What The Police Can Do For You

What the police can do for you depends in part on what you tell them or give them, and on what other people are willing or able to tell them. Officers investigating your case should talk to you privately, and they should also interview children, other family members, and neighbors who might have seen or heard what happened. Among other things, officers will be looking for:

  • Evidence of harm or injury to you or your children (for example, cuts, bruises, swelling or torn clothing);

  • Damage to furniture, walls, windows, car or other personal property;
  • Signs of a break-in;

  • Threatening messages on your answering machine, or letters or written messages containing threats.

If you call the police, they must come to investigate your complaint. The police should talk to you and the abuser separately and, if at all possible, should talk with you out of your abuser's sight and hearing. In order for the police to make a decision to arrest, they need to find what is called probable cause that a crime was committed. That means that they must have enough evidence to believe that the person committed a crime by harming or threatening you. This evidence can be a combination of things - any injuries you may have, your statement of what happened, taped 911 calls or emergency calls to police, damaged property, torn clothes or any statements of neighbors, children or other family members.

What you say counts as evidence, so the statement you give to the police is very important. Read your statement carefully and if there is anything in it that is incorrect, don't sign it. Ask the officers to change the written statement so that it matches what actually happened. Sign it only when it says what you want it to say. Police are required to give you a copy of the investigating officer's report whether or not an arrest is made, so be sure to get one. You can ask to add to it later it you remember something you forgot to tell them, and you can add photographs of bruises and copies of medical reports, if you get them.

If the police find that your abuser committed a felony against you, they must make an arrest. Felonies are the most serious crimes that can be charged. An example of a felony in a domestic violence case would be Assault in the Second Degree, a charge that could be made if the assault resulted in serious physical injury like a broken bone, or a wound from a weapon, and created "substantial pain" that lasted over a period of time. Usually, the injuries from a felony level assault require medical attention and/or hospital care.

If the police find that a Family Offense misdemeanor has been committed against you, state law requires arrest unless you ask the police not to arrest. (The law also says that the police are not allowed to ask you whether they should make an arrest.) Even if you ask that an arrest not be made, many police departments will still make an arrest if they have evidence of a crime. An example of a misdemeanor is Assault in the Third Degree, which also requires an injury (more than a bruise) and substantial pain. Another example of a misdemeanor is Aggravated Harassment, which is when you are threatened or harassed over the telephone or by mail.

Many domestic violence cases involve violations, such as Harassment in the Second Degree. Harassment happens when your abuser verbally threatens you with harm, slaps you or pushes you, but doesn't cause an injury. The police must see this happen in order to make an arrest unless you decide to make the complaint yourself, which is called making a civilian arrest. In many areas, the police will help you with this and will actually take your abuser to the police station. In some areas in violation cases, the police will give you information on how to get the court to take some action against him, but will not transport your abuser to the police station or court. If this is not the first time your abuser has threatened you with harm, pushed or shoved you, or if you are afraid of future harm, be sure to tell the police. If your abuser has harassed or threatened you more than once, this may give the police the evidence they need to charge Harassment in the First Degree or Menacing, both misdemeanors. This allows them to make the arrest and take your abuser into custody without you having to make a civilian arrest.

Whenever you talk with the police, ask politely for the names of the officers and write them down. Tell them you are asking so that you will be able to contact them again if you have questions or need to add some information to the police report. Police officers must give you this information. The police should also give you a Victim Notification Form which tells you what your legal rights are and includes information on domestic violence services in your community. They should have copies of the form in both English and Spanish.

If you are not satisfied with the way an officer is handling the situation or treating you, try to stay calm and ask to talk to a supervisor. If you've asked the police to make an arrest and they decide not to make one, ask for a written explanation of their reasons. If you get stuck, call a domestic violence program and ask them for help in trying to get the police to respond differently. Even it the police completely refuse to help you, it may be possible to bring criminal charges by going directly to the District Attorney or to the judge. If you need to do this, it's a good idea to get a domestic violence program advocate or an attorney to help you. (See Getting Help from an Advocate and How to Find an Attorney.)

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