Revealing that you are being abused is an important step in regaining some control over your own life. The one thing your batterer dreads is your discovery that you can make it on your own.
The fact that you are reading this means that you're thinking about taking steps to change your life. You may or may not be thinking about ending your relationship right now. You may still love your partner and want to keep trying to work things out. What you want more than anything is for him to stop his threats and violent behavior. Most women try several avenues to bring about change before leaving the relationship. The most common attempts include asking his family, friends, or fellow officers to talk to him and urge him to get help. Some women ask their partners to go with them to couples counseling. Some get a protective order, separate from their partner, or file for divorce as a warning in hopes of motivating their abuser to change. You might decide you want your friends or family to know what's happening. You might want to talk with a domestic violence advocate or attorney to explore your options.
Though it is possible that any of these strategies could work, abusers often continue to be manipulating, controlling, and/or violent. They know that their control depends on maintaining the imbalance of power in the relationship. You may be left with no choice but to focus on your own emotional and/or physical survival. It may also get to the point where your fear of what he will do to you if you stay might overcome your fear of what he will do to you if you leave.
Focusing on your own survival means that you have decided to take back control of your own life. To do that, you must regain trust in your own thought processes, intuition, and your own gut feelings.
It can be hard to rebuild your self-confidence after your abuser has destroyed it, so you may need some help to build up enough strength to withstand the loss of stability that leaving entails. You might need financial resources, affordable housing, daycare, decent employment, transportation, and many other resources to be able to survive independently. You may have a disability or health problems that complicate your situation. You will need to explore all your options, consider the personal, financial, and legal ramifications of each one, and try to minimize the risks as much as possible. This may seem overwhelming at times, especially when you are in the midst of a crisis. It may help to talk to someone you trust who can give you support and encouragement.
Every step you take to protect your life, safety, and freedom takes some of the power away from your abuser and gives it back to you. There are no easy answers. The fact that many, many women have survived domestic violence at the hands of a police officer attests to the fact that your escape and your survival are possible.
The information presented here will help you make sense of what can be a crazy-making situation. The more you can understand what is happening to you and why, the better able you will be to protect yourself, be your own best advocate, and regain control of your life.
- Talking to friends, family
- Talking to professionals
- Counseling for yourself; Couple counseling; Batterer counseling
- Calling 911
- Seeking medical care
- Talking to police supervisors/commanders
- Internal investigation
- Contacting the media; using social media
- Getting a protective order
- Trying to use the legal system; Prosecution
- Leaving the relationship
- Going to a shelter
- Changing your ID
- Divorce / separation
- Protecting your children
- Child abuse
- Child sexual abuse
- What's next? Where do we go from here?
Talking to Friends and Family
Revealing that you are being abused by your intimate partner is an important step in regaining some control over your own life. Deciding whom you can safely confide in can be complicated. Certain friends and/or family members are probably more likely than others to believe you and be able to lend the emotional support you need. If you aren't ready to take that step, you might choose to talk with a domestic violence advocate or attorney to explore your options. Whether or not you tell those closest to you about your abuse, it's usually a good idea to talk to an objective professional such as DV advocate or attorney.
Because few people — including friends, family, attorneys, and advocates — fully understand how extremely dangerous and complex your situation is, the burden of educating them falls on you. Hopefully, the information presented here will help you think things through and to explain your situation to others in a way that helps them help you. Keep in mind that though others may think that they know what is best for you, only you fully understand your situation and can determine what is in your best interest.
What others can do:
- Help you explore safety options: It is hard to think straight when you're in the middle of a crisis. Ask them to help you think of options and anticipate the potential outcomes of those outcomes. Maybe they can help you develop a realistic safety plan.
- Help you escape: Can they help you find a place to go that the abuser would not know about? Can they help you get there without using your own vehicle? Can they give/lend you cash so you don't have to use your credit cards?
- Help with legal needs: Can they help you find an attorney who has experience working with domestic violence?
- Help you identify and talk about your greatest fears: If you've been alone and haven't told anyone about the abuse, it can help to talk about your fears with someone else. What threats has he made against you and others close to you? What are you afraid he might do next?
- Help you find resources and accurate information: It might be safer if they do the research on their computer and then give you the information.
Talking to Professionals
As time goes on, many professionals may be drawn into your case. These include community advocates, shelter workers, teachers, your employer, attorneys, psychological evaluators, the police department command staff and internal affairs investigators, prosecutors, and judges. If there are divorce and custody issues involved, child psychologists, custody evaluators, the guardian ad litem (the children's attorney), and child protective services may also become involved.
It is to your benefit to be able to tell your story clearly by describing each incident accurately, in detail, and in a way that makes people listen to you. You don't want to minimize your abuse, but at the same time you don't want people to dismiss you as a 'hysterical woman.' Your counselor or advocate can help you practice telling your story so you are more comfortable relaying it to others. It is essential that you relate how you think that his job and/or the police culture is influencing his behavior at home. You and your advocate can explore your options to determine what steps to take next, being mindful of the department's anticipated response and your batterer's reaction to that response. This will help you protect yourself from the fallout.
Consider the following contrasting descriptions of the same event:
- He yelled at me for a while versus "He stood over me and yelled at me for five hours. He wouldn't let me say anything. He wouldn't let me leave the room to go to the bathroom or even to take care of the baby. Every time I tried to leave, he screamed, 'You leave when I tell you to leave.'"
- He scared me by the way he was driving versus "He was driving 70 miles an hour on city streets, weaving in and out of traffic, threatening to kill us both. He had his visor and grill lights on so the cops wouldn't stop him. He always talks about how they won't stop him, and that it's no problem if they do."
- He comes home drunk every night versus "He goes out with the other cops and drinks until he's staggering every night after his shift. He drives home drunk every night."
- He makes me account for all my time, whom I'm with or whom I'm talking to on the phone versus "He keeps me under surveillance day and night. He checks the odometer on my car; tracks me with the GPS and pings my phone. He follows me, has other cops follow me or drive by the house. He records my phone conversations."
- He spends too much money versus "He's spending huge amounts of money, way beyond what he earns. I don't know where the money is coming from."
- He and the other cops are always picking up women versus "They talk about running plates of women to get their names and addresses. They approach them in the bar or pull them over when they leave the parking lot."
- He threatens to have me arrested in front of my kids versus "He says he can get the cops to arrest me anytime he wants. He's called the police to the house before. They told him they feel sorry for him; for being married to me; that I'm crazy. They say they'd be happy to take me in for disorderly conduct or battery. Don't I have the right to protect myself against his physical attacks?"
- He tells me I'm crazy versus "He threatens to have me committed to the psych ward. He says he'll tell them I tried to kill myself or threatened to hurt the kids."
- He threatens to plant drugs in my car or my brother's car versus "He has a stash of drugs he's confiscated from dealers on the street. He brags about planting drugs in people's cars or in their pockets and then busting them for possession."
- He tells me he can find out anything about anyone versus "He runs my friends' plates and finds out all kinds of stuff about them. He called a man I was seeing and warned him to stay away from me or he'd get hurt."
- He threatened to kill me versus "He held his gun to my head and talked about how he would splatter my brains all over the room."
No matter how well you tell your story, people will still have their own opinions about who you are, what you did or didn't do: "Why don't you just leave? What's wrong with you? Why won't you listen to us?" They may even ask you what you did to make him abuse you, instruct you to pray, or to seek his forgiveness.
Carefully evaluate others' advice. You may become aware that some who claim they want to help you seem to be trying to control you. They may feel compelled to make decisions for you because they don't think you are thinking clearly or capable of acting in your own best interest. Some (including the cops and the courts) will expect you to trust in their power to protect you. Remember that they are not necessarily correct or trustworthy. It is important that you weigh everyone's advice, no matter how well-intentioned, if your gut tells you that they are trying to take over. On the other hand, try to remain open to considering all options. Always remember that you have every right to make your own decisions.
If you want counseling for yourself, check out what local resources are available. Be aware that some domestic violence agencies have close working relationships with local law enforcement agencies. Some agencies are part of one-stop shops that house advocates, cops, prosecutors, child protective services, batterers' counselors, and other services all under one roof. All the service providers share your information and work as a team. If you don't want the police or prosecutors involved, do not get involved with these types of programs. If your community has an independent domestic violence agency, ask if there are members of law enforcement on the staff or board of directors of the agency. If there are, you might want to exercise caution.
Be sure the agency you choose has a confidentiality policy that prevents them from sharing your information with anyone — including law enforcement — without your consent. Ask them to explain any exemptions to their confidentiality agreements, such as mandated reporting of child abuse allegations or suspicions. If it's not possible for you to physically go the agency, arrange to have counseling sessions over the phone, using a friend's phone as a safety precaution. Many domestic violence programs also offer counseling for children and adolescents.
Advocates are knowledgeable about the dynamics of domestic violence and can provide information, resources, and support. Some counselors/advocates have an unwarranted faith in the police and criminal justice system and the foundation of their safety planning is police and court protection. If you don't wish to involve law enforcement in any way, clarify that and ask them to help you sort through alternative options. An experienced domestic violence advocate might be able to help you sort out which of your abuser's acts the department is likely to consider to be his private life and not of their concern, versus actions they consider to be a threat to the department's public image, a violation of law or departmental policy, or a misuse of police authority or equipment.
An advocate can:
- Validate your experience and feelings.
- Provide a reality check when you doubt yourself.
- Help you articulate your fears and needs.
- Help you focus and assess your situation.
- Help you explore options and their potential consequences.
- Help you develop and support your safety plan.
- Advocate for you within the legal and other community systems.
- Attempt to hold police departments accountable.
- Provide information and insight about how the criminal justice system works.
- Help you anticipate the department's and prosecutor's responses if you decide to use the criminal justice system.
- Help you find resources, books, and websites for information.
- Provide referrals.
- Assure you that you have support and are not alone.
- Assure you that you are not going crazy.
Couple's counseling is not advised, at least in the beginning. The imbalance of power in your relationship makes it impossible for you to safely express your thoughts or emotions. If the therapist shares your partner's values, the therapist may reinforce his sense of entitlement to dominate and control you. Your resistance to his control and refusal to submit to his authority may become the focus of the sessions. If the therapist understands that the issue is power and control and points this out to your partner, he may accuse the therapist of being biased in your favor and of working against him.
Couple's counseling can even be dangerous. It's likely that your abuser will take what you disclose in the sessions and use it against you. He'll probably be furious that you talked about personal matters, or accuse you of making him sound like a monster while you presented yourself as an angel. The therapist will not be there to defend or to protect you after the counseling session is over.
You might want to ask yourself the following questions when thinking about counseling:
- Does he regret what he did because he hurt and betrayed you, or because of the consequences to his career and his reputation?
- Does he accept full responsibility for his actions, or does he blame you, others, or the stress of the job?
