As part of an in-depth investigation into domestic violence in Springfield and Greene County, Springfield Daily Citizen reporters Steve Pokin and Jackie Rehwald rode with separate Springfield police officers on Easter — Sunday, April 9 — to observe officers Jeff Hook and Landon Hugo respond to emergency calls of domestic violence. Need help? See related story.
Who is friend and who is foe can shift in a heartbeat when police respond to calls of domestic violence.
That’s what makes such calls so dangerous for officers.
“They are upset when they call police,” Officer Jeff Hook said. “But by the time you get there, they are not 100 percent convinced that the person that they called on should go to jail.”
Hook, 43, has been an officer eight years — the past year in Springfield. Prior to policing, he was in the military, including a stint as a drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood.
Once on scene, he said, the person thought to be the victim — who had called police — can have a sudden change of heart and the officer is now threatened by both the abuser and victim.
“When you get love and emotion involved, there is no telling what is going to happen,” he said. “That’s why you don’t go to those calls by yourself.”
Instead, Springfield police typically wait for a second officer to arrive.
“You don’t always know what’s going on when you walk into the call,” said Sgt. Chris Rasmussen, who oversees the department’s domestic violence unit.
- Part I: Black eye for Greene Co.
- Part II: Obstacles to leaving
- Part III: Systemic issues
- Part IV: Searching for solutions
“Domestic violence calls are typically very, very energized,” he said. “It’s personal with those folks that are involved. And so I would say it’s just a very dynamic situation, and they can deteriorate quickly.”
Missouri is one of the few states that does not require an officer to make an arrest when responding to an initial call of domestic violence. In Missouri, police must make an arrest if they respond a second time to a call of domestic violence at the same address within 12 hours of the first call.
Drunk father threatens to kill adult son — to shoot him, cut off head
Not all domestic violence calls involve a couple or a man and a woman.
On a Sunday afternoon, dispatch sent Officer Landon Hugo to an apartment complex in southeast Springfield. The caller reported he had been getting threatening phone messages from his father.
Hugo unbuckled his seatbelt as he maneuvered the patrol vehicle into the parking lot.
“Always unbuckle before you get to the address in case they start shooting at you,” he said.
Inside the first-floor apartment, Hugo finds the alleged victim — a young man in his 20s with a despondent and sad expression — sitting cross-legged on the couch.
The man’s two roommates watched from the kitchen with concern. The man explained that his father left four or five threatening messages on his phone.
This is not the first time, the man said in a soft voice. His father had left similar messages in November and actually came to the apartment and tried to get inside. Police responded to that incident so a report should be on file, he said.
The young man put his cell phone on speaker and played messages left by what sounded to be an intoxicated, angry man.
Hugo removed his body cam and placed it near the man’s phone to record the messages.
The man on the phone screamed and yelled profanities, telling his son repeatedly he would kill him and his roommates — that he would come to the apartment and shoot each of them, that he would “take them out,” and would cut his son’s head off. The messages went on for several minutes.
After the first two messages, Hugo told the man he had enough recorded to present to prosecutors for possible charges.
Hugo told the man to call 911 if his dad shows up and handed the man a list of resources for victims.
“Do you know about the Family Justice Center?” Hugo asked.
He shook his head no. He said that he filed for an ex parte order in November but wasn’t sure what happened with it.
Hugo informed him of the Family Justice Center, 1418 E. Pythian St., where an advocate would walk him through the process of filing for an order of protection. The advocate would also explain about resources at the center to help keep the man safe from his father.
The young man seemed relieved to know help was available and thanked Hugo. He said he’d go to the Family Justice Center when it opened the following day.
Back in the patrol vehicle, Hugo said he often tells people about the Family Justice Center, which opened in 2018. The center is a one-stop-shop for victims of abuse. All services are free and it’s staffed with representatives from law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office, state Children’s Division, legal services and advocates from The Victim Center and Harmony House.
“It’s just a great resource,” Hugo said. “One of the hardest things about getting resources is having to find resources. Having them all in one spot is incredible.”
Was a crime committed? If so, what was it?
In response to a call reporting domestic violence, Officer Hook drove to a house on West Madison Street and the grandmother of an 18-year-old who might or might not be a victim came to the porch.
She told Hook the 18-year-old has an infant and the father 30 minutes earlier arrived drunk and took the baby and was heading back to Branson, where he lives.
The father was not driving; a different male was, she said. The grandmother told Hook the driver might be drunk, too, but did not explain why she believed this. The driver had stayed in the pickup.
