Quick escape (ESC)

Intervening in a violent incident

Content warning This page involves descriptions and discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

Occasionally you might be a first responder to the scene of a violent incident, with either someone you know or with a complete stranger. An incident might involve physical abuse or it might not. Remember that a verbal altercation between partners may not be just a ‘lover’s tiff’ but could be an episode of verbal or emotional violence.

Many of us become frozen in these situations and we just don't know what to do. We all just need to step in sooner (if it is safe to do so) and ask, "Are you ok?"

Domestic violence specialist Rachel Neary offers the following tips on how to respond.

1. Gut instincts are often right

Your very first sense of 'something's not right here' or a strong feeling that someone is in danger or at risk of harm, is worth trusting.

2. We all try and make sense of a situation before we intervene

You might find yourself rationalising or even minimising the screaming, thinking: 'someone's just had a bad dream', 'someone's having a night terror or psychotic episode', or 'some young kids are drunk'. The situation may be none of these and not even close.

3. There is usually no harm in asking, "Is everything ok?" and "Do you need help?"

Stepping in often seems like the biggest hurdle. So if you do intervene, keep your phone on you at all times and have a friend and/or other bystanders nearby. Evaluate your own safety and risk, but that evaluation does not mean you must simply exit the situation. It may mean that before you approach a perpetrator you stand at a safe distance and say, “I’m phoning the police” or if safe to do so, you take photos. Every situation is different.

4. Things can happen very quickly after you intervene

This situation may be quite confusing initially as you might be hearing multiple explanations at once.

5. Always believe their disclosure

This might mean saying clearly to them, “I believe you”. It may be exactly what they need to hear.

6. You can be an active bystander

An active bystander will always:

  • listen
  • communicate “I believe you”
  • call for help (for example, ring 000)
  • keep yourself and the victim safe until help arrives - usually the emergency operator will keep you on the phone until the responders arrive which may feel like an hour, but usually it will be under 10 minutes.

In many cases, once police/paramedics arrive, your role as an active bystander may be over. However, if the victim is female and only male officers or paramedics show up, do not leave until at least one other female responder arrives.