- Does he try to make you feel sorry for him because he feels so bad?
- Does he complain that you, the judge, attorneys, or others are holding him to a higher standard because he is a police officer?
- Does he believe that he is different from the batterers he arrests?
- What is his attitude toward responding to domestic violence calls?
- Is he aware of other men's disrespectful and abusive behavior toward women and is he willing to confront it in himself?
- Is he willing to keep all his weapons outside the home?
- Does he demonstrate a willingness to do whatever it takes to change his behavior, including attending a counseling group for civilian batterers?
- Would he respect your decision to end your relationship?
Batterer intervention counseling
When an officer attends "general" counseling through the department, the counselor is likely to frame his behavior to be the result of stress, long hours, poor anger management, or poor impulse control rather than what it is — the effort to dominate and control you.
Many officers resist seeking help for fear of losing their job, being demoted, or having their personal problems exposed. Most do not trust that the department's Employee's Assistance Program is confidential. Seeking counseling or treatment raises fears of being placed on administrative or medical leave or being found unfit for duty; it could ruin their chances for promotion or preferred assignments. For all these reasons, most batterers will not voluntarily attend counseling.
If your abuser does see an individual counselor or therapist, it is important that he sees one who has an expertise in domestic violence. It is astounding how many professionals fail to recognize men's violent behavior and patterns of coercion, control, and entitlement as forms of abuse. Your abuser might manipulate the therapist into unwittingly colluding with him in blaming you for provoking him by pushing his buttons. He might convince the therapist that you are making false allegations to exercise power over him. The therapist may diagnose his behavior as a symptom of PTSD, poor impulse control, intermittent explosive disorder, or simply as due to the stress of his job. Many people — including professionals — fail to recognize that police officers don't just lose it; they are in control of themselves, proven by their ability to refrain from using violence when colleagues, their commanding officer, or a judge provokes them.
A well-facilitated group with other batterers is the most appropriate type of intervention with abusers. Cops resent having to attend groups with common "wife-beater assholes" whose behavior they claim to despise. They refuse to identify their own behavior as abusive. Cops have their attorneys argue that their violent behavior is not indicative of domestic abuse but is a result of the stress of the job, being in constant danger, desensitization, rotating shifts, frustration with the department and the legal system. His attorney may request that he be allowed to see a therapist of his choice rather than attend a group for batterers. This pretty much defeats the purpose of mandated counseling, which is to identify his power and control issues.
Union contracts may prevent a department from mandating an officer to attend a batterers intervention program as a condition of continued employment (disciplinary action), but judges can impose counseling as a condition of sentencing, visitation/custody agreement terms, or pre-trial diversion. If your abuser is convicted, his sentence will probably be mandated counseling, not jail time.
Genuine change, if it occurs at all, takes time and effort. It's not safe to base your decision to stay with the abuser on whether he attends general counseling or a batterer intervention group. An abusive officer whose job is at risk always has the potential to become more violent or employ more subtle tactics.Go to index
It doesn't matter who calls 911 — you, a child, neighbor, or stranger. A 911 call starts a process that often goes far beyond your immediate need for help. It draws the complexity of the criminal justice system into your life.
No matter how hard you may have tried to avoid it, the time may come when you, one of your kids, or a neighbor feel compelled to call 911 during or after an incident. Your abuser may have already taunted you by saying, "Go ahead and call the police — you'll see what happens." He's told you that no one will believe you because it's your word against his, and cops stick together. And besides that, he says, he's already told them that you're nuts. It's important that you know what the responding officers are supposed to do. If they fail to follow protocol, don't confront them directly; document it later.
If your abuser is a person of color, you may be even more reluctant to call 911 for fear the police will respond too aggressively. You may fear responding officers will act out their racism or that you will reinforce their pre-existing negative stereotypes. Your abuser may have told you that his supervisors and colleagues are prejudiced against him and would relish the opportunity to arrest him and see him harshly disciplined or terminated. Research confirms that many departments hold nonwhite officers to a higher standard than white officers.
Most departments have established protocol for how officers are to respond to a domestic violence call, but few have a policy specific to police-perpetrated domestic violence. If your police department does have a separate policy, it probably requires that responding officers call a supervisor to the scene. There is no guarantee however, that a supervisor will be any less biased than are the responding officers. Supervisors and responding officers always exercise discretion on how to handle a 911 call. If they fail to follow protocol, you can report it later. If possible, get the name and badge number of each officer present.
Your abuser's status as a police officer does not negate your constitutional right to equal protection of the law. Nevertheless, the response you get from the responding officers, their supervisor, and even from the chief depends on their personal integrity, the department's willingness to accept liability — and politics. When responding officers withhold or withdraw police protection, it is an abuse of police power.
When police respond to any domestic violence call, officers are supposed to use all reasonable means to prevent further abuse. In most states, whenever an officer believes that abuse has occurred they are required to take steps to prevent further abuse, including:
- Provide or arrange transportation for you to a medical facility for treatment or to a place of safety such as a domestic violence shelter.
- Arrest the alleged abuser if they have probable cause to believe a crime was committed.
- Write a police report.
- Offer immediate and adequate information of your rights including your right to obtain a protective order or to begin criminal proceedings.
- Advise you to preserve evidence such as torn clothing, damaged property, and photos of injuries or damages.
- Provide referrals to local domestic violence agencies.
When the police arrive at the scene and learn that the perpetrator is a police officer, they usually treat him differently than they would a civilian. They may respond to their fellow 'officer in distress' rather than to you, the victim. Your abuser might go outside to greet them and tell them his side of the story before you have a chance to talk to them. Don't be surprised if they stand outside and commiserate with him for a while before they even check to see if you're okay. He may deny that he laid a hand on you or he might admit but justify it. He might say he had to hit you to calm you down because you were hysterical; say he had to restrain you from hurting yourself or him and display scratches, bruises, or bite marks as evidence that you were out of control or attacked him; that you did or said something that provoked him.
Responding officers might resent you for crossing the line by involving the department in your personal matters and show more concern about the implications for your abuser's career than for your safety. They may be sympathetic to him and insensitive or disrespectful to you. If they sense that you are ambivalent about what to do next, they may play on your emotions and remind you that your charges could result in losing everything you have. They may dissuade you from signing a criminal complaint and tell you it would be best to let them handle the situation in-house, get him some help. Or, they may arrest the abuser even if you urge them not to.
Arresting the abuser
It is not up to you whether the police make an arrest. In most states, an officer must make an arrest if they have probable cause to believe that a crime was committed. This means they don't have to witness the crime to make an arrest, but can rely on evidence at the crime scene, including what the victim(s) and witness(es) say, victim injuries, torn clothing, and property damage. (For information on your state's domestic violence laws, visit WomensLaw.org.)
If you are arrested
Battered women who have been arrested face extremely difficult choices and are often given poor or incomplete information and advice when they are arrested.
Among the many reasons you might be afraid to involve the police is the fear that your abuser will follow through on his threat to have you arrested. He understands the power of arrest: it deprives you of your freedom and dignity, takes you from your kids, prevents you from arranging for their care, and cuts you off from communication with the outside world. While you are in police custody, he will have custody of your children.
Some batterers go so far as to self-inflict injuries which they show to the responding officers saying, "Look what she did to me." It then becomes a "he said/she said" situation in which it's your word against the word of a police officer. He may tell them that you are a danger to yourself or your children, that you are on drugs, that you are mentally unstable, or that you intend to abduct the kids. You are particularly vulnerable to this manipulation if you do use drugs, drink, or have mental health issues. An arrest puts you at increased risk and poses some serious long-term consequences:
- You may not be eligible for services from your community family violence program or shelter if they are not allowed to provide services to a defendant in a criminal case.
- You may not be able to afford legal counsel or find a defense attorney who will accept your case.
- If you are charged with a crime, you may be coerced into taking an unfair plea bargain to end the ordeal.
A plea bargain is an offer from the state's attorney to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. The lack of adequate legal counsel and desire to end the ordeal quickly may lead you to plead guilty or accept a plea bargain. Refusing to accept a plea gives you an opportunity to prove your innocence in court and be acquitted, but it prolongs the legal process. It may delay your returning home to your children, cause you to lose your job, and prolong getting things back to normal. On the other hand, accepting the plea bargain has several negative long-term negative consequences you need to consider. Having a criminal record because of a conviction or a plea bargain may have serious long-range ramifications:
- A conviction may prevent you from getting professional licenses or employment in many occupations.
- Conviction, probation, or parole could affect eligibility for public benefits such as public housing.
- Landlords frequently conduct criminal background checks and may refuse to rent to you.
- The fact that you were convicted of a crime either because of a trial or plea will be used against you in any custody hearing.
- A conviction of certain crimes may prompt deportation.
- Convicted felons may lose the right to vote, to serve on a jury, or to hold public office.
Despite the potential downsides of accepting a plea bargain, plea bargains are not bad for all women. Taking a plea may absolutely be in your best interests. Each situation requires an individualized assessment. You and your defense attorney must examine and weigh all the advantages and downsides of any option — be it taking a plea, accepting a deferral, or going to trial.
If you have been arrested, are charged with a crime, are considering a plea, going through a trial, waiting to be sentenced, appealing your case, or are incarcerated, suggest that your advocate or defense attorney contact the National Clearinghouse for Defense of Battered Women (NCDBW) for information and assistance (800-903-0111, Ext. 3). NCDBW has expertise in the issues facing victims of domestic violence who are charged with crimes and/or incarcerated.
Responding officers have a great deal of power: they write the police report, take the photographs, collect and preserve the evidence, and provide testimony in court. Responding officers or investigators are supposed to take photographs of your injuries at the scene. Investigators are supposed to take additional photos, approximately 24 hours and 48 hours later because bruises develop over time. Responding officers should also take photos of any damaged property, overturned furniture, holes in walls, smashed dishes, ripped clothes, a broken phone. Anything that shows evidence of violence or of a struggle is valuable evidence. If your abuser broke into your home there may be damaged locks, doors, or window frames.
Even if the police take photos, it's a good idea to have someone else take photos too in case the department's official photos are 'lost' or misplaced. If you need medical attention, ask the doctor or hospital to take photographs for your medical record. If you do not seek medical attention, ask a friend to take photos. Make sure the date and time is saved on the picture.
Before the officers leave the scene, ask them for the report number. They may say there is no need for them to write a report, but in most states, the law requires police to make a written report each time they respond to a domestic violence call.
Review the police report for accuracy. The incident report is supposed to be an unbiased written record of the responding officers' observations, summaries of witness statements, and descriptions of seized evidence. But in reality, officers make a multitude of decisions as to what to include or omit in a report that can seriously affect the outcome of your case.
The police report is a key factor in the prosecutor's decision to pursue charges. A well-prepared and accurate report clearly identifies all parties present at the time of the incident; provides an account of events from everyone present; details the responding officers' observations of the scene; and summarizes the responding officers' actions.
