The officer is the first law enforcement official to respond to a domestic violence situation. It is important to know how to react and separate the victim from the perpetrator (those who choose to do harm) without victim-blaming or jumping to conclusions.When responding to a domestic violence situation, officers must follow a detailed procedure to collect all relevant information at the scene. This procedure includes:

  • Writing a report
  • Obtaining a victim statement
  • Getting a history of abuse
  • Asking about and properly recording threats
  • Asking about sexual violence
  • Getting witness statements
  • Properly addressing restraining order violations and stalking
  • Enforcing custody orders, visitation orders, and other family court orders
  • Determining the dominant aggressor

The resources on this page provide information on these procedural steps. Additional resources are provided on our Legal Professionals page, here.

Dual Arrest

In the State of California, dual arrest, or the arrest of both persons involved in a domestic violence incident, is not prohibited by law (PC 13701) but is highly discouraged by Santa Clara County Protocol and many other county protocols due to best practices and the intent of the law to protect victims of domestic violence. In order to make a dual arrest, the officer must show that there was not a pre-dominant aggressor, that self-defense was not used by one party, and must establish and document probable cause that both parties committed violence against each other through thorough on-scene investigation (Law Enforcement Resource Center, 2001).Dual arrest is discouraged as it may further victimize the victim; make successful prosecution difficult; decrease the chances that the victim will seek further help; may escalate later violence by the offender; and increase liability (LERC, 2001).For further information:

Dominant Aggressor

As defined by Santa Clara County Protocol, the dominant aggressor is “the person determined to be the most significant, rather than the first aggressor.”In identifying the dominant aggressor, an officer should consider many factors, including those outlined in PC13701 (b):

  • The intent of the law to protect victims of domestic violence from continuing abuse
  • The history of domestic violence between the persons involved
  • Threats creating fear of physical injury
  • Whether either party acted in self-defense, or if any injuries appear to be defense wounds

Additional factors for determining the dominant aggressor include:

  • One party’s fear of the other
  • The severity of injuries or harm
  • Whether either party has injuries that do not appear consistent with statements made
  • Likelihood of future violence
  • Which party has access to and control of resources
  • Which party will be in greater danger if nothing is done
  • Evaluation of all evidence
  • Witness statements

Also see our guidelines on Screening for Perpetrators.


Tips adapted from Checklist for Domestic Violence Related Reports, from Law Enforcement Response and Procedure, Chapter 10, in Criminal Domestic Violence Investigations Manual, South Carolina Department of Public Safety, Criminal Justice Academy Division.

Tips for Interviewing the Victim:

  • Interview the victim separately from the suspect
  • Get the full version of events—Ask one question at a time, allow the victim to explain in her own terms, and ask clarifying questions.
  • Ask about any history of abuse
  • Determine need for medical attention
  • Reassure the victim that help is available
  • Tell the victim that she is not to blame
  • Do not make assumptions or judgments
  • Remain professional and constructive—avoid giving your personal opinion
  • Avoid arresting suspect in front of victim

Tips for Interviewing the Suspect

  • Conduct separate interviews
  • Avoid accusatory language and demeanor—ask open-ended questions
  • Acknowledge the suspect’s agitation
  • Avoid saying, “Your wife/partner says…”
  • Do not express sympathy for suspect’s explanations for violence
  • State that arrest is your decision, not the victim’s

Tips for Interviewing Children

  • Interview child(ren) separately in a comfortable place
  • Get on child’s level and establish rapport
  • Explain your purpose
  • Ask simple questions first
  • Avoid leading the child or prying
  • Notice if the child feels guilty. Offer reassurance and tell them that you want to help
  • Reassure children that they are not doing anything wrong by talking about what happened

Injuries exhibited by both parties can provide valuable information about the nature of an incident and aid in determining the dominant aggressor, as discussed above.

Defensive vs. Offensive Injuries

Defensive injuries are injuries sustained when a person is trying to defend him/herself. Defensive wounds can be on either the victim or the perpetrator, including:

  • Scratches on the face/chest
  • Bites to the hands/chest
  • Injuries to the back or back of legs
  • Scratches on the forearm
  • Kicking injuries

Note that the victim may admit to violence and inflicting defensive injuries, while the offender may blame the victim.

Offensive injuries are injuries sustained when a person is attacked. Offensive wounds can also be on either the victim or the perpetrator, and can include:

  • Broken nose
  • Black eye
  • Stab wound
  • Gun shot wound

Signs, Symptoms and Behaviors

Abuser Accountability

Holding the abuser accountable for their actions is a critical step in ending domestic violence. Accountability is a difficult process that requires the participation of all branches of the law enforcement system, including, but not limited to, police, district attorneys, courts, probation system, victim agencies, batterer intervention programs, schools and universities, and other services (e.g. DFCS). A person who has abused their partner begins to become accountable when they:

  • Stop the abuse immediately
  • Acknowledge their abusive behavior to the abused partner and to their community of friends and family
  • Acknowledge their sole personal responsibility for abuse
  • Admits that their behavior hurt their partner and was unprovoked and inexcusable
  • Cooperates with efforts to address abusiveness
  • Accepts full responsibility for their acts
  • Understands that they are not entitled to their partner’s forgiveness
  • Demonstrates awareness of the impact of abuse on family
  • Demonstrates commitment to victim safety
  • Complies with court orders
  • Respects the limits set by the victim or agencies
  • Supports the parenting efforts of the victim
  • Considers the children’s best interest

Mandatory Reporting

In California, the law states that a mandated reporter must report “willful child endangerment or the willful infliction of unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on a child” (Penal Code section 11165.3). According to Santa Clara County, when domestic violence is present, “a mandated reporter must consider whether there is a risk of physical or emotional harm to the child. The fact that a child’s parent or guardian has been the victim of domestic violence is not in and of itself a sufficient basis for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect. Further, a child’s exposure to a domestic violence incident in and of itself is not a sufficient basis for reporting suspected abuse or neglect.” (L. Michael Clark, Lead Deputy County Counsel, Santa Clara County). See Mandatory Reporting.

False Accusations

In cases of domestic violence and sexual assault (including rape), there is a persistent myth of a high rate of “false accusations.” Studies indicate that only about 2% of all rape and related sex charges are determined to be false–the same percentage as other felonies (Dept. of Justice, FBI, 1996). Furthermore, consider FBI research that shows 80-90% of rapes and countless incidents of domestic violence go unreported. In keeping with the intent of the law, police officers and law enforcement officials should support and believe the victim in an effort to protect them from further abuse. See our False Accusation FAQ for more information.

Officer Involved Domestic Violence

Additional Resources and Handouts

Additional Training Resources