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OPD Officer's Injury Highlights Dangers Of Domestic Violence Calls

Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) report from the morning OPD Officer Kevin Valencia was shot and critically wounded responding to a domestic violence call. Photo: City of Orlando

A domestic violence incident turned deadly last month when the suspect killed four children and himself, and critically wounded one of the responding officers. The incident highlights the dangers law enforcement face when responding to domestic violence calls.

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Orlando Police Officer Kevin Valencia. Photo: OPD / Orlando[/caption]

Office Kevin Valencia, 27 years old, was responding to to a domestic violence call at an Orlando apartment complex. After officers arrived, three to four shots were fired. At least one of those shots hit Valencia, critically wounding him. Valencia survived and is now recovering at a specialized treatment facility in Georgia.

Responding to a domestic violence call is the most dangerous call an officer can go to. That’s not a surprise to law enforcement officers.

“In the academy officers are taught that is probably one of the deadliest type of calls you go to due to the violent nature of them," said Orlando Police Sergeant Eric Goebelbecker. "Usually you are going to them because there is a problem that they couldn’t settle themselves."

According to research from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 22 percent of all officer deaths between 2010 and 2014 were in response to domestic dispute calls, more fatalities than any other type of call. That’s 20 officers in five years, and that number is on the rise. From 2015-2016, just two years worth of data, the number of officers killed responding to domestic disturbance calls was 18.

"We almost matched five years worth of fatalities in just two years,” said Desiree Luongo, Assistant Director and researcher at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The Fund tracks officer fatalities nationwide.

Why so dangerous?

There are many factors that can lead to a call becoming dangerous to officers. According to UCF Sociologist Amy Reckdenwald, the nature of the crime itself is one reason why they become violent, and more importantly the suspects perception of being in control.

"They are already feeling that they are losing control in some ways. So say it’s a partner just told them they’re leaving them or they have left, they’re already feeling some sense of loss of control," said Reckdenwald.  When an officer arrives at the scene, that control is threatened even more. "Again, that control is being taken away."

Another reason these calls can be so volatile is in part due to Florida law. Whenever a police officer finds probable cause for arrest, the officer may arrest the suspect even without consent from the victim. That’s different from other crimes, such as theft, where a victim would be required to press charges.

"In these cases they know," said Goebelbecker. "When the police show up a lot of the times the suspect will know they are going to jail. We can face more resistance, or they hide and wait."

Evolving threats.

How and where officers are being injured is also changing. National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund researcher Desiree Luongo said between 2010 and 2014, 75 percent of officers were killed inside the home or building where the incident occurred but in the following two years around 35 percent were shot outside.

"They are being killed as the arrive on scene and they are being killed at a greater distance," said Luongo. "We are seeing officers being shot from 20 to 50 yards and we’re also seeing a rise in the use of rifles as opposed to handguns in these deaths as well.”

The Fund’s research found that many fatalities were a result of officers going into an incident alone or not waiting for backup. That’s something the Orlando Police Department takes seriously.

“Safety in numbers," said Goebelbecker. "You wait on your backup. A lot of times you see officers try to go to them alone and the sergeant has to pull them aside, especially the newer officers who want to go out there and save the world. You have to reign them in and say no."

The Orlando Police Department created a domestic violence response team to provide training and resources to officers responding to these types of calls. There’s at least one officer on each shift that is an expert in domestic violence cases. The goal: Get domestic violence victims the help they need and reduce the risk of officer injury and fatality.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."