment, possible applicable restraining order.

Coming to the scene and the beginning of the intervention

The police patrol has to establish a safe environment for their operation. Immediately after entering an apartment, it is important to act decisively (to instil confidence in the victim, send the clear message to the perpetrator that violence is unacceptable). Police officers must physically separate the perpetrator and the victim. To prevent the destruction of evidence, interviews must be conducted separately. Police officers should listen to children if they want to talk to them. Police officers should detect potential injuries of victims and observe their behaviour. Also, they should inspect the crime scene and secure and seize potential evidence.

Relevant indicators of domestic violence

The following are indicators associated with victims of domestic violence. Please note that none or all of these might be present and be indicators of other issues. Using these indicators as a guide can complement the practice of asking directly.

  • Current and past behaviour of the suspect (strongest indicator)
  • Previous calls to emergency centre (to the same address)
  • Injuries and bruises
    • especially head, neck and facial injuries
    • bruises of various ages
    • injuries sustained do not fit the history given
    • bite marks, unusual burns
  • Signs of maltreatment (for child or elderly abuse)
  • Victim has symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Alcohol or other substance abuse
  • Intrusive ‘other person’ assisting the victim, including partner or spouse, parent, grandparent, or an adult child (especially for honour-related violence and elder abuse)
  • Children are hiding
  • Children are sleeping despite the loud fight
  • Damaged property, torn clothing
  • Victim is reluctant to talk about the incident

Indicators of domestic violence are dealt with in more detail in module 2.

How to interview victims of domestic violence

In any situation that you suspect domestic violence or abuse, you can ask about domestic violence indirectly or directly. If you are concerned that the client is experiencing domestic violence, you should ask to speak with them alone, separate from their partner or other family members. It is important to understand that the victim very often blames herself/himself or tries to protect the perpetrator. You can always ask broad questions about whether your client’s relationships are affecting their health and wellbeing.

For example:

  • ‘How are things at home?’
  • ‘How are you and your partner (or other family members) getting along?’
  • ‘How do you argue at home?’/’Can you disagree with your partner?’
  • ‘Has anything special happened lately?’
  • ‘Is there anything else happening which might be affecting your safety?’

It is important to realise that victims, who have been abused, often want to be asked about domestic violence and are more likely to disclose if asked.

For example:

  • ‘Are you afraid when you are at home?’/‘Are there ever times when you are frightened of your partner (or other family members)?’
  • ‘Are you concerned about your safety or the safety of your children?’
  • ‘Does the way your partner (or other family members) treats you make you feel unhappy or depressed?’
  • ‘Has your partner (or other family members) ever physically threatened or hurt you?’
  • ‘Has your partner (or other family members) forced you to have sex when you didn’t want it?’
  • ‘Violence at home is very common. I often ask about abuse when being called to homes, because no one should have to live in fear of their partner (or other family members).’

If the victim discloses experiencing domestic violence, it is recommendable to fill out a risk assessment form (e.g. DASH). Remember to ask all the questions in the questionnaire/check list since the victim may hesitate to disclose some sensitive issues or think that some abuse is a normal part of a relationship. You are not allowed to stear the victim or the witness in a certain direction during questioning. It is important to record or save these preliminary interviews, as these can be used as evidence in the trial later.

If the victim’s fluency in your mother tongue is a barrier to discussing these issues, you should work with a qualified interpreter. Don’t use the victim’s partner, other family members or a child as an interpreter. It could compromise their safety or make them uncomfortable to talk about their situation with you. Furthermore, using an interpreter from the same ethnic group may be questionable. Ask the victim if she/he prefers another language, e.g. some Kurd clients wish to have an Arabic, Persian or Turkish interpreter, or some Iraqi clients wish to have an Egyptian Arabic interpreter.

How to talk to victims of domestic violence is the subject of module 3. For more information, please visit this module.

Responding to a disclosure

Your immediate response and attitude when a victim discloses domestic violence can make a difference. Victims require an initial response to disclosure: they need somebody to listen to them, back them up and ensure their children’s safety. They also need to be shown a pathway to safety.


Being listened to can be an empowering experience for a victim who has been abused. Acknowledge that the victim is the expert on the subject of his/her own life and his/her experiences. He/she should not be pushed into making decisions.

Communicate belief

‘That must have been frightening for you.’