It is important that you read the report to verify that it is accurate. This guards against any discrepancies between the batterer's account of events and yours, plus any tendency responding officers may have to describe the incident in a way more favorable to their colleague. If the report is inaccurate, don't confront the responding officers directly. You should request that the department amend the report to include your account of the incident. Access to the police report will vary across jurisdictions. Some police agencies or prosecutors readily provide a copy of the report to you. Others only provide a copy of the criminal complaint and not the report itself. Get copies of the original and any amended reports. Make duplicate copies of both and keep them in a safe place. That way you are sure to have copies in case the originals are somehow 'lost.'
Checklist: What you can do
Despite laws, policies, and procedures, officers might protect your abuser by not filing an official report, not taking photos, not collecting evidence, not making an arrest, or not notifying supervisors about the incident. The police code of silence dictates that cops protect and defend other cops and present a united front against any threat of an investigation. If there is a discrepancy between what your abuser told them, what you told them, and what they observed at the scene, they may come to a consensus on some version of the story and then stick to it. If they write a report it will reflect the agreed upon version. Their actions can make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove your case in criminal court.
To help ensure appropriate response, you can:
- Insist that a supervisor be called to the scene. Many departments require this by policy.
- Try to get the police report number and the names and badge numbers of responding officers.
- Give an honest account of what happened. Include if you have been drinking, if you used physical force against the abuser in response or because you felt threatened. If you do not provide a complete account of events at this point, any inconsistencies that emerge later will hurt your credibility or could lead to your arrest.
- Write down everything you can remember about the incident as soon as possible. Your account should include who was present (including children); what everyone said and did; any threats, physical attacks, and property damage; the cause and severity of any injuries; and what the police said and did when they were there. Don't forget to include the date and time.
- Take pictures of the scene and ask someone to photograph any bruises or other injuries, even if photos were taken by responding officers and/or in the emergency room. (Pictures should also be taken 2 to 5 days later because bruises darken over time.) Take pictures of any damaged furniture, broken doors, damage to your car, or other property damage.
- Keep notes, photos, and other documentation in a secure location that the abuser can't easily access. For example, a locked cabinet in an advocate's office, a safe deposit box, or with your attorney.
If your abuser works in a different jurisdiction than where you live, his employing department is liable for his actions and your local department is liable for your protection. If the members of either department are unresponsive to your complaints, consider contacting the mayor, the village board, or the county sheriff. As elected officials they are susceptible to public pressure. Carefully consider potential consequences and make a contingent safety plan before you take action. If you decide to take this route to be heard, keep in mind that the local police might retaliate against you.
Some women who fail to get a satisfactory response from local departments try to report to the state police, the Federal (or their state's) Bureau of Investigation, or the Department of Justice, but these agencies rarely, if ever, get involved in local departments' affairs.Go to index
Seeking Medical Care
It would seem like an uncomplicated decision to go to the hospital for treatment of injuries due to physical or sexual violence. But for a police victim, even this can be a complicated and potentially dangerous decision. The officer's professional status can thwart your attempts to obtain treatment, emotional support, and personal safety.
Hospital staff usually have a close working relationship with local law enforcement. Police are frequently at the hospital to take reports or interview victims and witnesses to accidents or crimes. Conversely, police assist hospital staff by giving them information about incidents or accidents that resulted in patients being brought to the hospital. If you seek medical care and are honest about the cause of your injuries, you may find that hospital staff find it hard to believe your account; they may not want to believe that the cop they know and like is a batterer. Countless women have gone to the doctor or hospital with injuries that are indicative of domestic violence or sexual assault (such as black eyes, broken bones, cracked ribs, evidence of an attempted strangulation, internal injuries, bruises on arms or legs in the exact shape and size of fingertips) but made up stories about having walked into an open cupboard, having slipped and fell in the shower, or having fallen down a flight of stairs. Some practitioners accept and document these unlikely explanations while others note that "injuries are inconsistent with the patient's explanation." If you lie about what happened, you damage your credibility. You also forfeit any chance of using your medical records as evidence in court should you ever need them to establish a pattern of violent behavior.
Different hospitals and health care facilities are subject to different policies and state laws related to screening patients for domestic violence and sexual assault, and there are also liability concerns related to patient safety and confidentiality. Many states have laws on whether medical personnel are mandated to report suspicions or reports of domestic violence or sexual assault to local law enforcement agencies. There are variations, but if the assault involved a weapon, it is likely that the facility will call the police. Obviously, in cases that involve the wife or girlfriend of a police officer, notification of law enforcement by hospital staff could well be the most dangerous course of action possible. Try to explain this to them and ask them to at the very least help you implement a safety plan before they involve law enforcement.
Health insurance also complicates matters. Many victims of police domestic violence have no choice but to use their abuser's department-issued health insurance. Insurance claims generally go to the insured employee to review, so your abuser will know when you received medical care, what your injuries were, and how you explained your injuries. For this reason, many women live with untreated injuries rather than seek needed medical attention. Besides endangering your physical health, you will not have medical documentation to establish a pattern of abuse should you ever need it.Go to index
Talking to Someone in the Department
You are calling a family member's character into question and by doing so you have made yourself an outsider.
There are several reasons you might consider talking to someone in a command position in the department. Some women's only goal is to get the abuser to stop his violent behavior. Many believe that only someone at command level will be able to motivate change. Other women fear that they won't receive police protection when they need it so they want to put the chief on notice. Some are seeking justice for themselves or believe that the community shouldn't be policed by an abusive officer. It can be infuriating to know that abusers continue to enjoy the status and privileges of being officers while flagrantly breaking the law.
It's difficult to know which of your abuser's behaviors his department will consider serious enough to warrant intervention. Some departments have strict rules of conduct both on- and off-duty. Others may consider non-physical types of abuse — verbal abuse, sexual affairs, financial irresponsibility — as strictly personal or marital problems. They don't interfere in an officer's private life unless they think it affects his job performance. An experienced advocate or attorney may be able to help you distinguish which actions the department can dismiss as private from those that violate the law or departmental policy, misuse police power or equipment, or tarnish the department's public image.
Involving the department is a serious step that has potentially serious repercussions for both you and your intimate partner. How the department responds to you depends on many factors: policy; the size of the department; the chief's or sheriff's personal beliefs; the abuser's rank, race, reputation, and time he's been with the department; city and regional politics. Some departments are professional, others are still good ol' boy networks. If your abuser is not a straight white male, you might have additional reservations about talking to anyone in the department. You might be reluctant to reinforce any preexisting negative stereotypes or prejudices. Research and officers' experience shows that racial and gender bias in investigations leads to harsher discipline and more frequent termination for nonwhite, LGBTQ+ officers.
Consider these questions before you go to the department:
- What do you hope to accomplish?
- How much are you willing to disclose about the abuse?
- What are the department's values and standards?
- What do you want the chief or sheriff to know?
- What are the department's policies?
- What could happen as a result of your report?
You may hope that you can speak to someone confidentially, but that is extremely unlikely. Departments worry about liability, and that hinges on what they knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it. The chief or any supervisor you talk to is bound to acknowledge your complaint in some way. You will have no control over their reaction to your disclosure. They will probably call the abuser in and inform him that you have brought the matter to their attention. Depending on what you have told them and how credible they find you, the chief may or may not order an internal (and later, maybe a criminal) investigation.Go to index
The more you know about this process, the more control you may have over your safety. Build flexibility into your safety plan.
The purpose of the internal investigation is to discover the facts of the case, present the facts to the chief or sheriff, and make a recommendation on what, if any, disciplinary action should be taken. The quality and depth of the investigation will depend on the size of the department, the resources they have, their professionalism, and their integrity.
If your report triggers an internal investigation, be aware that this can be an extremely dangerous time for you. When the investigation begins, the department will notify your abuser that he is under investigation and will tell him what you told them. Your abuser will perceive your having talked to the department as a threat to his reputation and his job and will blame you for whatever action the department takes. He will do damage control by casting doubt on your character and credibility, just as police do when any citizen files a complaint. He will refute what you said to get his supervisors to dismiss the whole thing as a "he said/she said" and let it go with a strong recommendation that the two of you work things out. The batterer's skill in making you appear less than credible and less respectable will influence how officers, investigators, advocates, attorneys, prosecutors, and judges interact with you in the future. Be aware that you are particularly vulnerable if you have ever been arrested, have a criminal record, have any history of substance abuse, mental health issues, or suicide attempts.
Every department has its own protocols on how they proceed. Some departments strip the officer of his badge and service weapon and place him on restricted duty pending the outcome of the investigation. Some put the officer on (paid) administrative leave. While these actions shield the department from liability, they increase your level of danger. Your abuser is likely to use this free time to stalk and harass you, pressure you to recant, reconcile, drop the charges, or drop your protective order so that he can regain his police powers.
An investigator will take your statement as well as any history of abuse in your relationship. Internal investigators are highly skilled in drawing out information from witnesses, so be on guard if there is information you do not wish to or are afraid to share. You do not have the privilege of confidentiality, so keep your safety your highest priority. Investigators may also take statements from your family members and friends. They too should know that the abuser will eventually find out what information they provided. Many victims and their allies decide not to talk to the department because they are afraid of the abuser's retaliation. It is a personal choice whether to cooperate with the internal and/or criminal investigations.
Before you agree to an interview, think about:
- What would be your desired outcome of the investigation?
- The department is likely to interview others besides you. Who might they be and what do you think they would say?
- There is no way of knowing what information will or will not remain confidential. How much do you trust the investigating officers to refrain from discussing the case within or outside the department?
- What will you do to keep yourself safe while the investigation is in progress? Do you trust the department to provide protection if you need it?
- Do you trust the department to keep you informed about the progress and outcome of the investigation?
- Do you think you can trust the department to protect you after the investigation is over?
If internal affairs determines your complaint is valid, the case may go to a formal hearing where the abuser will have the opportunity to defend himself. Afterwards, a review board will reach one of the following findings:
- Sustained: They believe there is enough evidence to conclude that the incident occurred.
- Not sustained: They do not believe there is enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegation. This doesn't mean they don't believe it happened, only that they don't have enough evidence to sustain the complaint.
- Unfounded: They do not believe the incident occurred. (This is the most difficult finding for victims to deal with.)
- Exonerated: They agree the incident occurred, but in their judgment the officer's actions were legally justifiable.
Any one of these outcomes may put you at risk of retaliation by the abuser and/or his fellow officers.
