It's one of the first things they tell you when you put on a police officer's gun and badge: Responding to a domestic disturbance call is probably the most dangerous thing you'll ever do.
Forget bank robberies and collaring murder suspects. More police officers are killed or seriously injured when answering a domestic call than anything else they will do in the line of duty, authorities say.
Often, police must thrust themselves into the middle of an already volatile situation between an enraged--and armed--husband and wife, or father and son, with little or no information to go on. Or a seemingly harmless squabble can turn deadly at any moment.
Last week, police again were reminded of such perils when Christy Lynne Hamilton, a 45-year-old rookie officer, was fatally shot early Tuesday as she answered a call of shots fired in a domestic dispute in Northridge. Although officers knew someone had called 911 claiming he had shot his father, they had no idea what to expect when they arrived at the Amestoy Avenue house where 17-year-old speed freak Christopher Golly had already killed his dad, Steven. By then, he had hidden behind a wall with an assault rifle and was waiting for them.
Police say they know they can be gunned down, like Hamilton--or stabbed, beaten or bludgeoned--at any time during a visit to someone's house, even if they take all the precautions possible.
"It'll make you think twice the next time you go on a family disturbance call," said patrol Officer Kristin Traynor, who worked with Hamilton at the Devonshire Station during the four weeks Hamilton was on the job.
"You never know what you're going into. Tensions are so high, you just don't know what to expect," Traynor said. "You don't expect (someone) to open fire on anyone."
Nationwide, the number of officers killed or seriously injured on calls of domestic disturbances has risen steadily in recent years. Last year, 40% of the 154 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty were responding to such calls, according to the Miami-based National Assn. of Chiefs of Police.
The FBI, in its most recent report on officer slayings, said that disturbance calls accounted "for more line-of-duty deaths than any other circumstance," even outpacing arrests gone awry, or encounters with robbery, burglary and drug suspects combined.
Several officers in Southern California have been killed recently while responding to domestic calls. Kent Hintergardt, a Riverside County sheriff's deputy, was fatally shot in May while investigating a dispute outside a Temecula apartment. Hintergardt, 33, was shot in the head before he could pull his gun from its holster.
In Los Angeles, rigorous training and role playing at the Los Angeles Police Academy have resulted, on average, in far fewer police deaths on domestic calls than in other departments nationally. But "across the board, all of us could tell you about close calls," said Lt. Dan Hoffman, Hamilton's boss at the Devonshire Station.
Indeed, authorities say there are so many close calls and serious injuries that the LAPD and most other law enforcement agencies don't even bother to keep count.
In 1992, there were 91,024 assaults on police officers nationwide, more than eight times the number of assaults in 1960, according to a recent study by the police chiefs association and Columbia University. Much of that increase has come in the past eight years, and each year, a higher and higher percentage of the injuries is attributed to responses to domestic disturbances, said association President Dennis Martin.
"It's the most dangerous call for a police officer to walk into, because it's so vague," said Gerald Arenberg, association executive director. For 30 years Arenberg has studied the slayings of more than 6,000 officers nationwide killed in the line of duty. "A family disturbance should ring for any police officer as one of extreme danger. It is a very scary call to go on."
Police frequently are called repeatedly to the same house to quell disturbances caused by warring spouses or siblings. But they must assess each situation independently and immediately. Even the most modern mobile display terminals in LAPD squad cars, which are linked to department computers, can't provide a complete history on a household, said Lt. John Dunkin.
And even if police had seized guns involved in a prior dispute at a residence, chances are the weapons would already be back in the hands of their owners; authorities can confiscate guns from an agitated resident, but state law requires that they return them after 48 hours.
Sometimes, police can haul away the violent person for psychiatric counseling or criminal charges, if the officers believe the person poses a threat to a family member or himself. But often, the most that officers can do is to quiet things down, leave the scene of the disturbance and hope for the best.
Golly and his father had had frequent fights, and friends say the troubled youth had made previous statements about wanting to kill his father. But police had not responded to a domestic disturbance call there before.
"If we had gotten there sooner and separated the father and son, and the situation had been as volatile as it obviously was, we could have taken the guns out of the house," said Sgt. Ed Wheelis of the Devonshire Station. "But they eventually would have gotten the guns back. And what happened could have eventually happened anyway."
Domestic calls are not only getting more frequent, but increasingly dangerous--and deadly--as more and more drunken or combative homeowners arm themselves with knives, pistols and, as in Golly's case, assault rifles, authorities say. Last year, Los Angeles police officers responded to 42,698 domestic disturbance calls that resulted in arrest reports or other paperwork. But the vast majority of cases ended when police broke up squabbles and left, said Officer Debbie Kane, a domestic violence instructor at the police academy.
Despite their obvious potential for violence, it's nearly impossible to safeguard police from peril on domestic dispute calls, authorities say.
Officers frequently have to contend with combatants who are on drugs or intoxicated, and who are in jealous rages that can propel even the most law-abiding citizens toward murder, Kane said. Warring spouses or family members often grow even more outraged that their troubles have prompted an intruder to come into their home, and frequently both will turn against the hapless officer, especially if arrests appear imminent, she said.
"Nobody wants us there. So they all turn on the officer," Kane said. "There are just a multitude of reasons why it's dangerous. And we don't know where their weapons are."
At the police academy, officers are taught to be ready for anything in a domestic dispute. They are told to approach each situation and each house with extreme caution and to immediately separate the warring factions.
They are instructed to pull their patrol cars up several houses away, particularly if the call indicated that gunshots had been fired. The officers called to the scene of the Golly disturbance thought they were following that procedure, but they unwittingly stopped in front of the Golly house.
Martin of the national police association remembers a similar situation in his home city of Bay City, Mich., several years ago. Two officers were killed after rolling up to a house where two brothers were shooting at each other on the front lawn.
"They were just pulling up on a shotsfired call," Martin said. "As soon as they got out of their car, they were killed."
Many officers are lulled into a false sense of security, often having to answer as many as five domestic calls a night, most of which can be settled quickly and without incident.
"Every family dispute is different," said Detective Robert Pulley, who works cases involving juveniles. "I've been in situations myself where families were real hostile and there was a potential for me to be injured and everyone ends up happy in the end. Other times, things seem real calm, but suddenly they get explosive."
"Whether a juvenile or adult (is involved in the disturbance), we are trained from day one in the academy that the domestic-related radio calls are the most dangerous," Pulley said. "You are dealing with human emotions, and humans aren't perfect. You should have a little fear reserved, to protect yourself."