Validate the decision to disclose

‘I understand it is very difficult for you to talk about this.’

Emphasise the unacceptability of violence, but do not judge the perpetrator

‘Violence is unacceptable. You do not deserve to be treated this way.’

Be clear that the victim is not to blame

Avoid suggesting that your client is responsible for the violence or that they are able to control the violence by changing their behaviour.

Do not ask:

  • ‘Why don’t you leave?’
  • ‘What could you have done to avoid this situation?’
  • ‘Why did he/she hit you?’

Aspects that should be considered after the disclosure of domestic violence such as information on police investigation and legal proceedings are addressed in module 4.

How to treat the perpetrator
  • Has to be treated respectfully to deescalate
  • Needs to cool down (e.g. in an arrest cell)
  • Use police measures like warning speech or contact bans

Guidelines for filing a crime report
  • Keep in mind that domestic violence does not always involve physical violence. Depending on the country, you are obliged to report the crime.
  • If there are signs or reports of others about negligence or economic, digital, physical or sexual violence, which might constitute a criminal offense, always file a report.
  • Always inform the child welfare authorities if there are any children involved.
  • Write down exactly what the victim and the perpetrator have said.
  • The documentation of what you have seen, how the victim and perpetrator behaved and what they have said is particularly important and decisive for the further course of events.

Police officers have to accept the record of the admission of an oral criminal complaint signed by the injured party. It is necessary to write down all the criminal practices in the record of the admission of an oral criminal complaint (it will be of value in the process) or in the official note (if the record of the admission of an oral criminal complaint cannot be accepted). It must be defined if a crime was committed. Evidence has to be attached, it should be written down in whom the victim confided about the violence, medical certificates should be attached etc.

International standards and legal frameworks in Europe are discussed in more detail in module 6.

Collection of information

Police officers must obtain information from medical staff, school staff, employers, associations and finally finish the hearing of the suspect. In general, interviews with children and minors can only be conducted with the permission of a parent, unless they are at risk. In that case, a social worker from Social Services sent by the government represents the child’s rights.

It is important to keep in mind that violence in private relationships remains hidden for a long time. The victim often has a difficult time deciding to leave the violent relationship due to the close personal relationship with the perpetrator and especially when there are children involved. Violence often begins on a psychological level. The victim initially does not recognize this kind of behaviour as violent, even if she/he no longer is in control over her/himself, her/his time, her/his body and her/his valuables. Violence always has psychological and physical consequences and is especially affecting children traumatically. In police procedures, it is therefore always necessary to pursue the goals of stopping violence, protecting the victim, gathering quality evidence and taking appropriate actions against the perpetrator.

In module 7 you will find more information on inter-organisational cooperation and risk assessment in cases of domestic violence in multi-professional teams.

Risk assessment

Ensure the risk assessment includes the history of violence and asks for the victim’s fear.

The risk assessment process should identify and document following risk factors:

suspect is

  • using violence more frequently
  • using more intensive (harmful, injurious) violence
  • controlling the victim but also depending on her/him.

Suspect has previously

  • used physical violence
  • used coercive control
  • strangled the victim
  • stalked the victim
  • experienced negative life changes

Suspect has

  • mental health issues
  • substance abuse issues
  • threatened to kill a victim
  • used sexual violence
  • access to firearms
  • used a weapon recently
  • previous criminal record entries
  • previously violated restraining orders.


  • is planning a divorce or separation
  • is pregnant or has a baby

In the risk assessment process, it is crucial to recognise and identify the victim’s vulnerability factors:


  • is an elderly person
  • is a disabled person
  • is dependent on the suspect
  • is an immigrant or a refugee
  • is a minor
  • is a homeless person 
  • is an illiterate person
  • belongs to a sexual or gender minority

Victim experiences

  • strong fear
  • social isolation
  • mental health issues
  • substance abuse issues
  • Family or community members of the victim or suspect are justifying violence by honor, culture or religion.

Red flags: immediate victim protection is needed!

  • Victim shows signs of strangulation
  • Victim lately has announced to split up with the perpetrator

An intervention by the police should include safety planning with the victim. The safety plan usually includes possible measures for typical scenarios (e.g., the victim keeps living with perpetrator, the victim wants to leave abusive relationship or the victim does no longer live with perpetrator).

Find more information on risk assessment and safety planning in module 5.