If the department determines there is evidence that a crime was committed, it can refer the case to the state's attorney for prosecution. The state's attorney then exercises sole discretionary power as to whether to proceed with or decline criminal charges. Most of the time prosecutors do not charge police officers with domestic abuse. (Consider what happens when prosecutors have video evidence of police brutality yet refuse to pursue charges. Now imagine what is likely to happen when the violence occurs in the privacy of the officer's home.) One reason the State doesn't pursue charges is that the prosecutors rely on the police for evidence and/or testimony in all their cases and don't want to jeopardize their relationship. Another reason is that state's attorneys are elected officials and are careful not to get on the wrong side of politically-powerful police organizations.Go to index
Going to the Media
In some cases, the media can be helpful. But remember, once you open your life to media attention, there is no going back.
If the department hasn't responded the way you wanted them to, you might think that contacting the media will make them improve their response. Some people believe that making your situation public will keep you safer by holding the department or prosecutor publicly accountable, but media attention is very perilous ground. Once you open your life to media attention, there is no going back.
Your intention may be to bring attention to the issue of police-perpetrated DV, but this comes at a personal cost. A reporter or editor can distort or misrepresent your story, reporting only the most sensational or bizarre aspects of your experience. They may interview friends and family members without your permission. They may contact your abuser and the department for their side of the story. They may film you, your house, or follow you to court appearances. They may promise to keep your identity secret by distorting your voice or shadowing your features, but there is no guarantee that you will remain unidentified, especially if your story is unique or sensational.
Similar cautions apply should you be tempted to start your own blog, join an online group or forum, post on social media, or write a book; in short, if you publicly expose your abuser. You may be seduced by the opportunity to finally talk freely about your life. The biggest mistake a lot of women make is forgetting the cops' mindset and underestimating the lengths to which their abusers will go to protect their reputations or to retaliate.
Media exposure will probably upset the police department(s) involved and potentially hamper the investigation or prosecution. Your abuser may feel justified in trying to silence you through threats, intimidation, or violence. He may also find ways to discredit you and turn any public sympathy against you.
If you do decide to let the media tell your story, try to wait until the crisis has passed and you have a chance to check out reporters' reputations, credibility, and style before you place your trust in them. Media attention can be humiliating and/or frightening for your children, other family members, and friends, so you might want to talk through the possible risks and benefits with them before you proceed.Go to index
Each state has its own laws concerning protective orders. WomensLaw.org provides state-by-state legal information related to protective orders, how to represent yourself in court, and other valuable information. Remember, the legal system rarely functions in a rational or consistent manner, so it can be confusing. Contact an experienced domestic violence advocate or an attorney to get expert advice on your situation.
Deciding whether to seek an order is a complex process because there are many factors and risks involved. A protective order is a valuable tool for many victims of domestic violence, but it's not a practical or safe option for everyone. Well-meaning friends, family, your attorney, or a counselor may urge you to get an order because they believe it will ensure safety for you and your family. Child protective services, your employer, a shelter, or a public benefits worker might require you to get an order as proof that you are taking legal action to protect yourself and your children. These people may not be aware of the potential obstacles and ramifications of getting a protective order against a member of law enforcement. You have a right to get information and to make your own decision based on what you know about your situation and your abuser.
You can petition for a protective order in civil court if there are no criminal charges, or in criminal court if you are pursuing charges. There are several different provisions you can request, including that the abuser stop the abuse, grant you exclusive possession of your home or vehicle, stay away from you, not contact you by any means, pay temporary child support or other bills, address child visitation issues, and/or surrender his firearms. A protective order authorizes the police to arrest the batterer for things that would not ordinarily warrant an arrest. It is good to think about what provisions you want the order to cover before you go before the judge.
Judges in both courts (civil and criminal) are reluctant to issue a protective order against a police officer because of the potential negative impact on his professional life. Judges have discretion whether to issue an order, and you may get a judge who denies your request for any number of reasons. Some deny orders when a woman doesn't conform to the judge's standards of traditional femininity or contradicts their image of a victim.
Never underestimate the potential danger in seeking an order. Carefully consider (and urge others to consider):
- Will the batterer view your action to obtain an order as an act of hostility and aggression?
- What do you think he will do to you in retaliation?
- Will the order provoke stalking behavior or a more serious attempt on your life?
- What might the abuser do to pressure you to drop the order?
- What is his department's policy regarding protective orders?
- Will the local police enforce an order against another officer?
- Will the court accuse you of using the order as leverage in a divorce or custody battle?
- What would be his reaction if the media finds out about the protective order?
Many civilian abusers obey protective orders because they fear being arrested or other legal consequences of violating the order. Police officers, however, seldom fear those consequences. They are confident that fellow officers, prosecutors, and the courts will be reluctant to enforce an order against one of their own. In some cases, getting a protective order can do more to exacerbate your situation than to help it. Always remember that you know your abuser better than anyone else does, and this makes you the most qualified person to predict his reactions and make decisions about your safety. No matter how well-intentioned others are, you are the one who must live with the consequences of your decisions.
Obtaining a protective order against a police officer does not by law automatically result in the confiscation of his weapons or the loss of his job. Federal law allows an exemption for on-duty officers to retain their weapons while under protective orders unless otherwise stipulated in the order. However, allowing the officer to keep his firearm exposes the department to liability, so some agencies do require the officer to surrender all firearms. There are qualifying conditions under which that may happen, so it is important that you get information from your own attorney or legal advocate. Also, have your attorney or advocate contact your abuser's department (if they can do so without jeopardizing your safety) and find out the department's policy.
Obviously, the power of a protective order hinges on the ability and willingness of the police and the courts to enforce it. If a judge or fellow officers prioritize protecting the officer's career over your safety, they may refuse to enforce the order.
If you believe that getting an order will only make the abuser more violent, do not get one even if others advise you to do so.
Civil protective orders
Remember that states vary in their laws related to protective orders. See WomensLaw.org for state-specific information.
Proceeding in civil court allows you to maintain more control in your case than you have in criminal court, so many victims choose a civil order as a first step. A civil protective order is less threatening to the abuser's job because it does not involve criminal charges against him. (If he chooses to violate the order, however, he can be charged with a criminal offense.) In civil court, you can represent yourself (pro-se), retain an attorney to represent you, or be accompanied by a legal advocate from your local domestic violence agency.
To obtain a civil order, you and your advocate or attorney will prepare court documents explaining the history of your abuse and what help you are seeking from the court. You will swear before the judge that what you said in the documents is true and that you fear for your safety. The judge can grant an emergency order which will be valid until the court date the judge gives you for a hearing to request an extended order. Your initial or emergency OP is temporary. When it expires, you must return to court to request an extended (plenary) order.
In the meantime, the abuser will be served with the court documents you prepared for the judge. He will be fully aware of the allegations you have made against him. He might hire an attorney to help him prepare and to present his side of the story at the next hearing. His attorney may argue that the abuser does not present a danger to you so you don't need an extended order. Many judges are reluctant to grant a long-term order when the respondent is an officer because of the potential impact on his job.
Your abuser may use any of the following tactics:
- Promise that he will change his behavior without needing a court order to do so.
- Ask the judge to vacate your temporary or emergency order, claiming there is no basis for it.
- Request a 'mutual' order, claiming that you pose a threat to him.
- Try to manipulate you into dropping the order by offering to pay child support and expenses.
- Intimidate you into dropping the order by threatening you, your children, or friends and family.
- Subpoena you for a deposition with his attorney.
You may have to appear in court multiple times before a plenary order is granted. If your protective order prohibits your abuser from contacting you, any form of communication violates the order. Save any correspondence from your abuser even if it appears nonthreatening as these records are your evidence. It's a good idea to make copies of all correspondence and important documents and keep them in a safe place to which your abuser does not have access. If you can, keep a journal of everything that happens. Consider asking your domestic violence counselor or attorney to keep your papers, mail them to yourself at a rented mailbox, or put them in a safe deposit box.
It is important that you or your attorney present your case accurately. Do not allow your abuser to intimidate you into minimizing the abuse. If the judge denies the permanent order, it will reinforce the batterer's sense of immunity and entitlement. He may also use it later to show that you have a history of attempting to ruin his career through unfounded allegations.
Criminal protective order
If you call the police and they determine that they have probable cause, they have the authority to arrest your abuser for any number of crimes. Domestic battery (which involves most acts of physical abuse) or domestic assault (which refers to threatening to harm) are the most common. If the abuser was arrested on the criminal charges and bonds out, a condition of bond in some states is that the abuser stays away from you for 72 hours. This allows you time to get a protective order. Your ability to get an order in criminal court is linked to the criminal case and you will be required to sign a criminal complaint at the state's attorney's office. The prosecutor will then present your petition and your signed complaint to the judge who has the authority to grant you an emergency order.
You cannot retain an attorney to represent you in criminal court. The state's attorney (prosecutor) handles the case and represents the interests of the State. The interests of the State are not necessarily in alignment with your interests. The state's attorney may ask for and consider your input, but you do not have the same control of the proceedings that you would have in civil court with your own attorney.
If your abuser's attorney thinks that the judge is leaning toward granting you a plenary order, they may request that the order be a mutual order. Abusers' attorneys use these mutual orders as a strategy to dilute your allegations. In essence, a mutual order claims that you are as guilty as your abuser is of harassment, intimidation, or physical abuse. It implies that the two of you have equal power and intention to harm each other, which is rarely the case. A mutual order can backfire on you in several ways, so carefully consider whether it is in your best interest to accept such a deal.
Law enforcement agencies have a degree of authority over officers, within the bounds of collective bargaining agreements and state law, which may provide a type of protective order outside the civil or criminal court system. An administrative order is a direct order to the abuser from his command level to refrain from specific conduct, such as going to your home and workplace, or contacting you via phone, text, email, or a third party. It is enforceable by the department and if he violates it, the department can discipline him for insubordination. Explore this option in place of or in addition to any civil order.
Police officers can carry their official-use firearm unless the protective order specifically states that they cannot possess a firearm at any time. [Possession of Firearms 18 USC 922(g])
You, your advocate, and your attorney should be familiar with the federal gun law, your state's laws, and the employing department's policies for gun restrictions related to allegations of police-perpetrated domestic violence, protective orders, and criminal charges.
Pending investigation, the department may or may not confiscate his service weapon, restrict him to desk duty, remove him from special units such as SWAT or drug enforcement, or suspend him. The outcome of the investigation determines what disciplinary action the department takes. Termination because of domestic violence is extremely rare despite officers' claims that a complaint is enough to end their careers.
When there is an allegation of police domestic violence, people tend to first demand that the department relieve the officer of his service weapon for the victim's safety. Though it is true that the presence of firearms greatly increases the risk of homicide in domestic violence cases, most officers have personal weapons (some of which are unregistered). They also have training to use their bodies and hands as weapons; strangulation is a leading cause of homicide in domestic violence. Departments know this. Their decision regarding the officer's service weapon is not about your safety as much as it is about the department's policy and risk of liability.
