Investigating Domestic Violence
Raising Prosecution and Conviction Rates
By Eric L. Nelson, M.S., M.A., M.A.
When a first-responding police officer conducts a basic domestic violence investigation, 70 percent of the time prosecutors do not file criminal cases.1 A recent study revealed the value of extra, nonmandatory investigative work that could be done in many cases when opportunity and circumstances permit. Operationalizing six discretionary actions can increase prosecution rates significantly. Four of these actions also raise the likelihood of criminal conviction.2
1) Taking Photographs
Obtaining photographs increases the likelihood of prosecution by 58 to 62 percent.3 Photos show the appearance of suspects and victims when police arrived, which may differ from how they look in court. Pictures also illustrate the individuals’ emotional state and whether they were intoxicated; broken items, such as cell phones that have been thrown or smashed and furniture that has been overturned; and the layout and condition of the scene. Photographs may record things that an officer fails to describe in the written report.
Domestic violence rates are highest among 18 to 35 year olds, and children are present in 61 to 86 percent of the homes with parents in that age range.4 Yet, a recent study showed that child endangerment charges were listed in only 4 percent of investigations.5 In California, where the study was conducted, if children witness the domestic violence the charge can be listed in the police report.6 If children were not interviewed or mentioned in the written report, seeing them in photographs would indicate their presence to the prosecutor. Photos also could reveal other crimes.
Small, durable pocket cameras, about the same dimensions as a thin wallet, have ushered in a new era of police photography. An officer can begin taking pictures as soon as the scene is safe, capturing important photographic opportunities that otherwise might be lost. After victims are transported to the hospital and receive medical care for their injuries, the opportunity to photograph the injuries as they existed at the scene is gone.
2) Finding Witnesses
The likelihood of prosecution improves by between 66 and 70 percent when an officer lists more than one witness on a domestic violence report.7 The time it takes to interview neighbors, speak to the 911 caller who reported the crime, take statements, or interview children present in the home is worthwhile. It is difficult to determine who is telling the truth when only the defendant and victim are interviewed. Witnesses can indicate which party is more truthful or provide missing information or evidence that suspects or victims may withhold—such as a car scratched with a key by an angry partner. Children may describe other domestic violence incidents and could alert the officer to evidence from those crimes, perhaps in a trash can outside. A child might point out a cracked pool stick used to strike a parent a few nights earlier or broken glass from a shattered coffee table. Neighbors could describe specific threats they overheard or tell an officer about a partner who no longer resides in the home, but who sits in a car across the street for hours or follows the victim.
Mr. Nelson served as a police officer with the Stockton, California, Police Department and currently is a research manager for the State of California.
During a trial prosecutors can use witnesses to discredit an alibi or describe the defendant’s criminal actions. With 93 to 98 percent of criminal cases being resolved through plea bargaining, the potential damage that could be caused by witnesses adds pressure for the defendant to take a plea deal, rather than risk conviction at a trial.8
3) Obtaining Protective Orders
Obtaining an emergency protective order (EPO) can increase the likelihood of prosecution by 85 to 89 percent and conviction rates by 100 percent.9 The method and form used for seeking a protective order differs by state.
EPOs may influence prosecution and conviction because of the trend they set. Even before an officer's written report reaches the reviewing prosecutor, the case has been reviewed by a judge who concluded that sufficient facts exist to warrant a protective order. This may encourage the prosecutor to file cases that might otherwise be rejected.
4) Making Arrests
A 92 to 96 percent increase in the likelihood of prosecution and a 76 to 80 percent rise in conviction rates result from the arrest of a domestic violence suspect.10 A review of 120 published studies and official data sources indicated that case-filing rates doubled when a suspect was arrested.11 An arrest starts the clock for the defendant to be charged or released within a certain period of time.12 This time crunch sometimes compels prosecutors to devote their energy to in-custody cases, possibly at the expense of other investigations where arrests did not occur, which do not have the same immediacy.
