In the U.S., the Department of Justice reports 1.3 million women and 835,000 men each year are domestic violence assault victims. Boothbay Harbor Police Department responds to about 30 domestic violence assault cases resulting in about 10 arrests per year. But the statistics don’t always tell the whole story. Police Chief Bob Hasch said often times a report comes through the dispatcher as criminal threatening or some other domestic-related crime.
Whether it’s three or 300 calls a year, local police are on the front lines of responding to domestic violence assaults. Police must assess a situation in which a crime may or may not have been committed. They are also responsible for restoring calm in a chaotic situation and ensuring all parties remain safe.
“It’s not something that we have a lot of in Boothbay Harbor, but it’s definitely the most dangerous situation we face,” Hasch said. “Tensions are high, and you’re walking into a situation which is the most personal and tense moments of a person’s life. You are viewed in many different ways, and our job is to calm things down which isn’t always easy when drugs and alcohol are involved.”
The chief estimates that alcohol and drugs are factors in about three out of four domestic violence assault incidents in Boothbay Harbor. Two officers typically respond to a domestic violence assault incident. If only one patrolman is available, a call to Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department is made. Once the scene is secured, each officer will interview witnesses. Officers share information with each other to begin piecing together what triggered the incident. But they don’t just rely on statements, police also follow their observations. “If you see a shiner, bruises, blood or strangulation. We are mandated to make an arrest. This is a good thing because it keeps them apart for the night, and hopefully cools things down,” Boothbay Police Patrolman Larry Brown said.
At the scene, law enforcement uses cruiser and body cams to record surroundings and personal interviews. More interviews are held the next day. This provides police an opportunity to seek more information in a second recorded video session. “The scene is often chaotic and it’s a stressful situation. The victim may not remember everything and it also ensures consistency,” Brown said.
Due to possible penalties, a victim rarely files a false report. “They write out what happened in their own handwriting. This prevents them for claiming a police officer wrote down something wrong. Also, they are required to check a box acknowledging they know it’s a crime to make a false statement,” Brown said.
But not all complaints come in a timely manner. Hasch said some come several days after the incident. Some may arrive years after the incident. In Maine, misdemeanors and felonies have statutes of limitations which last for years. There is a two-year statute of limitation for misdemeanors and six for felonies.
In domestic violence assault cases, a court date is set within 30 days. Hasch described writing reports as time-consuming, taking seven to 10 hours. “It’s important to send the report right away. This means an officer will often come back the next day, which might be his day off, to complete it,” he said.
Once paperwork is submitted, police often work closely with the district attorney’s office to provide or clarify additional information. The district attorney’s office uses a victim’s advocate in preparing for a court case. In recent years, a Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department officer has worked with local police in securing missing information for the prosecutor’s case. “He may work with us in getting another form or more information about a case. It’s a complex process, and he works with both the DA’s office and us to make sure the case is ready,” Hasch said.
The police department also works with another organization to assist victims in remaining safe. Local police work with New Hope for Women to ensure victims have information on social services and counseling in dealing with a traumatic event. In each incident, police provide victims with a card detailing how to contact New Hope for Women. “This is a close working relationship we have. They hold our nose to the grindstone making sure we’re following proper procedures,” Hasch said. “There is an excellent line of communication and this relationship has been a good one for everyone involved.”
Over the past four decades, Brown has seen his share of domestic violence abuse cases. He believes law enforcement and the legal system are doing a better job handling them. One change is the language used to establish a relationship between victim and suspect. “You must be precise in the words you use. The question must determine whether the couple were intimate in establishing a sexual relationship between the two,” he said.
Brown has seen numerous cases in his 32-year career. He spent the first 22 years working in Lewiston. Brown remembers responding to incidents where victims declined to press charges. “In the dinosaur days, I remember driving away after seeing a victim beaten to a pulp, but who wasn’t willing to talk. I’m glad we’ve turned the corner. The difference now is pretty stark.”
But law enforcement is still battling an old foe in that victim and suspect continue to ignore court restraining orders prohibiting contact while the incident remains in the legal system. “This is a problem that has gone on for years. Usually, it’s the suspect contacting the victim, but the victim also contacts the suspect, too,” Hasch said.
In October 1981, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence launched a “Day of Unity” for those combating abuse to unite and connect. Over the years, the day evolved into a national month of awareness on the issues of domestic violence and intimate partner violence across the U.S.