Domon Cunningham is studying at the Sinclair Police Academy in part to give his three children — two boys and a girl — someone to look up to, something that he didn’t have growing up.

But he also has another reason: Cunningham wants to be the kind of police officer who believed him when he needed it.

“I was in a relationship where I was the abused mentally, emotionally and physically,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot, and the only reason I made it is because of the police officers that helped me in those situations. I want to be able to give those same experiences, the same help, and the same knowledge that they gave to me to somebody else.”

This story looks at how police are trained to respond to domestic violence calls.

Domestic violence calls were suppressed during the pandemic when people were stuck at home with their abusers.

“It got really, really quiet here (in 2020),” said Jane Keiffer, executive director of the Artemis Center in Dayton. “Survivors got quiet, our hotline was quiet. And then as things started opening up, we really saw an increase in calls, and not only an increase in calls, but an increase of people reporting severe violence: strangulation, hostage (situations), all of that.”

In 2022, Ohio police responded to 66,665 domestic disputes, and of those, 30,199 resulted in domestic violence charges or a consent order filing, per statistics from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

In 2023, Ohio police responded to 68,796 domestic disputes, of which 34,358 resulted in a charge or consent order.

In the academy classroom

When responding to a domestic violence call, there is one question officers must answer above all else: What happened?

Determining the answer isn’t as easy as it sounds. The timeline for each event can be vague and complicated. Trauma presents differently in different people, and certain behaviors may be misleading. For example, someone may act intoxicated if they’ve been strangled.

The Sinclair class is taught by West Carrollton Police Chief Doug Woodard. Cadets study real-life scenarios of domestic dispute calls. Basic questions officers should ask include who, what, where, why, and how? Are there any weapons or injuries? Are there children involved?

Document the basic description of the persons involved, any injuries or levels of sobriety, and take the statements of each party separately, as well as those of any witnesses.

Are there any clues to financial abuse? Whose names are on all the credit cards and financial statements?

Batterers will try to make it seem like they’re the victim, or manipulate the justice system in their favor. They may act calm and collected, say “she’s off her meds,” or on drugs, or will call the police on the spouse they just beat, Woodard said.

It is extremely difficult for a domestic abuse victim to leave their abuser. The biggest mistake law enforcement, and even members of the community, can make is to get complacent.

“You’re going to respond to the same call over and over again,” Woodard told cadets. “It benefits the abuser if we don’t investigate fully and thoroughly.”

“When in doubt, act,” he added.

‘Power and control’

Artemis Center is not a shelter, but it is a resource center for survivors of intimate partner violence, including court accompaniment for civil and criminal cases, assistance with getting protection orders, education, support groups, and advocacy.

“We work fairly well with the Dayton police department,” said Keiffer. “We rely on them to help us in a variety of ways.”

For example, Dayton police officers who respond to calls give domestic violence hotline information to potential victims, Keiffer said. Sometimes law enforcement will facilitate survivors calling the Artemis Center while they are still on scene.

At worst, Artemis Center will dial 911 for an abuse victim who calls the center with a code word for an active abuse situation, Keiffer said.

Domestic violence calls are often the precursor to intimate partner homicide.

The most dangerous time in a domestic violence situation is right after the abused partner has left — for the victim, the victim’s community, and even responding officers — because the abuser has lost their power and control, and needs to up the ante to get it back.

“The worst thing you can say to someone on a call is ‘why don’t you just leave?’” Woodard said. “Leaving is a process, not an event.”

More than likely it will take months, or even years of leaving and returning for someone to leave their abuser for good. There are any number of reasons why they might not leave: financial problems, lack of self-worth, fear of what the abuser would do if they leave — not to mention promises of love or of changed behavior.

Gender and domestic violence

National crime statistics show that the majority of domestic violence victims are women, and the majority of perpetrators are men. From 1994 to 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice found that approximately 80% of the victims of intimate partner violence were female.

But the reverse does happen.

“It always comes back to power and control,” Keiffer said. “It really is important to look at the totality of the relationship and not just one incident, because domestic violence isn’t about one incident. It’s a pattern of behaviors.”

“Most of the time they came in open-minded, really looked at the situation for what it was, and they helped,” Cunningham said of the situation he experienced. “And a lot of them, even after the call had been handled, they stayed and they talked to me.”

That didn’t happen every single time. On one occasion, Cunningham said, the responding officer scoffed and told him, “You really want to press charges on a girl?”

But eventually, the evidence began to pile up, and Cunningham got a restraining order, he said. The experience informed his decision on wanting to be a law enforcement officer.

“I want to give (someone) that same chance,” he said.