The 18-year-old and her younger brother likely could be found at nearby Westport Park. They left the house after the incident. One of them will be holding gold-colored roller skates.
Hook almost drove past them. The girl is about 5-feet tall and looks like she is 12, not 18. He spotted the brother holding the gold roller skates.
Soon, Officer Leroy Blankenship arrived. This area of North Springfield is his beat.
The 18-year-old told Blankenship she had a piece of paper saying the father is not to have custody of the baby on this day. Blankenship asked if her paperwork happened to be from a court of law.
It was not, she said. “It’s something him and I drew up.”
She explained that the father appeared drunk, shouted at her and swore at her, but he did not strike her.
Blankenship gave her a small pamphlet with information on how she could get help if she believes she is a victim of domestic violence.
He further suggested she contact the Greene County Family Justice Center, and he reviewed with her how to file for an ex-parte order, which could prevent the father from having contact with her for up to 30 days. Another court hearing could be scheduled after that.
The officers conclude that if a crime was committed it might be drunken driving by the other male who was behind the wheel of the pickup.
They contacted the Greene and Taney county sheriff’s departments and advised them to watch for the blue pickup along Highway 65 because the driver might be under the influence.
If only cops could say, ‘Dude, you need to leave’
Officers must have a probable cause to make an arrest, Rasmussen said. A suspect can be held up to 24 hours while a decision is made by prosecutors on whether to file charges.
That 24 hours gives victims an opportunity to adjust to what can be drastically different circumstances brought about by a domestic violence arrest. The victim might want to move or change locks or get an order of protection.
To establish probable cause, officers are trained to look for evidence of assault such as scrapes, black eyes, broken bones and especially strangulation.
(As part of this reporting project, the Springfield Daily Citizen reviewed over 150 probable cause statements from 2022 domestic assault cases and one-third involved an allegation of choking or strangulation.)
“If I show up, and Jane says, ‘John just punched me’ and she has zero physical injuries and there’s no witness to corroborate anything like that, we’re likely not going to take that person into jail,” Rasmussen said.
“We’re going to emphasize separation, each person going into a safe place. You can’t just be taking people to jail for ‘he said/she said.’
If the victim has alleged an assault, he added, it is department policy for the officer to write a report. Police often will return to look for evidence of assault, such as a bruise that might not have been visible earlier.
In the end, officers are limited on what they can do when 911 callers contact police because they want another person to leave the residence, even though they both might live there and no crime has occurred.
According to Hook, “If we showed up and could say, ‘Dude, you need to leave and you need to leave right now,’ that would make our job super easy.’ But we don’t make the laws.”
Police gauge potential risk of murder with lethality assessment
Springfield police use what is called a “danger assessment” or a “lethality assessment” as a tool to quickly determine how likely it is a victim of domestic violence will be killed by their intimate partner.
Man claims ex is violating protection order
Around 4:15 p.m., dispatch notified Hugo a male caller reported his ex-girlfriend was violating a protection order by being inside the rental home they once shared.
By the time Hugo arrived, two other officers were on scene and talking to the alleged victim. They had confirmed the man does have a full order of protection against his ex.
The man said he lives in the building behind the main house. According to the man, his ex was inside the main house, which is a violation of the court’s order.
The officers had knocked on the door of the main house, but no one responded. Dogs could be heard from inside but the windows were covered with blankets, making it impossible to see inside.
Several times the man told the officers he has nowhere else to go and that his ex is dangerous. One of the officers promised to write an incident report so the court and prosecutor were aware of the situation.
As he walked back to his patrol vehicle, Hugo explained what prevented officers from making a forced entry. They did not have a warrant.
“Fourth amendment,” Hugo said. “It protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
He sensed something wrong, but she refused help
Rasmussen knows the frustration of trying to help someone who won’t accept it.
Years ago, he and other police responded to a 911 call that indicated an abduction — a man was seen forcing a woman into his vehicle. A witness captured the license plate and police located the truck outside a house on Talmage Street.
Officers gathered information and learned who likely was in the house and what their relationship was. The woman apparently lived there.
Over some 30 minutes, Rasmussen said, law enforcement convinced the man that they only wanted to make sure the woman was not hurt and was not abducted. He finally let them in. He said she was upstairs.
“I went upstairs and said, ‘Hello? Are you here?’ No response, no nothing,” Rasmussen said.
“We find her eventually, crouched behind an entertainment center. She was hiding back there. Don’t know why she’s hiding. She has no warrants.
“She came out and I can remember talking to her. And warning bells and sirens are going off in my head. This is not good in any way, shape or form. It is just not good. I’m a big proponent of if your conscience is telling you something, pay attention to it.