If you obtain a protective order, the abuser is not allowed to possess a personal firearm or ammunition, but many cops ignore this prohibition. Some police departments prohibit an officer who is subject to any protective order from carrying a firearm even while on duty. Other departments may allow the officer to carry a firearm on duty but require him to turn in the weapon at the end of his shift. In most departments, police officers who are subject to protective orders can carry their firearms and remain on full active duty.
If you pursue criminal charges, the federal gun law states that if an officer is convicted of a qualifying misdemeanor of domestic violence he is prohibited from possessing any firearm (unless he can get the court to expunge it from his record). Obviously, not being able to possess a firearm disqualifies an officer for duty. That is why many prosecutors, if they press any charges at all, charge lesser crimes that do not trigger the federal gun law's prohibition. Judges and juries generally avoid finding officers guilty.Go to index
Using the Legal System
The following information is not meant to deter you from using the criminal justice system, but to familiarize you and caution you about potential pitfalls of seeking protection from the criminal justice system. It's to your advantage to understand the system and have realistic expectations about what you can accomplish. Advocates in domestic violence agencies and shelters tend to exaggerate the effectiveness of the criminal legal system in helping you to stop the violence, to hold your abuser accountable, and to provide protection. The legal system often fails women who have experienced domestic violence — especially when the alleged abuser is a member of law enforcement.
The criminal justice system — and many citizens — have trouble treating a cop like a criminal, even when he is one. Criminal prosecution is rare, and convictions are even rarer. The irony here is that police officers cite the leniency of the courts as one of the highest stressors of their job. Seasoned and cynical officers even say they no longer bother to arrest suspects because offenders are so often acquitted or caught and released with a lecture or slap on the hand. But when the alleged offender is a cop his fellow officers, department, prosecutor, defense attorneys, and the police union do everything in their power to ensure he doesn't even get to trial.
If the police arrest your abuser for domestic battery or domestic assault and/or if you sign a criminal complaint, the prosecutor (state's attorney) has sole discretion to determine whether to pursue a criminal case (press charges). The prosecutor might ask you how you would like the court to proceed, but they are under no obligation to honor your wishes.
The state's attorney weighs many factors when deciding whether to pursue charges. The conviction of a police officer for a domestic violence misdemeanor results in his inability to carry a weapon (Lautenberg Amendment 1996; 18 U.S.C. 922(g) (9)), so the stakes are high. A conviction could terminate his employment in law enforcement.
The state's attorney's job is to pursue justice, but also to define what "pursuing justice" means in any particular case. Because a prosecutor's performance is judged on the number of cases won, they tend to pursue only cases they are confident will end in a conviction, and cases against cops are notoriously difficult to win. Prosecutors are also reluctant to pursue cases against cops because of their close professional (and sometimes personal) relationships with the police. Prosecuting a police officer risks alienating officers and investigators whom prosecutors rely on for reports, investigation, evidence collection, testimony, and cooperation in every case the State pursues. As elected officials, prosecutors face political pressure to avoid or pursue certain cases. They need campaign endorsements and votes, and cops and police unions wield a lot of political power. In short, law enforcement has the power to make or break every case... and the prosecutor's career. A prosecutor might choose to proceed against a cop only when there is overwhelming evidence, a high risk to the community, and public and media pressure to hold an officer accountable.
What to expect
The standard of proof in criminal court is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that all that is required for an acquittal is even a small doubt that the defendant is guilty. If the prosecutor wants to avoid the risk of losing at trial, they can offer a plea bargain which enables the officer to plead guilty to lesser charges such as disturbing the peace, criminal destruction of property, or reckless conduct which avoids triggering the gun prohibition and risking his job.
Prosecutors are concerned that witnesses in police domestic violence cases will be overwhelmed by the process and the potential consequences of either verdict. They anticipate that you may be terrified of testifying against your abuser, especially with him sitting in the courtroom. His intimidation may lead you to minimize the abuse, make vague or contradictory statements, or have difficulty remembering the details of the incident. You may be distracted, anxious, depressed, angry, emotional, or display an "inappropriate" affect. The defense attorney will use this as an indication that you are confused, lying, or unstable and therefore are an unreliable witness.
The defense attorney's job is to create reasonable doubt. They may encourage your abuser to testify because he is experienced and comfortable in court. He knows how to build a case and knows just what to say and what to leave out as he tells his version of the story. He is likely to sound reliable, objective, and candidly truthful. He may say that you self-inflicted your injuries and then falsely accused him of injuring you. He may say that he had to slap you to calm you down because you were hysterical or that he had to restrain you to prevent you from hurting yourself or him. He may claim that you attacked him so he had to defend himself, or that you reached for his weapon and he had to stop you. Based on his (anticipated) testimony, the prosecutor may demand an inordinate amount of evidence: photographs and medical records that would ordinarily be sufficient evidence in a civilian case may be deemed insufficient against a police officer.
Expect several continuances of your case. Defense attorneys use continuances as a strategy to wear you down. They know that every time you appear in court you incur expenses, emotional distress, and inconvenience. But as much a hardship as it is, it is important that you go to all court dates so that you know what is happening in your case.
Judges and juries often resist finding officers guilty of any criminal charge even with strong evidence. They tend to give cops every benefit of the doubt because a conviction can end a cop's career. The court may assume that you are motivated to fabricate allegations due to jealousy, a bitter divorce, or a custody battle. If there is any suspicion that this is a case of a 'vindictive woman' out to destroy this man's livelihood, the forces will gather to protect his career. Despite all the obstacles you must overcome to bring your case to trial, many see you as the one wielding power over the abuser — the power to destroy his career.
In rare instances, the state's attorney will pursue charges even if you refuse to cooperate. The State has the power to prosecute based strictly on evidence. This is called evidence-based prosecution. Proponents of this strategy believe that the abuser will blame the prosecutor instead of the victim for proceeding with the case. Be aware that the prosecutor has the power to coerce you to testify via subpoenas and threats of jail for refusing to cooperate and may have little regard for your safety and well-being.
Players in the system
The prosecutor's office may offer their victim witness specialist to help you navigate the legal proceedings; keep in mind that they work for the prosecutor's office and/or the police department. If your local domestic violence agency has a legal advocate, ask her to come with you to court. The legal advocate's role is to inform you of your options, explain what is happening in court (which can be very confusing), and communicate with the state's attorney on your behalf.
Your abuser and his attorney expect you to be intimidated and frightened by having to go to court and use that to their advantage. They may make a point of showing you that they are comfortable in court and personally acquainted with the bailiffs, the clerks, the prosecutor, and the judge. It is not unusual for an abuser to appear in court with an entourage of fellow officers to reinforce that he has the support of law enforcement. Therefore, it is important for you to bring an advocate, friend, or family member to court with you for emotional support.
Victims relay their common experiences:
- Fellow officers and the abuser's family members come to court to support him. Your supporters and/or witnesses feel intimidated by his supporters' presence.
- His attorney looks for inconsistencies in your testimony to undermine your credibility or twists the facts to make it look like you were the aggressor, and he is the 'real' victim.
- Officers who testify invoke the code of silence and refuse to incriminate their fellow officer.
- He presents himself well in court, is confident and composed. You are afraid that you will fall apart under severe cross-examination and lose credibility.
- The judge or jury appears to be biased in favor of the officer because of his profession.
Many people may become involved in your case. Each of them will focus on a different aspect of your situation and have their own perspective and agenda. Each of these people will have a distinct role, focus on a different aspect of your case, have their own perspective and ideas of what you should do. Some may seem as if they are trying to free you of your abuser's control only to assume control themselves. It is difficult to know whom to trust. You can safely assume that your abuser has established working relationships with some of the players. If your goal is to regain your power and independence by making your own decisions, you may need to assertively resist others' efforts to influence and/or control you.
Understanding the roles of the various players can help you:
- Police administrators... main concern is the department's liability. They have a great deal of influence over many aspects of the criminal case. Politics, publicity, the department's and the abuser's reputation all come into play.
- Prosecutors... represent the State and determine whether the State will pursue charges. They know that officers have the power to jeopardize other cases.
- Defense attorneys... are the abuser's attorneys. Their job is to prevent the State from proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer-defendant battered you. The defense attorney will attack your credibility to create doubt that you are a reliable witness telling the truth.
- Witnesses... may be afraid to testify on your behalf or you may be afraid to allow them to testify. The abuser and his colleagues pose a threat to your witnesses' safety. Witnesses for the abuser are probably fellow officers. They know how to manipulate the facts of the case. They may claim no knowledge, memory, or witnessing of the incident.
- Responding officers... may be required to give verbal testimony at the trial. They have a strong sense of loyalty to their fellow officer. They want to protect the abuser's and their own careers. How the officers choose to present their information is crucial. Your case in part depends on the accuracy of their reports, evidence they collected, photographs they took (or didn't take), and how they testify in court. There are ample opportunities throughout the process for your abuser and his fellow officers to influence the case.
- Judges... control the court and determine the outcome of the case unless it is a jury trial. They have the power to confiscate the abuser's firearms and other weapons if they believe possession puts you risk. Most women report that judges consider the impact a ruling may have on an officer's career.
- Victim witness specialists... work for the prosecutor's office and/or the police department. Their job is to facilitate the prosecution by making you feel comfortable and giving you the emotional support you need to be willing and able to testify.
- Domestic violence advocates... are there to give you information and support you. Advocates can assist you in communicating with the prosecutor and making the court aware of your concerns.
- Supporters & family... may be afraid to appear in court with you. Some may not want to get involved because of the abuser's power in the community. Others may be afraid for their own personal safety.
- Jury... are there to impartially listen to and judge the evidence. They are instructed to reach a decision of not guilty unless they are convinced of the abuser's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurists are from the general public and may share society's misperceptions, myths, and stereotypes about domestic violence, especially when the abuser is an officer of the law.
Verdict impacts your safety
Few officers are arrested for domestic violence and only a small percentage is of those cases are prosecuted. Convictions are rare.
Keep in mind that verdicts frequently have nothing to do with what really happened and are not always about serving justice. Realistically, the outcome is based on which lawyer best presents their case. An abuser will be found guilty only if the State can prove he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A verdict of not guilty is not the same as being proven innocent. It means the State failed to convince the jury of the defendant's guilt.
The system can put you in a no-win situation whether it finds your abuser guilty or not guilty. If the abuser is convicted, he is likely to lose his ability to carry a weapon and there is a possibility he will lose his job. This leaves you to deal with his retaliation and the loss of his financial support and health insurance. If he is acquitted, the court validates his belief that he is invincible and above the law, leaving little deterrent to further abuse.
Even if the judge or jury finds your abuser not guilty, give yourself credit for having had the courage to proceed. It is disheartening to realize that your abuser was right: the system does hold police officers above the law. Contrary to what many believe, the criminal justice system is not broken; it functions as it was designed to function by protecting those with power.