5) Listing Multiple Crimes
By far, the single most important optional action a first-responding police officer can take to increase rates of prosecution and criminal conviction for domestic violence crime is to include other viable charges in the written report. When a police officer’s report indicates that more than one crime occurred, the prosecution likelihood improves by between 260 and 300 percent, while the conviction likelihood grows by 140 to 150 percent.13
Eighty percent of domestic violence cases are filed as misdemeanors and between 93 and 98 percent of all criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain.14 An investigation that recommends a single misdemeanor charge has little chance of being prosecuted or resulting in a criminal conviction. A prosecutor does not have much negotiating room with such a case—the allegation cannot be reduced, and there are no other counts to trade for a guilty plea. On the other hand, if the officer has identified other viable charges, the prosecutor has more flexibility when negotiating. Taking the time to ask questions about the recent past may uncover additional offenses and lead to more charges.
Other crimes often coincide with domestic violence. As previously mentioned, child endangerment may have occurred. If anything was thrown, crushed, broken, or otherwise damaged, the officer could add vandalism. A suspect who took away a victim's phone or pulled a landline phone out of the wall might incur another count. Intoxication of the offender could result in additional criminal charges—in some states, such as California, another offense can be added if the suspect is habitually drunk in front of the children.15
6) Submitting Reports Quickly
“…child endangerment charges were listed in only 4 percent of investigations.”
If it takes more than 10 days for the police officer’s report to get to the prosecutor, the likelihood of prosecution and conviction drops by 25 percent. If it takes more than 30 days, the likelihood decreases by 50 percent.16 Thus, an officer ending a field investigation early and sending it to detectives to finish may significantly diminish the chances of prosecution. Detectives may not be able to immediately begin work on the investigation and it may not be easy to relocate victims or witnesses if necessary. A delay of just 10 days substantially harms the chances of prosecution. Sergeants and watch commanders should consider this and provide officers with sufficient time to complete a thorough domestic violence investigation.
A hasty investigation prevents officers from locating additional witnesses or taking the time to interview children. The officer may forgo a second or third round of questioning where developed information may be used to elicit fuller statements from the victim or suspect. Rushed investigations may prevent the officer from documenting concurrent, recent, and still-chargeable crimes.
It takes time to search for a suspect who has fled and to take sufficient photographs of victims, children, the scene, broken items, and other evidence. Failing to thoroughly investigate domestic violence crime increases the likelihood that a criminal case will not be filed and victims will not receive justice.
“An investigation that recommends a single misdemeanor charge has little chance of being prosecuted….”
Investigative Actions That Increase
Prosecution and Conviction Rates
- Obtain photographs of victims, witnesses, and the scene.
- Locate and interview multiple witnesses and interview children in the home.
- Obtain an emergency protective order (EPO).
- Locate and arrest the suspect.
- Identify and list other possible, viable charges in the written report.
- Complete the investigation the same day and forward the report to the prosecutor’s office as soon as possible.
As circumstances permit, rates of domestic violence prosecution and conviction can be doubled or tripled when police officers operationalize these six optional investigative actions. Allowing officers to take the time needed to thoroughly investigate can substantially increase prosecution and criminal conviction rates.
Locating and interviewing more witnesses and children in the family can lead to increased charges and more evidence. Taking photographs can reveal additional crimes not listed in the initial report, such as vandalism and child endangerment. Protective orders can aid in locating a suspect, which, in turn, can lead to an arrest. Taking the time necessary to locate and arrest an offender is time well spent because it increases the likelihood of prosecution.
No additional training is needed for implementation of these measures because officers already are trained, skilled, and experienced. They operationalize these actions daily across a wide range of criminal investigations. Recognizing the impact these measures have on prosecution and conviction may enable police officers and leaders to realize the necessity and benefits of implementing this best practices model for investigating domestic violence.
More information on this topic may be obtained from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.