Advocates' Role

Since 1983, as an advocate for battered women, I have listened to women's stories and tried to appreciate the uniqueness of every woman's life. As I listened to victims of police officer batterers, I recognized that they were describing their lives in the context of a particular culture — the police culture. Women referred to the police family and explained that being the wife or girlfriend of a police officer means abiding by that culture's rules: "What happens in the family stays in the family, and what happens in the police family stays in the police family." Every victim told of being warned by her abuser that if she interfered with his career she would pay dearly.

Victims were afraid to talk to anyone who might report them to the police. The assurance that we were independent advocates who were not required to share information with the police was vital.

When I began working with victims of police officers, I gave them my standard explanation of family violence, police response, shelter options, and protective orders. Each woman expressed her frustration that the information I was giving her might work for other women, but would not work for her because these options relied on the police and the justice system — institutions which consistently failed to protect her. I learned that domestic violence within police ranks is a litmus test of law enforcement's commitment to public safety. If it looks the other way when violence against a woman is perpetrated by one of their own, then no woman in that community can count on police protection.

As an advocate, you may be the only source of support and information for the victim of a police officer. It is your responsibility to learn about police culture, to address the issue of officer-involved domestic violence with local departments, and to search for creative remedies that lessen the victim's vulnerability and risk. Police domestic violence brings us face to face with the challenges inherent in our work. It puts us on notice that we need to reclaim and hold our ground as independent advocates who monitor systems from outside, while attempting to build meaningful partnerships to change the response from within.

Independence Vital

It's easy to understand how victims may think we're part of the criminal justice system. Many (formerly) independent domestic violence programs are being forced into partnerships with their local law enforcement agency or Family Justice Centers as a matter of survival. Victims see and hear their advocates sharing information and strategizing with police officers and prosecutors. They see us arriving with the police at their homes. Fundraising events show advocates giving awards to a local officer, or the sheriff cutting the ribbon for a new shelter. Some law enforcement agencies employ victim support specialists and EAP counselors for both victims and perpetrators. It's confusing — even for us sometimes — just what our role is in the domestic violence community.

The advocate should be the one person who is there solely for the victim, open to exploring any and all options.

Our role is to provide information and support so the victim can decide how to best protect her own interests and safety. If we even appear to be a part of the criminal justice system, the victim of an officer will not trust us. Our independence can be compromised — or appear compromised — by the close working relationships that accompany efforts to build coordinated community response and inter-agency collaboration. Victims are often left more alone, more isolated, and more at risk.

Legal, Political, and Safety Concerns

To best serve your community, you must know how your local law enforcement handles complaints about the behavior and actions of their officers and deputies. Ideally, your program's director has met with local chiefs and/or the sheriff to get a feel for their unofficial standards of conduct in addition to formal policy and procedures. It is also important to understand the department's internal investigation process and supervisory structure. Every law enforcement agency is independent and handles civilian complaints differently.

Advocates and counselors must also understand the political landscape and the role of the police and fire commission, the mayor, the county executive, or other entities that may have some oversight of law enforcement agencies. Legal advocates serving rural and Indian Nations have an even more complex world.

Advocates should obtain legal advice from their agency's legal counsel before a crisis occurs.

Shelter staff need to know what to do if the police arrive at the shelter with a subpoena or arrest warrant. An abuser may engineer an arrest or other action by claiming that the victim battered him, that she has endangered or abducted the children, or that she is a danger to herself. This is an effective way to get the local police to assist him in tracking her down. Staff can be threatened with legal action for obstruction of justice, contempt of court, or harboring a criminal if they refuse to cooperate by withholding information as to the victim's whereabouts. This can occur in spite of a friendly and cooperative working relationship with the police.

Advocates — and the DV agency itself — may feel threatened if the abuser's department claims staff are protecting a "suspect" or defying a court order. The department may be able to apply political and financial pressure on the agency via its board of directors. These possibilities must be discussed with the board and executive staff. A procedure must be in place before a crisis situation. If the board and staff cannot agree on how to handle a conflict with law enforcement, or if local political realities require avoiding conflicts with the police, it may be best to refer victims of police officers to another agency.

Standard remedies and responses are limited, ineffectual, or even dangerous when the abuser is a police officer.

When a victim says, "You don't understand, he's a police officer; but this is different, he's a police officer; I can't DO that, he's a police officer," she's expressing her frustration that no one understands the many ways in which her situation is different. Safety planning is seriously challenged when the abuser is a police officer. Any remedy that relies on the criminal justice system is risky. When an officer breaks the law, the system is turned upside down. So, too, are advocates' and victims' usual safety plans.

Experienced Advocates

Providing support and advocacy for a police victim requires someone who has worked with a wide range of women, understands the complexities of battering, has solid knowledge of available criminal and civil interventions, and understands the practices and politics of local law enforcement.

An experienced advocate is less likely to let her personal views dominate her work with victims.

We get frustrated when we feel we can't do anything to help police victims. Because we have made so much progress with domestic violence laws and community response, we want to do more than just be there, listen and understand. But remedies available to other victims, such as going to the police and prosecutor, are often not possible. In many ways, we have to go back to the beginning of the Battered Women's Movement when all we could do was listen to women's stories and offer support and understanding.

Many advocates have strong feelings about police officers who abuse their intimate partners. They may believe these batterers have no right to be police officers, and want the victims to cooperate with attempts to hold the officers accountable. An advocate's desire to get an abusive officer off the streets can make it hard to remember that it is not the victim's responsibility to see that the law is enforced or to reform the police department. As always, our first commitment is to support her wishes and decisions. We might be her only source of support.

Victims of police officers report that our presence and understanding is much more than they get anywhere else. We can provide critical support to a victim when the batterer is an officer. We can:

EXCERPT from When the Batterer Is a Law Enforcement Officer: A Guide for Advocates (Complete book in PDF)
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An advocate is the one person who is there solely for the victim.

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Hijacked by the Right
Crossing the Threshold
Hijacked by the Right by Diane Wetendorf