“It’s all those nonverbal cues or the way people are saying things. And over 20 years of doing this, you start to recognize those things.”
He asked the other officers present to leave the room so he could talk to her alone.
“She admits to me this isn’t a good situation. She is in fear for her safety. But she absolutely refuses any assistance from us. She refuses to leave the home. She refuses to do anything. … He wouldn’t leave, she wouldn’t leave.
“I walked away with a feeling in the pit in my stomach. I can’t help her because she won’t take it, but she needs it.”
Rasmussen said in March that he had recently driven by the house and saw the same truck outside the same house.
“I don’t know what happened to her. I know she isn’t dead. … So either she managed to get out on her own, got help from someone, or they’re still in that situation.”
Officer orders him to remove backpack, then cuffs him
Information on officer Hook’s in-car computer provided details: a woman called 911 and said a man assaulted her at her home on West Division; he was intoxicated; he did not have a weapon; seven children were in the house; and the man went outside and then returned to the house.
The “returned to the house” grabs Hook’s attention. It could mean he went back inside to get a gun.
The man, perhaps in his 50s, sits alone on a lawn chair in the front yard. He drinks something from an aluminum can and wears a backpack. A few feet from him, a slab of tree smolders in a grill pan on the driveway.
The sun shines; wood smoke fills the air.
Hook waits a minute for beat officer Timur Dzhabbarov to pull up.
“She hit me with that mother f**king stick right there,” the man says. His speech is slurred.
“I was sitting right here, chilling, drinking a couple of beers, and she said ‘I am calling the police,’ and she hit me again.”
Inside, behind a screen and an open window, the woman is visible. She listens.
“That is just what happened,” the man says. “I ain’t sugar coating it. Ask the kids, they’re going to tell you the truth.
“She spat in my face and I spat in her face,” he says. “We don’t normally do this shit.
“I was sitting right here and she hit me with that stick, twice: Boom! Boom! And she poked me in the booty with it. I ain’t did nothing that she ain’t did to me.”
The woman shouts from inside the house: “He came drunk! He came drunk! I did not hit him with the stick.”
Dzhabbarov asks him to show where he was struck and the man points to his forehead. The officer whips out his flashlight to inspect and states: “There is nothing there.”
“I knew you were going to say that anyway,” the man tells him.
Show me how the woman struck you, the officer says.
The man stands and locks his hands together over his head — in close proximity to Dzhabbarov.
Dzhabbarov, with a grip like a vice, stops the progress of the man’s hands. He orders him to sit back down.
Seated, the man tells Dzhabbarov he thinks a few years ago the officer might have tackled him in the line of duty. Dzhabbarov doesn’t think so and doesn’t remember that.
“I ain’t got no problem with whatever the f**k you do,” the man says.
It’s then, sensing belligerence, Dzhabbarov tells him to put down the can and take off his backpack.
The man hesitates and Dzhabbarov tells him again — in a tone that means time will soon expire. He complies.
Dzhabbarov wants the backpack off to handcuff the man — not necessarily to arrest him but to detain him so he can question him further, more safely, in the squad car.
Now cuffed, the man takes just one step toward the squad car when the woman’s voice booms across the yard.
“I don’t want to press charges! I wanted him to leave but I don’t want to press charges!”
Both officers ask to speak to her.
“You are no help!” she shouts. “What does that help!”
“What did you call the police for?” Dzhabbarov asks.
Dzhabbarov does his due diligence and tries again to talk to her, the victim, to hear her story. He knocks on the door. She slams the window closed.
The man sits in the back of the squad. Dzhabbarov asks a few questions to see if he might have been the victim instead of the abuser.
He is not arrested. No one is arrested. Dzhabbarov agrees to drop him off at Tom Watkins Park.
Hook heads back to his car.
“Another day,” he says.
About Living in Fear
This special investigative report explores the far-reaching and insidious nature of domestic abuse in our community. Living in Fear will be presented in four parts over the next two months:
- Part I: Black eye for Greene County, published May 8-11, looks at the depth and breadth of the problem here.
- Part II: Obstacles to leaving, to be published in late May, will examine the dynamics and complications facing victims looking to leave abusive relationships.
- Part III: Systemic issues, to be published in early June, puts a focus on the criminal justice system and potential shortcomings.
- Part IV: Searching for solutions, to be published in late June, taps local, regional and national experts in search of ways to improve the system and reduce domestic violence.
Coming later this month, Part II of the Living in Fear series: Obstacles to leaving.