‘One of the most dangerous calls:’ More officers die responding to domestic violence than other crimes

Crime & Safety

Courtesy: Waldorf Volunteer Fire Department in Maryland

The following is part of a multi-week series on domestic violence in South Carolina.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – On Oct. 3, 2020, Myrtle Beach Police Department Officer Jacob Hancher put on his badge and uniform, started his shift and responded to a domestic violence call.

He never came home.

For dozens of police officers nationwide, It’s a tragedy that’s been seen again and again. 

“It is without a doubt one of the most dangerous calls that you go on, because it’s emotionally charged,” said Lewis “Jackie” Swindler, the director of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.

Domestic violence can quickly turn deadly for people who have been abused – and for the officers who respond to the scenes. 

Last year, 263 federal, state, military, tribal and law enforcement officers died in the line of duty, according to the 2020 Law Enforcement Officers Fatality Report from the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum. 

Those numbers, which nearly doubled from the previous year due to COVID-19 deaths, show that 48 officers were killed by firearms. Of those, seven were responding to domestic violence calls. 

In a typical year, more than one-third of officers who were killed are done so with a firearm – more than the amount who die in vehicle crashes. 

Previous reports from the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum does not further break that down into what types of calls police were responding to when they were shot.

The threat those calls pose is why the Charleston Police Department requires at least two officers to respond to every domestic violence situation, according to Lt. Matthew Stanley, the commander of the crimes against persons unit at the Charleston Police Department.

“Things can go poorly very quickly,” he said. 

Emotions run high among those involved, he said, and situations can easily become tragic. Two officers help with keeping things safe, and also make it possible to quickly separate the people involved and have more in-depth conversations about what happened. 

There are about 35,543 cases of intimate partner violence in South Carolina each year, according to data from the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. However, only a small fraction of attacks are ever reported to police.

Cadets’ first day at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy starts with domestic violence training. By the time they graduate, they’ll have had 14 hours of it. 

“It is something that we spend a lot of time on,” Swindler said. 

Videos of the instructors teaching about domestic violence have been sent to agencies statewide. Swindler wants departments to watch them, and then make a plan.

“Some homes you go to more often, so you can actually pull up that location and say, ‘How would you approach this house, hypothetically, if you go there?’” he said. “Then, young recruits have an idea of where to park, how to approach, and those teachings also cover cover and concealment.”

Plans can include how to arrive at a situation at a cul-de-sac, which Swindler refers to as “a puddle of death.”

Students use simulators to work through different types of calls. Swindler said many of those scenarios will be based on domestic violence incidents. Actors also give cadets experience with what to expect, whether that’s an aggressive suspect, or an angry victim attempting to attack officers. 

A suspect who is calm and steps out of the room, Swindler said, might be leaving to grab a gun. He said if they’ve already hurt someone or are scared about their relationship ending, they might be willing to attack police.

If there’s boiling water that doesn’t have an egg or a wing in it, Swindler said, it’s probably because it’s about to be thrown at police. 

Nowadays, many homes have security cameras, which means officers will likely be watched as they approach a property. 

Swindler said cadets are trained on how to deescalate situations to make a situation safer. They are also trained on the dynamics of mental illness. 

When he was killed, Hancher had been a community service officer for four years, a police officer for less than one and served as a volunteer firefighter.

He had responded to the call with another officer, who was injured in the attack. They were fired at within seconds of responding to the scene in what officials have called an “ambush.” The suspect was later shot and killed by police.

A two-officer response is protocol, according to Michele Paitsel, a domestic violence detective for the Myrtle Beach Police Department. 

Officers won’t park in front of homes. Before anyone arrives, dispatch asks if there’s weapons inside the house, if there’s been previous calls to the address and if there’s a history of mental illnesses. 

Police are warned to be mindful when responding to the call, since emotions are running high.

“They are very dangerous,” Paitsel said. 

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