Civil lawsuits against the department
Civil lawsuits against law enforcement agencies are notoriously difficult to win. Threatening to sue should be the last option to consider, and then only with an experienced attorney skilled in domestic violence and civil suits against law enforcement agencies. Filing a lawsuit can put you in danger of retaliation by your abuser and/or the department. Residents of your community may not support you because they, the taxpayers, pay the police department's legal defense fees. What can seem to you to be a solid case of failure to protect or a violation of your constitutional rights can be difficult to prove and emotionally taxing to pursue.
A liability attorney may not be eager to take your case because they don't charge you upfront but take a percentage of the settlement won. If they lose they don't recoup their costs. If they win, settlement money comes out of taxpayer-funded municipality budgets, not the police department budget. Rather than incur the cost of a court case, the department may try to reach a settlement with you which can include a monetary award along with a commitment to review and improve its policy and procedures; providing targeted officer training; pledge to work collaboratively with DV advocates; and/or promise to "do everything possible to ensure that this never happens again."
Rather than pursuing a civil suit, a better strategy may be to make it clear to the department that you don't want to put yourself or anyone else through the expense or embarrassment of a lawsuit. You are simply asking the department to protect you, improve their policies and officer training, and/or to enforce the law.Go to index
Leaving Your Abuser
Leaving an abuser has proven to be the most dangerous time for victims whose abusers are civilians. It is even more dangerous for you. Your leaving will trigger your abuser's professional training to relentlessly pursue you as he would a fleeing suspect. He will view your running away as he sees it on the job — as the ultimate challenge to his power and authority. Cops go to great lengths to prove that no one gets away from a cop.
How many times have you been asked — or asked yourself — "Why don't you just leave?" There may be many reasons why you don't simply pack up and move out at this time, including that you still hope things will get better. Or, you may have the realistic fear that if you leave him, your abuser will become obsessed with tracking you down to prove that there's nowhere you can go that he can't find you. If you expect your abuser will be obsessed with finding you, working on a safety plan based on remaining in your home might well be your safest option. Still, there may come a time when the violence gets so bad that you must leave.
Your abuser has professional advantages in his efforts to track you down. The police may be skeptical of a civilian's motives when a husband asks them for help in finding his missing wife (who he alleges is a danger to herself or the children, an alcoholic or addict, or mentally unstable). When your abuser makes these allegations, however, and requests law enforcement's help, those in his network probably respond with concern, support, and assistance.
Planning is critical
It's hard to think or plan clearly when you're in the middle of a crisis.
Friends and family members are the first places your abuser will look for you. Instead, think of places your abuser wouldn't think to look for you. For example:
- Do you have any old or new friends whom the abuser does not know?
- Do relatives or friends or co-workers know anyone with whom you can stay?
- Is there a church, hospital, or other institution that might shelter you?
- Can you afford to stay in a hotel?
You might consider going to a domestic violence shelter, but the fact that your abuser is a police officer complicates this option. A shelter far away from home may be a safer option but most shelters only accept people from their own county. If you trust them, ask someone at your local DV program now — before you are in a crisis — to help you find a shelter that will accept you and your family. If you are afraid to trust your local agency because they know and work with your abuser, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE and they will assist you. Wherever you decide to go, you will need transportation. It won't be safe to take your car because it's easy for a member of law enforcement to track your vehicle.
If you have children and are even thinking about leaving the state with them, it is imperative that you discuss this with an attorney. You may think that the court will understand that you had no choice but to flee with your children, but countless women have found this not to be true. Unless you have a court order stating otherwise, if you take the children from their father without notifying him within a specific length of time as to where they are, the State can charge you with the serious crime of child abduction. State laws vary on this issue, so you need to talk to an attorney and get specific information on your state's laws. If you decide to flee despite the risk of being charged with abduction, you could end up in jail and/or lose custody of your children to the abuser or the State.Go to index
Domestic Violence Shelters
Women whose abusers are not in law enforcement can seek refuge in a domestic violence shelter, but since the police know or can find out where the shelters are located, this may not be a safe option for you. Your batterer may be on the domestic violence unit and work closely with shelter staff. A lot of shelters now have officers on their boards of directors. His may tell you, "Don't bother going to them, they know me; they won't believe you." In some cases, the shelter may be reluctant to jeopardize their relationship with the local police by harboring an officer's family.
Shelter intake procedures
As you may already have learned, you can't just call a shelter and reserve a room. Shelters are usually filled. Shelter intake policies vary, but most shelters only take women who are in immediate physical danger.
Shelter staff are required to interview you on the phone to make sure that you are eligible for shelter services. The way you tell your story and how you answer their questions will determine whether you are accepted into the shelter. They usually ask you if there has been recent physical abuse and if you are in immediate danger. They may require you to have or to get a protective order. They will ask questions regarding your physical and mental health as some shelters refuse to accept women who have a history of mental illness, substance abuse, or suicide attempts. They will also ask if you have any special needs and if you are on any medications.
You may be refused services if your abuser has filed criminal charges against you or if he has a protective order naming you as the perpetrator. (Talk to an attorney or legal advocate about counter-petitioning for your own protective order or vacating the abuser's order.)
Staff will ask you if you have children with you. Many shelters do not take boys older than 12 years, and it may be harder to find a shelter if you have several children with you. Life in a shelter is not home. Shelters have house rules, curfews, and requirements that you may be unwilling or unable to fulfill. You and your children will be away from everything that is familiar to you.
Be sure to tell them that your abuser is a police officer; they may not be equipped to provide the extra security measures you may require. It's a good idea to ask them what they will do if the police show up with an arrest warrant or a subpoena for you. While the staff may want to protect your confidentiality and safety, law enforcement may threaten them with legal action for obstruction of justice, contempt of court, or harboring a criminal.
- Shelter staff are trained in domestic violence issues, though not necessarily in cases where the abuser is a police officer. They can give you information on state domestic violence laws and assist you in obtaining a protective order. (Some require you to get one.)
- Staying in a domestic violence shelter can protect you from child abduction charges.
- Women staying at the shelter are also fleeing abusive relationships. They understand what you are going through and may be able to give you emotional support.
- Some shelter programs have transitional housing, which is longer-term housing than emergency shelter.
- Staff are trained to deal with civilian abusers who show up at a shelter, but they may not know what to do when the abuser is a cop. There is a risk that he will be able to intimidate and manipulate them.
- You may not be able to go to work and your children may have to leave their school.
- Using alcohol or drugs may result in eviction from the shelter.
- Shelter staff work closely with the criminal justice system and can inadvertently (or intentionally) share information that will get back to your batterer.
- Your abuser can discover the location of any shelter.
- Other women in the shelter may know your abuser as the officer who rescued them.
- Your presence may put shelter staff and other residents in danger.
- The shelter is too isolated to feel safe.
- You may not have safe transportation to reach the shelter. (It is not safe to take your own vehicle because it can be traced.)
- The shelter's only source of protection is the local police.
- Shelter staff may resent you for jeopardizing their relationship with the local police.
In the early days of the battered women's movement, private homes and secret refuges were created for women fleeing abusive environments. For various reasons — primarily safety, funding, and technology — these safe homes are no longer practical. Yet novels, movies, and well-meaning individuals continue the fiction of an underground for battered women. This 'underground' magically provides survivors a new identity, transportation, a place to live, a job, money, and everything else needed to start a new life. There is a network of shelters, but there is no "underground."
It is virtually impossible to disappear because we are tethered to technology: Cell phones, traffic and security cameras, computers, texts, emails, credit cards, ATMs, cars, and public transportation all create a trail of information about where you are and what you are doing. Interconnected networks and databases make it impossible to hide links to your former identity. This includes: licenses, certifications, education and health records, criminal records, telephone and utility services, credit bureaus, banks, landlords, mortgage companies, schools and hospitals, insurance companies, and government agencies.Go to index
Changing Your Identity
Carefully consider the long-lasting consequences of changing your name or applying for a new social security number. It will affect your ability to interact with federal and state agencies, employers, and others. Your financial, medical, employment, and other records will be under your former Social Security number and name.
If you decide to take this step, you must go to a Social Security Administration (SSA) office to apply for a new number. If you have changed your name, you must present the court-approved legal name change. You will have to prove that you are a victim of domestic violence and that you are in physical danger with police or medical reports, protective orders, or letters from shelters. You will also need at least two original documents or certified copies proving your identity, citizenship or immigration status, proof of child custody, and your current social security number. SSA will mail you a new number and card after they have verified your information. This may take several weeks. If your application is denied, you have a right to appeal the decision.
You can block electronic access to your social security record but don't allow others to mislead you: your new social security number can still be traced back to you. SSA is required by law to share it with other government agencies, including the IRS, Department of Justice, INS, and other agencies.
Leaving everything behind
Changing your identity means leaving behind everything that makes you "you" in the legal sense and social sense.
Ask yourself how well you would cope day-to-day without any support from your family, friends, familiar surroundings, and all that you know. Changing your identity and starting over means more than changing your name, address, or social security number. It means your children leaving their school, you quitting your job or abandoning your career, leaving all your friends and family behind. You will have to abandon everything and everyone that link to your former identity or that could lead the abuser to you. Keep in mind that your abuser has access to all kinds of information not available to civilian abusers and may be determined to hunt you down.
If you are planning to 'disappear,' you need to consider how you would get credit, secure a loan, find employment, or register your children in school with no personal history or references. You will not be able to enter any government building — including courthouses— if you cannot show a positive photo identification. Consider this:
- Applying for financial assistance or food stamps, moving to transitional housing, finding employment, getting medical care, and enrolling children in school all require identifying information.
- You will have trouble getting government benefits like welfare (TANF), health insurance (CHIP), food stamps (SNAP), disability or social security income (SSI).
- Most social service providers, employers, and landlords require that you pass a background check.
- You cannot use your work history. This means that you will have to start all over again and not work in jobs for which you are qualified. You will not be able to provide any degrees, professional licenses, or certification.
- You will not be able to purchase anything on credit without a credit history. Do you have access to enough cash to live without using any credit/debit cards? (Don't forget that all electronic funds and charge/debit cards are traceable.)
- Your will need to apply for insurance for both you and your children. However, you will be unable to provide any prior medical or financial records.
- You cannot get a passport or other federal documentation because you don't have a birth certificate under the new identity.
- You will have trouble proving past abuse because medical records and court papers are in your former name.
- You and your children will have to lie to everyone you meet about who you are, your past, and your family.
- You will not be able to safely contact friends or family. Many women say this is the worst consequence of all.
Your children will also be affected:
- They will not be able to safely contact their friends or relatives.
- You will have to teach them to always lie about who they are, where they came from, who and where their father is.
- They will lose opportunities for scholarships based on former scholastic and athletic accomplishments.
- They will have to avoid all school activities that present a risk of public exposure, such as school pictures, sports, awards, etc. that could be posted on news outlets and/or social media.
