What are “red flags” in intimate partner violence?

Law enforcement is regularly on the front line in making decisions about the likelihood of imminent violence. In the case of domestic violence police need to key in on specific behaviors that can signal elevated levels of risk to victims and children. Why?  Because over half of all cases of domestic are not reported to police.  As a result, front line responders need to be aware of both tangible and less obvious indicators of risk know as red flags.  Red flags may be predictive of future violence.  “As the totality of these red flags come into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action on behalf of those most at risk – as we are mandated to do in cases of child and elder abuse” (Sefton, 2011).

Past behavior is thought to be the best predictor of future behavior.  The history of a prior order of protection should signal to police the proclivity for violence.  This information is readily available to the street officer via the mobile data terminal seated next to him in his cruiser.  In Massachusetts, police are privy to prior protection orders and whether or not a suspect ever violated those orders.  Special care for victims may be needed in cases where suspects repeatedly violate DV “stay away” orders.  Arguably these facts should bear greater weight when determining bail conditions than criminal record alone for those arrested for intimate partner abuse.  Unfortunately, in most cases, they are not.

Victim safety should be the first consideration in any treatment plan involving spousal abuse.  Police officers have significant latitude when making decisions about disposing of cases domestic abuse.  Recommendations should include a review of the frequency, severity, and potential risk factors in the case, and consider the need for a victim safety plan.  Police may be the first in a line of many to recommend the safety plan for a battered and abused family member.  They regularly make decisions about risk based on what they see at the scene.  Red flags sometimes jump out when they interview the parties involved e.g. bruises, scratches, burn marks.  All too often decisions about “risk” are based upon what transpired prior to arrival rather than in consideration of what might happen once officers leave.  Risk factors must be included into police officer discretion.

In respect to victims of domestic violence, it is vital that red flags and risk factors become the first of its kind “road map” to reduce harm to families who find themselves in the cross hairs and assure that victims and their safety plans are not abandoned or ignored.

  1. Sefton, M (2011) Risk Assessment. Retrieved January 27, 2012. http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com