Pickens County Sgt. Kris Stancil says officers respond to domestic abuse calls more than any other type.
To date, the local law enforcement agency has been dispatched on 833 calls, which he says is equivalent to two every 12-hour shift.
At the November Pickens County Domestic Violence Task Force meeting Stancil spoke candidly about the challenges of training and the complications officers face when entering strangers’ homes as “their worlds are falling apart.”
“That’s why we harp on safety when we teach,” Stancil said. “Relationships are falling apart, jobs are being lost and that’s why you’re on the way to their house. People aren’t thinking clearly, so the badge and the uniform may not mean a thing to them.”
But Stancil said despite domestic abuse being top of the heap when it comes to call volume, officers in-training receive just a four-hour block of instruction for domestic abuse at the 12-week police academy training session new recruits are put through.
He said other topics covered in the academy training program do pull in elements of family and domestic violence, but he says the limited amount of domestic abuse training can pose a problem for green-behind-the-ears officers.
“If you only get four hours of training specifically related to family violence and you get a new officer that comes in, you find out quickly when we’re training here that they really don’t know,” he said. “They have to learn this hands on. It’s up to field training officer here to recognize those strengths and weaknesses when we do our annual training to help teach and understand what the law says.”
So Stancil said he and other officers from the local agency spend a great deal of time training to ensure deputies have the proper tools and knowledge they need to keep all parties involved safe, to pay attention and evaluate the scene and the evidence properly, and to write a thorough report, which can make or break a case once it’s in court.
“You’ve got to pay attention while you’re on the scene,” Stancil said. “What does the law say? Ask questions. That’s probably deputies’ and law enforcement’s worst trait. We talk and don’t like to listen. You have to take into account the evidence and figure out which story the evidence supports.”
This means deputies are charged with making judgment calls while they’re on the scene, relying on their powers of observation and instinct to get things right.
But Stancil said the victims’, witnesses’ and suspects’ stories are almost never in sync with one another during the initial investigation, which makes sifting out the truth a difficult task.
“It’s never really a black and white situation when you walk in,” Stancil said. “The stories never match up. Then 95-percent of the time the victim of a family abuse situation is going to recant because the husband is bringing home the bacon. He’s making the money. If he’s in jail he can’t support the family.”
Deputies are also warned about prepared statements that parents sometimes coach their children to tell officers.
“Sometimes you watch a kid give their statement and you can tell the mom has coached the kid on how to give the statement,” Stancil said. “But if you ask, most the time kids will tell, you, ‘Yup, that’s what momma told us to tell you so daddy would get out of her and leave us alone.’”
The tendency for victims to cover up for a family member or roommate is one reason Stancil says the Family Violence Act is so important to Georgia families.
“It takes the burden off the victim and throws it on the officer that responds to the scene,” Stancil said. “Under the Family Violence Act [officers] have got to act. It takes away some of that discretion.”
Stancil even said new recruits are taught that if they fail to make an arrest in a family violence case that they themselves can be arrested for a misdemeanor.
Beyond being sure deputies know the law, Stancil said trainers are focusing on teaching them how to write a quality incident report that will stand up in court.
“If it met the criteria for a family violence call, you are required to write a family violence report,” Stancil said. ‘This is in the law. You don’t have a choice.
“So we start with in-service training with all our deputies,” he said. “We also work very aggressively with our field training program. When someone’s going to be a deputy they’re not going to get let loose until they can write the reports and put it in a chronological order where it makes sense.
“What good is it if you go and spend hours and hours and hours on a scene and then you go and do a sloppy report and the person goes free because they can’t prosecute it?” Stancil asked. “You’re going to be the beginning of the case, and if you blow the case right at the beginning then you’re just wasting your time.”
Stancil noted that deputies are only required to have a GED or high school equivalency, which can create issues with writing the quality reports that are needed.
“If you have high school training or a GED you’ve probably not had a lot of training on how to write,” he said. “That’s just the reality. We’ve got to show that we can train and teach them how to do what they need to do.
At the monthly DVTF meeting the sergeant also touched on issues that are more specific to Pickens, including the difficulties of responding to a call in rural landscape as well as training deputies that have grown up with domestic violence in their own family.
“One thing we encounter with new recruits that were born and raised in Pickens County,” Stancil said, “there are a lot of people who have grown up in that [abusive] culture and that’s just the way it’s always been. Daddy’s always been mean to mommy, or mommy’s always been mean to daddy. They try to look through that filter, but we have to take away that filter and look at what the law says.”
Pickens’ rural landscape also creates issues for deputies who are discreetly trying to approach homes. In domestic abuse calls Stancil said officers are instructed to park a block away and observe the home before entering.
“That was easy to do when I worked in Valdosta and all the driveways were close together and everything was well lit and marked,” Stancil said. “But some of the driveways we go to here are a block themselves and you are going to have to use a flashlight. You don’t know if you’re going to walk up on a Rottweiler or a pit bull or what else. Knowing your county can help you know what you’re getting into.”