Even after you have moved, changed your name and social security number, secured housing and employment, you will still live with stress and fear, always looking over your shoulder, checking the rearview mirror and wondering when you may be found.Go to index
Separation or Divorce
Divorce is a documented hazard of the policing profession. It is not unusual for cops to have been married three, four or more times by retirement. If your abuser has been divorced, think about what he told you. Did he tell you his ex-wife or wives lied to him and cheated on him? Made false allegations of abuse and got him kicked out of his own house? Turned his family against him? Took him for everything in the divorce and then kept him from seeing his kids? Were his divorces drawn out with custody battles? If he made these claims, he probably did so to gain your sympathy early in your relationship. You believed him then, but now you know that what he told you probably wasn't true. Do what the cops do and use his past behavior to predict his future behavior.
If you want a divorce but are waiting for your abuser to file so he will think it's his decision, you may be waiting forever. Despite his threats to leave you or throw you out, he probably does not want a divorce. He depends on you to fulfill his emotional and physical needs. He's had everything that he's wanted all at your expense so why would he want to end it? If he really wanted a divorce, he would have done so quickly and without warning. It will probably be up to you to file for divorce.
Your abuser is likely to perceive your filing for divorce as a declaration of war. His warrior mentality will set in and he'll fight to win. The biggest mistake a lot of women make is underestimating the lengths to which their husbands will go to win the legal battle by any means necessary, no matter the cost. His attitude is win or lose all, and he's willing to lose everything rather than risk even the appearance of weakness by compromise. He may get his department to misrepresent his full income or stonewall a court order that he turn over his financial information. Many officers are creative in hiding property and other assets and accounts as well.
He may swear to you that he'll get custody of his kids, possession of his house, his pension, all his money. He'll warn you that "You won't see a dime of my money, you'll live on the streets, you won't survive without me." He is likely to use the children as pawns or hostages while he makes demands regarding the distribution of your marital assets. He may try to reduce the amount he pays for child support or try not to pay any at all. He knows that contested divorces and custody battles cost a fortune in legal fees, so he threatens to drown you in debt. He hopes he can force you to accept an unfair settlement to avoid financial costs or the risk of losing custody of your kids.
He may demand that you share an attorney to lower costs for both of you, but you will do far better if you hire your own attorney. Look for an attorney who has an expertise in family law, child custody issues, and domestic violence. It is helpful if your attorney is knowledgeable (or willing to learn) about laws related to police officers subject to protective orders, gun laws, and police pension rules. It is important that the attorney you hire is not intimidated that your abuser is a police officer. Many attorneys claim they are not afraid of taking on a cop only to back down later when they realize who and what they are up against.Go to index
Protecting Your Children
Children in police families know that they are different because their father is a police officer.
Children in police families
Battered mothers leave their abusers not just to free themselves from the violence, but to free their children as well. Your stake in the fight for custody is not to deprive your children of a father or to punish your abuser; what is at stake is the safety and well-being of your children. You want to protect them from his obsession with power, his need to control, his authoritarian personality, and his methods of discipline. You may feel it is imperative to show your kids that no one is entitled to behave as he does, especially an officer of the law. Your abuser, on the other hand, may be obsessed with winning custody to hurt you. He wants to take your children away from you to use them as punishment for leaving him and as a means to continue his control over your life even after divorce.
Your batterer makes it clear that he is the law, both outside and inside the family. He exercises the same power of discretion with the kids that he exercises on the job: he decides when and where and against whom he enforces the rules. If he is in a good mood or if the kids are on his good side at the moment, he will overlook their transgressions. If he is in a bad mood or if the kids are on his bad side, he will strictly enforce the rules and punish them for breaking them. The kids learn to read him, be sensitive to and cater to his moods, and not challenge his authority. Depending on their age, they probably make every effort to stay on his good side to avoid angering him.
Your kids might idolize their dad, imitate him, and seek his approval. They see that he holds the power in the household, and side with him when there's an argument between you and their dad. They probably learned early that anyone who messes with them will have to answer to their dad. They know that they can use their father's profession to help them out when they're in trouble and develop an attitude that they are superior to other kids in that they, like their dad, are above the law. Their magic words are, "My dad's a cop" whether they get stopped for breaking curfew, pulled over for speeding, or busted at a party for drinking. They reap the benefits of professional courtesy when an officer lets them go with a warning.
On the other hand, they may have picked up that when you call the police for help, responding officers are reluctant to do anything to hold your abuser accountable. They get the message that they can't trust the police when they need protection for you or for themselves because their dad is the police. They learn that their dad can do whatever he wants to anyone — including them — and that no one will stop him.
Manipulation and abuse
The court's focus on physical abuse serves to minimize nonphysical abuse that may have been devastating to you and the kids. The more insidious and subtle his abuse, the harder it will be to convince the court of his behavior. He may use verbal and psychological tactics to embarrass, humiliate, and shame the kids. He might use your children like he uses informants and demand that they spy on you, lie to you, and return to him with information about what you say and do. You may understand that they're doing what they need to do to protect themselves because you know his coercive tactics, but it's confusing to them as they feel they are betraying you. He will try to emotionally tear you and the kids apart during the custody battle.
While you don't think he would physically or sexually abuse your children, you may fear that he will abuse and scar them emotionally with his racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic beliefs. Men who batter often feel that men are entitled to control women and children. Your abuser may feel it is his right and duty to socialize his children into their proper gender roles by 'making a man' of his son, and 'making a woman' of his daughter. This includes teaching them that men dominate and women submit; that men never answer to women. He overlooks your son's disrespect towards you and any alarming misbehaviors and actions by saying boys will be boys. He teaches your daughter to cater to men, to submit, and to please.
You may not trust that he can safely care for the kids if he is an alcoholic or drug user, brings different women around all the time, is consumed by the job, or is emotionally erratic. But these issues are difficult to present in court without the abuser's attorney objecting that you are simply out to assassinate his character.
You might try to counter your abuser's negative influence over the kids by giving them positive male role models: a relative, a male friend, a new boyfriend, or a new husband. But if your abuser is possessive of the kids, he is likely to perceive other men as competitors for their affection. He may run the man's license plate number, investigate his background, talk to other people to dig up dirt to show that this stranger is a danger to the kids. He can intimidate the "new guy" by messing with his credit, employment, family, and reputation. He can get other cops to harass him. He'll try to turn the kids against him and undermine their relationship with him, telling them they don't have to listen to this guy because "he's not your father, he's nobody."
Mothers know that they are powerless to protect their kids or themselves unless people in the legal system believe their reports of abuse and agree with their assessments of what is harmful to the children. It may be difficult to convince the guardian ad litem (GAL), the child therapists, and the judge that it is not in the best interest of the children to be exposed to their father's values, beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyle and that you don't want them growing up believing that they are above the law because their dad's a cop. But when those in decision-making positions share your abuser's values, beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyle, they may conclude that it is you with the problem.
When discipline turns to abuse
Most cops hold strong convictions that kids need firm parental control and discipline. You may have initially thought your abuser was being over-protective of the kids when he demanded that they keep him informed of where they are, whom they are with, and to check in frequently. He justified his control over them under the guise of protecting them from the dangers of the streets or preventing their ending up in trouble.
Some older kids resist their father's control and he reacts as he would with someone who disrespects him on the street. When the kids talk back or disobey him, he disciplines them physically. You might define his style of discipline as child abuse. If you try to intervene, he may escalate his violence, eventually causing you to stay out of it for fear of making things worse. This can lead to ever increasing problems as your children fear that you cannot or are unwilling to defend or protect them. He is able to use his discipline of the kids as a vehicle to harm and control both you and them.
Professionals who work with children are mandated to report disclosures of abuse to child protective services.
If you think that his discipline has crossed the line to physical abuse, you face obstacles in reporting it and getting anyone to take action. Your abuser is not alone in believing that strict physical discipline is necessary to raise good kids. It can be difficult for you to sort it all out without talking to someone. Be aware that making allegations of child abuse to a mandated reporter such as a doctor, teacher, childcare provider, advocate, or other professionals will lead to an investigation. If you can, prepare a safety plan for you and your kids before making the report.
The kids' guardian ad litem and other professionals may not want to believe that your abuser would ever cross the line from discipline to abuse. He may tell them that your lenience with the kids causes you to mislabel his discipline as abuse. He justifies the level of force he uses in discipline by saying that they deserved to be disciplined; it was their choice to disobey him and they knew there would be consequences.
As a skilled manipulator, he may be able to redirect an investigator's suspicion onto others with whom the child has been in contact. He may later use this to his advantage in custody or visitation decisions if he can convince authorities that your accusations against him are false. He may also try to manipulate your child by telling them that if they don't recant, the court will forbid him to ever see them again. He may try to make your child feel responsible for getting their dad into trouble or for keeping him out of jail.
Raising allegations of child abuse that you cannot prove can backfire on you. The judge or the abuser's attorney may accuse you of projecting your fears onto your children and contaminating their relationship with their dad by making them afraid of him. Some lawyers advise women not to tell courts or mediators about their own abuse because many judges believe women exaggerate violent incidents to manipulate the court. Raising concerns about child abuse is even more perilous. Abusers often appear to be the perfect spouse and parent during court appearances while mothers appear neurotically worried about their children's safety.
Though debunked years ago, some judges and attorneys still accuse mothers of parental alienation if they believe that you are making the kids angry at or fearful of their father. Even if your kids tell you that their dad is verbally, emotionally, or physical abusive to them on visits, he may convince the court that it is your attitude toward him that is making them reject or "alienate" him. It can be challenging to convince the court that your anxieties about sending the kids on visits with their father are valid and based on your or the kids' experience. An experienced lawyer or guardian ad litem can help you educate the court.
Sexual abuse of children
A batterer is about four to six times more likely than a non-batterer to sexually abuse his children, and seven times more likely to physically abuse his children. About half of incest perpetrators also batter the children's mother. Incest perpetrators share many characteristics of men who batter. They are controlling and manipulative, often alternating between being loving and kind and being emotionally cold and distant. He may work for years to build trust and closeness (called "grooming") to convince the child that they are special, and insist that they keep what is happening a special secret.
The allegation of child sexual abuse is a potentially explosive allegation that can be extremely difficult to prove. An incest perpetrator will not accept responsibility for his actions. He will lie to cover his actions and if caught, appear remorseful but justify his behavior. He'll claim that his relationship with his own child is no one else's business. He may shift the blame to you. He may even say that the child is at fault for having seduced him. If the child discloses the abuse, he will say that the child is lying out of revenge for something he did, such as disciplining them or refusing to buy them something they asked for.
