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The Anatomy of a Domestic Disturbance

August 5, 2018

Last month’s officer-involved shooting on Rainbow Drive was a textbook example of how things can go sideways when police respond to a domestic disturbance call. There have been eight police shootings in Lake Havasu City’s history, and three of those involved officers responding to reports of a domestic disturbance.

“It’s one of the most dangerous calls any officer can respond to,” said Lake Havasu City Police Sgt. Tom Gray. “The mindset of an officer is to try to be prepared for anything while protecting the victim as well as the suspect from any further harm.”

Havasu officers Earl Chalfant, Angus McCabe and Cameron Hollis weren’t sure what to expect when they were dispatched to the 2600 block of Rainbow Lane during the early morning hours of July 25. When they arrived at the scene, they were approached by Denise Bowdon, who told officers her husband was pretending to have a gun. Footage from Hollis’ body-worn camera showed Brent C. Bowdon was indeed pretending to have a weapon during the tense seven-minute standoff. Uncertain of the situation, all three officers fired when Bowden, approached officers with a hand behind his back.

Domestic disturbance calls like the one in July are already volatile, placing officers in emotionally charged and often dangerous environments. Any case of reported domestic violence is considered among the Lake Havasu City Police Department’s highest response priorities. Officers will attempt to gather as much information as possible as they interview victims, suspects and witnesses in an investigation. If property is damaged, someone has sustained injuries or a weapon of any kind was involved in the offense, Gray says it could be a sign of escalating violence in a relationship.

That was the case two years ago, when officers encountered 20-year-old Devin Scott as he was barricaded in his room after getting into a fight with his father. Officers were already familiar with Scott, because he was the subject of a disturbance call the night before. This time, he had broken into his father’s home and locked himself in his bedroom, armed with a knife. When officers entered the room, body-worn camera footage showed officers attempting to use a Taser, but firing guns at Scott as he approached them with the knife in hand.

Scott’s father, Gary Christian, later told the News-Herald he regretted calling 911: “Two shots. That fast. Like he was a real threat – a 20-year-old kid against four cops. I mean, I called them for help.”

Officers say they have to be quick to stop a threat when it presents itself in such a volatile situation, to keep bystanders from harm but also the officers themselves.

“The raw emotions that are part of domestic relationships present a constant danger to officers who are summoned to investigate a dispute or assault,” according to Nick Breul and Mike Keith, the study’s authors. “These emotions are also often fueled by substance abuse, and police can quickly become the focal point of a suspect’s anger, particularly when they attempt to take family members into custody.”

According to a 2015 study from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, domestic incidents represented the highest number of calls for service in which a fatality occurred, and were also the underlying cause of law enforcement fatalities for other calls for service. In 71 percent of cases studied, officers were killed with handguns. In 45 percent of such cases, the study said, officers were advised that suspects might be armed or made prior threats.

The study, which examined 684 cases from 2010 to 2014, advised law enforcement agencies to maintain better coordination with dispatchers, and for dispatchers to monitor officers’ welfare closely while on the scene of a domestic disturbance or other high-priority call. The study also indicated that of all officer deaths while responding to domestic disturbance calls, 35 percent of law enforcement victims were acting without backup.

Common practices from police departments listed in the study included treating such calls as high priority and determining the presence of firearms at the scene. Common practices also include requiring at least two officers to respond to domestic disturbance calls and using police training to determine the potential lethality of a confrontation.

Correlation with domestic abuse

During a domestic disturbance call, Gray says Havasu officers attempt to document as much of the scene as possible -- often because it’s likely repeated police visits will become necessary, especially if officers suspect domestic abuse. “Any evidence of the offense will be photographed and possibly collected as evidence,” Gray said. “If there is probable cause to believe an offense has occurred, officers will take appropriate enforcement action, which could mean an arrest.”

Not all domestic disturbance cases are the result of violence or abuse, but prosecuting abusers isn’t always easy.

“There may be conflicting statements about what truly happened,” Gray said. “Officers will look at the physical evidence on the scene and use statements from the involved parties as well as witnesses to help determine the truth.”

The statements of the involved parties might conflict with each other, but they can also conflict with the evidence as victims may attempt to protect their abusers.

“It can be due to financial dependence on the abuser, religious, family or cultural reasons, as well as increased dangers to the victim if the abuser is arrested,” Gray said. “Officers help those who may not realize at the time they need help, by continuing to hold offenders accountable and sharing community support service information with victims.”

Lake Havasu City Police officers have pamphlets available to victims, each of which contains phone numbers for local and state resources that can be provided to victims of domestic violence.

“Officers provide information about community resources that are available to victims and offenders when feasible,” Gray said. “Officers can direct involved parties to seek civil remedies in cases that don’t rise to a criminal level.”

According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of all female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. In 10 percent of those cases, the CDC says, violence before the killings may have provided opportunity for intervention.

Such intervention can include domestic violence counseling or social services to victims. Local resources are available through the Havasu Abuse Victims Education Network, a nonprofit organization that specializes in education, treatment and response to crimes involving domestic violence.

Mary Lou O’Connell has been a director at HAVEN since 2006. The organization serves people in crisis situations, and maintains a contract with the Lake Havasu City Police Department to respond to crimes against children, domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse and all other personal crimes. HAVEN works with a host of other agencies in an effort to reduce trauma to victims and increase the success of prosecution.

“We go wherever a victim of domestic violence needs assistance – at the scene, or even at the hospital if need be,” O’Connell said. ”They can also come to HAVEN, where we maintain a very home-like atmosphere. People don’t have to be referred to us through the police department. They can come to us directly.”

HAVEN is a nonprofit organization that survives with the help of grants, personal donations and the organization’s contract with the city. The organization’s staff are highly-trained in dealing with the emotional impact of domestic violence – the impact to themselves as counselors, as well as the victims.

“The victim often loves the person who’s hurting them,” O’Connell said. “They’re enmeshed with children, with a financial burden, and sometimes shame. It can be difficult to admit that there’s a problem, and family and friends don’t always understand. But the two most important things are that it’s never the victim’s fault, and there is help for those who need it.”

For more information about victim services, contact HAVEN at 928-505-3153.

Victims of reported domestic violence or other crimes can contact a victim advocate, whose role is to provide information, support, resources, help with protective orders and other services, at 602-261-8192.

Havasu residents who suspect a possible act of domestic violence can contact the Lake Havasu City Police Department at 928-855-1171.

Anonymous tips can also be submitted via Havasu Silent Witness at 928-854-8477.

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