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Reporting Abuse a Challenge for Victims, Police

By Jane Bodmer

“The first time I went to the police I was pretty nervous,” Amelia Smith says. “When I was talking to the police officer I was on the verge of tears the whole time. I thought that she would care more about what had happened. It’s like she just wanted the facts about him and she didn’t really care about what had actually happened to me.”

Smith, 20, is a college student at Loyola University Chicago. About three years ago, she began dating a significantly older coworker. She says their relationship “started off being really nice and just a normal relationship, and then as time went on it got more and more abusive, physically and emotionally.”

As the abuse escalated, Smith felt the need to involve the police multiple times, but was disappointed with their reactions. “Once they heard how old he was, you could kind of see the change when they were dealing with me,” she says. Smith feels that many of the officers she encountered were often dismissive and judgmental.

Unfortunately, many victims of domestic abuse face negative reactions from law enforcement officials. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, domestic abuse is one of the most chronically underreported crimes, and many victims attribute this to negative police reactions.

Smith describes a friend of hers who was told by police responding to a domestic violence call that they would not assist or protect her unless she agreed to break up with her boyfriend immediately.

“Any time I didn’t want to press charges, they just started dismissing it because they thought, ‘Oh, she’s just going to go back to him, we don’t have any reason to take her seriously anymore,’” Smith says.

Jeff Hemesath, a Wilmette police officer, acknowledges that answering domestic abuse calls and understanding why people stay in abusive relationships can be difficult. “We’re human, we make mistakes like anyone else,” Hemesath says. “There are times when I’ve come to situations and I can’t understand why this woman is with this guy.”

However, Hemesath says that it is most important to try to be compassionate with victims of domestic abuse, keeping in mind that police officers can press charges against abusers even when victims choose not to.

“I try to be very non-judgmental because I’m not walking in their shoes and I don’t know what’s going on,” Hemesath says. “But I might say something like, ‘He needs to be held accountable for what he’s doing, because if he’s not, he’s going to do it again.’”

Smith believes that the key to improving police reactions to domestic violence calls is to raise awareness of how victims cope with and fall into a cycle of abuse.

“It’s hard to get out of the cycle once you’re in it because there are feelings attached to it,” Smith says. “It doesn’t matter if the person is going to go back a thousand times. You should protect that person every single time.”

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.