If you suspect or find out that your abuser is sexually assaulting your child, you are in an extremely precarious situation. The first thing you must do is decide whom to talk to about it. If you report your suspicions or knowledge to a medical doctor, teacher, a domestic violence advocate, or one of many other professionals, be aware that they are mandated to file a report with your state's child protective services (CPS). They will open an investigation, interview you, your abuser, and anyone else they think can provide information. CPS has tremendous power to determine the fate of you and your child. Since your abuser is a police officer, he knows how to deceive and manipulate a CPS worker and convince them that your allegations are false. If he has a good reputation in the community, people will find it hard to believe that he would do something so horrific to his own child.
Child protective services and family court judges can put mothers in a no-win situation. Not all CPS workers understand the intricacies of domestic violence and few work with police families. If you and/or CPS cannot prove the abuse occurred, you risk losing custody of your children because the court may determine you made false allegations. They will accuse you of trying to poison the relationship between your children and their father. But if you and/or CPS do prove the abuse occurred, they may accuse you of having failed to protect your child from a sexual predator.
How you fare in court largely depends on your financial resources. You will probably have to hire an attorney, a child psychologist to evaluate your child, a separate attorney to represent your child, and a medical expert to testify. Most women can't afford to hire these professionals.Go to index
Custody and Visitation
You must be extremely careful how you present any information about your abuse or that of your children. Women who tell custody mediators they are victims of domestic violence often receive less favorable custody decisions. Men who ask for custody of their children often get it whether or not they have a history of violence. An abusive man is more likely than a non-abusive father to seek sole physical custody.
Your abuser may try to enlist the children as his allies. He might bribe them with gifts or cash, or work to instill fear, loyalty, sympathy, anger — whatever he needs to get them on his side. He knows that the children are his most powerful weapons against you. You may be willing to let the money, the house, and your lifestyle go to be free of him, but he'd bet his life you won't let go of the kids. He'll figure that the surest way to make you stay, or to destroy you if you leave, is through your children. And he'll tell you that it's your choice.
The standard the court uses to determine who is awarded custody is the "best interest of the child." It is considered an absolute that it is within the children's best interest to maintain a close relationship with both parents. If you want physical custody, you will have to demonstrate a willingness and ability to foster a close relationship between your batterer and the children. You will be required to demonstrate this by doing everything possible to accommodate the batterer's needs regarding visitation, including being flexible regarding his rotating days off, changing shifts, and vacation schedule.
Don't be surprised if your abuser, who rarely spends time with the kids, tries to convince the court that he has been the primary caretaker of the children. He might get affidavits from teachers, coaches, friends, neighbors, and family members testifying that he is a good father and deeply involved in his kids' lives. He may be able to make allies of the GAL, mediator, custody evaluators, psychologist, and child protective service workers who may find it difficult to believe that a police officer can be a batterer.
The decision whether to fight him for sole custody or settle for joint custody is often a difficult one. Sole custody gives the custodial parent the authority to make major decisions regarding medical care, religious upbringing, and education. Sole physical custody means the child will live with you and visit their father at scheduled visitation times.
Joint custody gives both of you an equal voice in making major decisions regarding your child. This arrangement can work in situations where there is a balance of power in the relationship and both parents are willing to make the concessions and compromises necessary to make decisions cooperatively. Some judges award joint physical custody which means that the children alternate between living with you and their father. In any joint custody arrangement, both parents are assumed to hold the best interest of the child as the number one priority.
Joint custody can make your life miserable if your abuser has no interest in compromising or cooperating. He can use joint custody to maintain control over you and the children until they are of legal age to make their own decisions. Some judges recognize that the abuser wants to maintain control through joint custody and so will grant sole custody to the mother, but many remain firm supporters of fathers' rights.
Whether you are married to an abuser or dating one, the children get caught in the middle. If he is the father of your children, he knows that he can use the children against you. If he has children from a previous marriage, you can learn a lot about him by how he handles custody and visitation issues.
Batterers use visitation as a powerful control mechanism. By law, visitation is the father's right, not a privilege. The father can choose whether to exercise his right to visitation based on his convenience. If he wants to see the kids at his court-appointed times, you are obligated to see that the kids are available to him or risk being held in contempt of court. Most officers' days off are on a rotational basis and judges make sure that the visitation schedule accommodates the officer's schedule. The fact that this is extremely disruptive of the kids' routine (not to mention yours) whether they're in day care or in school is not often a consideration of the court. If the abuser chooses not to see the kids at his court-appointed time, you are left having to make last-minute alternate arrangements for childcare. Thus, he can use visitation to interfere with your work schedule, appointments, or social life. He can use it to sabotage your efforts to rebuild your life independent of him. Unlike a civilian, he can enlist the police to help him. For example:
- He may get the police to file a police report against you for interference with visitation. Legal consequences depend on where you live: it could result in a citation, require you to appear in court, pay a fine, or even face arrest.
- He can have the police come to your house under the pretense of doing a wellness check because you didn't answer your phone or respond to a text.
- He may convince the police to obtain an arrest warrant based on his allegations that you fled the state or the country with the children.
- He may get the police to arrest you by convincing them that you are a danger to yourself or to the children.
Another way that the abuser uses visitation as a control mechanism is by making it an opportunity to tell the kids his side of the story. He might tell them what horrible things you have done to him. He may refer to you as the bitch, whore, or other derogatory terms. He might tell them that you cheated on him. He can say that you took away everything he had, and now you're even taking them away from him. He'll try to get the kids to feel sorry for him and angry with you.
When this kind of manipulation is going on during visitation, the children are horribly conflicted feeling that loving one parent requires betraying the other. The abuser has lost direct access to you, but now he tries to maintain control of your life through your children:
- They may come home on a mission to avenge their dad by making you pay for hurting him. Young children act out in an endless variety of ways: they may call you names, they may be aggressive or violent. Your child may hurt himself by pulling out his hair, banging her head against the wall, holding his breath until he turns blue.
- They may come home and act out for days. Some kids are angry and violent; others are sad and quiet. Some are afraid and have nightmares. Others regress to bed-wetting or sucking their thumbs. Adolescents exhibit self-destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation, drinking, drugs, or running away from home. Some even threaten or attempt suicide.
- They may feel obligated to assume the batterer's role: that of keeping you in your place by humiliating and ridiculing you, ordering you around, demanding that you wait on them like you did on their dad. They might spy on you, listen to your phone conversations, monitor your comings and goings, or read your mail and report back to him.
If you are concerned that the abuser's mental or emotional instability and/or history of violence makes it dangerous for him to be alone with the kids, have your attorney request that the judge order a psychological evaluation. If the evaluation validates your concerns, the judge can order supervised visitation. The court might instruct you and the abuser to agree on a person to do the supervision, or the court might appoint a supervisor. Some domestic violence agencies provide this service. The supervised visits will last as long as the judge feels that the abuser is a threat to the children.
If you tell the judge that you are afraid of the abuser when he picks up or drops off the children for visits, the judge may order the exchange to be done at the police station. This may work for civilian victims, but it obviously presents problems for you:
- You probably feel intimidated at the police station, while your abuser is on home ground.
- His buddies supervise the exchange.
- Officers may urge you to cut him some slack when he is late or doesn't show up.
- He convinces fellow officers that you are the one who is putting the kids in the middle.
Everything related to the custody and visitation proceedings can be emotionally and financially overwhelming. It is important to remind yourself that you are doing the best you can to protect your children, even if the court prevents you from doing all that you believe is necessary. It's a good idea to document any problems related to visitation so you have a written record (include dates and times) if you have to return to court in the future.Go to index
Where Do We Go from Here?
Having taken you through the pros and cons of the options available, you undoubtedly are disheartened by realizing that the institutions you thought existed to protect you offer little to no protection, and the institutions you thought existed to hold your abuser accountable do little to nothing to bring him to justice. That's because it all boils down to power, and as of now wealthy, white men and the institutions they control have it all. It's a political, not a personal, problem and as such, it requires a political solution.
Individual women calling the police, pressing charges, leaving their abusive partners, obtaining protective orders, and/or fleeing to a temporary shelter are using individual survival techniques, not solutions to a pervasive social problem. Despite pouring billions of dollars into illusory police protection and victim services, we are no closer to eradicating male violence against women. We haven't even come close to stopping police officers (whom we pay and rely on to enforce laws against domestic and sexual assault) from beating and sexually assaulting women.
For decades, I have listened to police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, and experts in law enforcement lament that police-perpetrated violence against women is a complex problem for which there is no solution. To the contrary, there is an obscenely obvious solution: police officers could control their behavior, obey the law, and act in accordance with their purported professional standards of conduct. But apparently that is way too big an ask. They cannot conceive of a culture in which men, especially those who enforce the law, relinquish their license to do as they please to women.
How to help
Victims of police violence ask what they can do to help not only themselves but other victims. They, like the advocates in the battered women's movement, tend to think along the lines that police agencies have promoted: investing yet more money in police departments, implementing new department policies, providing better officer training, increasing the number of female and minority officers, increasing civilian oversight of police conduct, and purging departments of "problem officers." They overlook the reality that decades of pursuing police reform have produced little in the way of actual change in the police culture.
Every year, taxpayers invest billions of dollars in their local police departments. Despite all evidence to the contrary, many people continue to believe that the police provide protection, especially to women who suffer physical and sexual violence at the hands of men. But the fact is that the officers who are supposed to be the protectors are too frequently the predators, a reality that leaves most women so fearful and distrustful of police that they do not even consider looking to the police for help. This is particularly true of women whose assailants are police officers.
Calls to reform or fix the institution of policing are based on the misperception that the institution of policing is broken; it is not. The institution of policing efficiently does exactly what it was designed to do: protect those who occupy the top tier of the class, racial, and gender hierarchy of power. Wealthy white men employ the police as their agents of control over women and "others;" the police keep us in our place. The current system, designed as it is to protect the interests of wealthy white males, cannot and will not protect those exploited and victimized by the powerful.
Those of us who wish to "do something" to help victims of police violence might consider aligning ourselves with the many activists in the racial and gender justice movements who seek to curtail the power of the men who wield it and the police officers who do their bidding. While it may not be possible to abolish the institution of policing altogether, it is possible to diminish its tremendous power over our lives. This could be accomplished by investing in a multitude of community-based services that would be better equipped and suited to respond to people in crisis than are the police. We could take a portion of excessive police department budgets and invest the funds in services that would benefit everyone, including women and children fleeing male violence. If battered women had access to affordable housing, food, childcare, healthcare, education, job training, and employment that paid a living wage it would surely get them closer to safety than a 911 call, pressing charges, a protective order, or a temporary shelter stay.
Until that day comes, any victim of police brutality — whether they are in an intimate relationship with an officer or simply of the wrong color, gender, or social status — ends up in the same predicament: "Who does one call for protection from the police?" and "Where does one seek justice if not from the criminal justice system?" For now, make it your goal to be your own best advocate, devise extraordinarily creative safety plans to protect yourself, and know that you are not alone, you are not exaggerating, and you are certainly not crazy.Go to index