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Despite training, domestic abuse calls remain the most dangerous for police

By Amy Donaldson, KSL | Posted - May 29, 2020 at 8:53 p.m.



OGDEN — It’s the type of call for help that is so common it’s almost always a part of every patrol officer’s daily routine.

And yet domestic violence calls are also the stuff of nightmares for those hoping for help and those willing to answer the plea.

“It’s the thing that keeps us awake in the night, the thing that wakes us up in a cold sweat,” said Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, a past president of the Utah Police Chiefs Association. “We just hope our officers will be safe and get through (it).”

When the call for help comes from someone being threatened by a family member, police face a unique, unpredictable type of danger.

“When someone who has been abusive, someone who’s hurt their family or lost their family in some way, they don’t have much more to lose,” said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. “Add in a firearm and suicide risk, and that’s the most dangerous combination of circumstances.”

In fact, the two most dangerous situations for police officers are traffic stops and domestic violence calls, according to the FBI.

That nightmare became a tragic reality for Utahns on Thursday afternoon when Ogden police officer Nathan Lyday was shot and killed when he and other officers responded to a call for help from a woman who said her husband had threatened to kill her.

It was around lunchtime when officer Lyday and others arrived at 365 Jackson Ave. in Ogden. When they arrived, police say John Benedict Coleman, 53, was on the front porch of the home and almost immediately ran into the house, slamming the door behind him. Officers ran to the door with the intention of following him, but Coleman fired at officers through the door, wounding Lyday and an officer from Adult Probation and Parole as they crossed the porch.

The gunman was found dead by members of the Ogden-Metro SWAT team inside his house a short time later.

Lyday, 24, later died at McKay-Dee Hospital and he became a symbol of what former Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank called “a failure of our entire society.”

Love, hate, anger

“First and foremost, our heartfelt thoughts go out to the Ogden Police Department,” Oxborrow said. “We are just deeply sorry for their loss. We recognize, as we always have, that domestic violence calls are the most dangerous calls officers respond to.”

How common and volatile are domestic violence calls? Consider that at around the same time Lyday’s body was being transported to the medical examiner’s office, the Ogden-Metro SWAT team was again dispatched to a call for help in Washington Terrace in which a mother said her son wanted police to kill him. The incident ended peacefully after several hours, but that reality doesn’t surprise Ross because the calls are so common.

“We try to do what we can to lessen the risk,” he said. “But at times, especially if somebody is willing to die, to shoot at us, that’s extremely difficult to defend ourselves against.”

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He said arguments or issues that involve friends or family tend to infuse a dangerous situation with unpredictable emotions.

“Domestic problems of any type are so emotionally charged, people just aren’t thinking right,” he said. “Those strong emotions of love and hate and anger. ... We see every possible crime you can think of being committed in a domestic violence setting. It makes people do things all the time that they ordinarily wouldn’t do. It’s very sad and unfortunate.”

Oxborrow works with police departments helping them learn to better analyze each situation using a lethality assessment. Ross agrees the training they’ve done in recent years has helped keep police officers safer and helped them better assist citizens struggling with familial violence. But there is no “one thing” that will keep police — and those they’re trying to help — safer in these situations.

“Every situation is different,” Oxborrow said. “If you don’t know what to do, reach out to us. It’s confidential, and we can help you make a safety plan. We take calls from anyone — neighbors, police, judges, DCFS (Division of Child and Family Services) workers — anyone who is trying to make the best decisions in a difficult situation.”

Utah Domestic Violence Coalition takes 43,000 calls a year on their hotline — a 24-hour lifeline at 1-800-897-5465.

“We are grateful for every single one,” she said. “It gives us the chance to help people.”

Both Oxborrow and Ross said education is key to finding solutions to each individual situation.

“There are so many resources for people who are really wanting help,” Ross said. “But it still takes somebody connecting them. Anybody that is concerned from a family member to someone in a relationship can reach out, even anonymously, and ask questions. I think that can help.”

‘Very hush-hush’

Sarah Larsen never called police when she was suffering violence at the hands of her former husband.

“I was too humiliated,” she said. “But that was back in the day, 30 years ago. I didn’t know there were options.”

She said she understands why the domestic violence situations are so dangerous.

“I feel like you almost have to go into it expecting the worst,” Larsen said. “Especially if these women are leaving. That’s the most dangerous time. It’s the worst-case scenario. ... But it’s so hard because every situation is unique.”

She said there is still so much fear and shame attached to domestic abuse that it makes it difficult to know if and when to take action. And while we’ve become better at speaking about it in generalities, we’re still struggling with it in individual cases.

“When I was in it, it was very hush-hush,” she said. “I would say, if you’re (being abused) let as many people know as possible. The more people who know, the safer you will be. But unfortunately, a lot of women don’t want people to know.”

The reason for that is that as women reach out for help or support, there is an assumption from family, friends and advocates that once she understands she is suffering abuse, she will find a way to leave.

“It’s like telling an anorexic person to just go eat a hamburger,” she said. “People will say, ‘Just leave him.’ But it’s not that easy.”

She said oftentimes the abuse has begun long before any bruises are left on bodies.

“There are so many ways they can control a situation,” she said, “Money, kids, housing, finding allies in the family. ... It’s a lot more complicated than just saying, ‘I’m going to pack my bags and leave.’”

She said even when some of her friends saw the abuse she suffered, they rationalized and denied it was actually abuse because they felt like, “He was so nice. He would never do that.”

Like Oxborrow and Ross, she encourages people to learn more about abuse, and try to understand that it’s not just about physical violence, and sometimes it can take years to unravel and break free. It took her many years just to be able to acknowledge what she suffered and find ways to talk about it.

“The bruises healed,” she said. “It’s the emotional stuff that lasts years and years and really messed me up. I thought, ‘He’s not hitting me, so he’s not abusing me.’”

Ross, Oxborrow and Larsen advocate for better education, more open communication and an investment in training and resources, even as they acknowledge that no situation improves without the people involved making the choice to get help and make changes.

“There isn’t a clear solution for this. In every situation, it takes a toll on family, officers, everyone. it’s just so hard,” Ross said. “We need to be compassionate, understanding, sympathetic and supportive. People need to feel like whoever they reach out and talk to — whether that’s advocates, neighbors, family members — they need to feel like they listened to them, and that they can get them the resources to help protect their lives. ... At some level, we know it will take individual action.”

If you have questions or concerns about domestic abuse, please call the coalition’s hotline: 1-800-897-5465.

Domestic violence resources

Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting:

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