Representing Victims of Police-Perpetrated Domestic Violence

©2007 Diane Wetendorf, Inc. All Rights Reserved. (Excerpt of "Representing Victims of Police-Perpetrated Domestic Violence." Family Law Forum. MN State Bar Association Family Law Section, Fall 2007
This article explores some of the challenges encountered when representing a victim whose batterer is in law enforcement. Many people still find it hard to believe that political leaders, executives, clergy, or anyone of social status can be domestic violence perpetrators. A victim's family and friends, police officers, and even her attorney may naively offer false assurance that "he wouldn't risk his career, he'll abide by the court order." Besides facing others' disbelief and denial, victims encounter overwhelming obstacles when trying to use the civil or criminal justice system.

Topics addressed in this article:


The American Bar Association Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence instructs attorneys who are representing a woman in a divorce or custody case to learn if she is a survivor and consider how this information affects her representation. It is critical that the attorney consider the special circumstances of the victim of a police officer and how those circumstances will affect legal strategies, possible outcomes and safety planning. It is the lawyer's responsibility to give the client a realistic assessment of her legal situation, educate her about how the legal system works and explain her options, so she can make informed decisions. The attorney and client need to understand the nuances of dealing with an officer who batters and evaluate the wisdom of using standard remedies and strategies. The attorney can learn and explain the process of police department internal investigations, the abuser's right to due process, and the possible impact of collective bargaining agreements....

Inadequacy of standard strategies

Many attorneys come to realize that the remedies and legal strategies they normally use in civilian domestic violence cases are sorely inadequate or ineffective in cases involving police officers. An attorney must listen to the client and believe that she is in the best position to determine the optimal and safest legal strategy in her case. The client's goals may be frustrating, as they may appear contradictory. She may simultaneously want the court to protect her and hold the abuser accountable, but not want to do anything that might jeopardize his career. Attorneys representing victims of police officers must respect their client's ability to accurately gauge the abuser's reactions to legal strategies and the client's pre-existing safety strategies. The attorney must listen to the client's reasons for wanting or not wanting a protective order. If she believes that he is likely to view a court order as a sign of aggression or declaration of war, prioritizing her safety may require not obtaining a protective order. If the victim is considering talking to the officer's supervisor or chief, the attorney can educate the victim about the officer's right to due process and explain what that entails. Prosecutors are reluctant to damage the working relationship between the prosecutor's office and the police department. If the prosecutor does pursue charges, s/he typically reduces the charge to disturbing the peace, criminal destruction of property, or reckless conduct....

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Divorce and custody battles

The batterer may perceive the victim's filing for divorce as the ultimate betrayal, and a lengthy legal battle over his property, his money, and his children may ensue. Attorneys complain that departments stonewall the court's orders for employees' financial information and provide loopholes that allow officers to misrepresent their income. Police officers who batter, like other batterers, typically threaten to win sole or joint custody of the children as a way to maintain control over their victims. Many abusive officers demand liberal visitation that accommodates their erratic schedules, causing hardship to the victim and the children. Fathers' rights groups instruct fathers' attorneys on how to charge the mother with Parental Alienation Syndrome. Despite state legislatures banning the use of this false syndrome, many courts still allow it to base their award of custody to battering fathers. Battered women's attorneys must warn their clients that alleging abuse, even when true, may actually result in the court giving the abuser custody....

Safety concerns

Professionals who represent or assist victims of domestic violence can also become targets. It is not uncommon for the officer who batters to intimidate and threaten the GAL, the victim's and his own attorney, the custody evaluator, therapists and anyone else involved in the case. Few attorneys consider that an officer who batters has a range of intimidation tactics available, ranging from something as subtle as a sudden flurry of traffic tickets to the extreme of a false arrest. Victims typically report that the abuser did everything he said he'd do and it all went the way he said it would go. Their attorneys are amazed at the twists and turns these cases take because of the batterer's ability to manipulate the system. They are stunned by the outcomes and their inability to predict or prevent the systemic abuse....

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