Breaking Your Isolation


When you marry a police officer you marry into the police family.

Police "Family"

Intimate partners of police officers are to the department like in-laws in marriages. Members of the family initially welcome you and assume that you accept and respect their way of doing things. They assure you that they'll be there if you ever need them. This family-type relationship might make you first seek help for your partner from the "father figures" of the police family: his supervisors or his chief. There are a number of possible responses you could get; it depends on the integrity of the individuals you have to deal with.

Department's Attitudes

The supervisors or chief may encourage you to tell them what's going on, but then react defensively when you do. They may tell you that their hands are tied as to what they can do unless you file a formal complaint. They may explain that they really cannot interfere in the officer's private life. They might remind you that "police officers are human just like everybody else; everyone makes mistakes," encourage you to "forgive and forget," and strongly suggest that "the two of you try and work things out." (This "two of you" implies that you are just as much at fault for his behavior as he is.)

Or the chief or supervisor of his department may believe your account and truly have no tolerance for his officers being abusive on the street or in the home. In this case, the chief or supervisor can have a tremendous influence in stopping your abuser from harming you further. Many police officers value their job above all else, and the department can make it very clear that he will keep his job only if the violence ceases. The chief can strongly suggest that the officer move out of the house and stay away from you if he is serious about his career.

His superiors may simply presume that you are hysterical, exaggerating or lying. You are calling a family member's character into question and by doing so you have made yourself an outsider. The family stands together against you, even if individuals are personally sympathetic to you. Members of the police family can pose a real threat to you because they are able to assist the abuser in intimidating, harassing and frightening you into silence.

Department Liability

How his supervisors or chief react to you depends on many factors such as the size of the department, the attitude of the chief, the abuser's rank and length of time he's been with the department. Some police departments are comparatively progressive; others are still "good old boys" networks. But in either case, remember that your abuser's status as a police officer does not negate your constitutional right to "equal protection of the law."

Your abuser may not work in the same jurisdiction where you live. His employing department is liable for his actions. The police department where you reside is liable for your protection. You are entitled to the same police response as any other victim despite the fact that your batterer is a police officer.

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Calling 911

No matter how hard you may have tried to avoid it, the time may come when you are forced to call 911 during or after an incident. The abuser might see it coming and taunt you with, "Go ahead and call the police — you'll see what happens." He'll say 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.

When the police arrive at the scene and learn that the perpetrator is a police officer, they may respond to their fellow "officer in distress" rather than to you, the victim. He might go outside to greet them. Don't be surprised if they then stand in front of the house and commiserate with your batterer for a while before they even check to see if you're okay.

Many police departments have no policy regarding officer-involved domestic violence, so the responding officers are free to use their discretion in handling the call. This is a real problem since some cops still believe that what a man does with his wife is a private matter, especially if that man is another cop. They may blame you for crossing the line by having called the police to get him into trouble. They see you as a traitor to the police family; as vindictive and just trying to make trouble for him. They assume that you provoked him and therefore deserved what you got. They might even accuse you of making a false police report and threaten to arrest you if you ever call again.

Should they believe you or see evidence of a battery, they may advise you not to sign a criminal complaint. They might urge you to think about his career and the welfare of your family. They might tell you that he's really a good guy, it's just that he's been under a lot of stress on the job. They may try to convince you that the best way to deal with him is to handle the situation "in-house" and to get him some help.

They'll talk to him, and listen to his side of the story. He'll most likely justify what he did. He may explain that he had to hit you to calm you down because you were hysterical. He might say he had to restrain you from hurting yourself or him and display scratches, bruises, or bite marks as evidence of your attack. He might say that you left him no choice because of something you said or did.

The police "code of silence" dictates that no matter what, cops protect and defend other cops. As a matter of "honor," they are to lie and cover up for other officers, and present a united front under any threat of an investigation. If there is a discrepancy between what he told them and what they observed at the scene, they might come to a consensus on some version of the story and then stick to it. Their official report (if there is one) will reflect the agreed upon version. His supervisors may or may not be informed that the police were there. To ensure that they do write a report (which is required by law), request a copy of the report. Make certain that you get the names and badge numbers of the responding officers, you may need them later.

Department Policy and Protocol

If your police department does have a policy that addresses police-involved domestic violence, it probably requires that the responding officers call a supervisor to the scene. In this case, there is probably written protocol that, when followed, requires that his commander or chief is notified of the call. The policy and protocol may work to your advantage or disadvantage. It may be to your advantage if you want to be sure that the incident is not swept under the rug and you want the department to take action against your abuser. The policy can work against you if you only wanted intervention for that specific incident, because once the process is set in motion by the 911 call, you have no choice about what happens from then on. Your call may initiate a full-blown investigation by the department's internal investigator or review board.

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Official Investigation

The investigator from Internal Affairs (IA) will probably ask you to come in and give a statement about the incident that triggered the investigation as well as any history of abuse in your relationship. What you tell the investigator is not necessarily confidential. Should the case go to a formal hearing or trial, the abuser has the legal right to know the specific allegations against him. The investigator may also interview family members or friends. They also should know that the abuser may eventually find out what information they gave to the department.

Some people refuse to talk to the department because they are afraid of the abuser's retaliation. Everyone, including you, has the right to refuse. Remember that IA is investigating in order to determine if your complaint is valid and to make a recommendation to the department regarding discipline of the officer. They may recommend that the abuser be suspended or terminated based on the grounds that he is a liability to the department. Either one of these actions may increase your level of danger because the abuser may retaliate against you.

Focus on liability not protection

Your notice to his department increases the department's liability for his actions, but it doesn't necessarily increase their protective response to you.

Unfortunately, only the threat of a lawsuit gets the attention of some departments. If the members of your abuser's employing department or the members of the department where the crime occurred do not respond appropriately, you might want to talk to an attorney about possible legal action against the department. If the officials of the department are unresponsive to your complaints, you might have to go to their employer. This may be the mayor, the village board, the county sheriff, etc. These people are typically elected officials and accountable to the public. If you do have to take this route to be heard, however, you're probably dealing with local police who will retaliate against you for making a complaint. It would be wise to consider the possibilities ahead of time and make a contingent safety plan.

Media Involvement Doesn't Guarantee Safety

Some victims become so distraught with the lack of response they receive from the departments and other local officials that they make their stories public through the media. There are drawbacks to this approach. While the media exposure may evoke public outrage, it will also anger the police department(s) involved. Depending upon where you live, this could jeopardize your future safety. You must be cautious regarding the media because the individual reporter or editor can distort and misrepresent your information. After your story is publicized you may be contacted by talk shows or news magazines for a personal interview. Again, be careful. Many producers take a sensationalistic approach. Also keep in mind that they cannot guarantee your identity can be kept secret. Even if the producers camouflage your facial features and your voice, you still take the risk that your abuser or someone close to him will recognize you.

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Shelter Options

No matter what response you get from the department, you may decide that the safest thing you can do is to go into hiding. Civilian women who are battered can usually hide in domestic violence shelters, but since the police know where the shelters are located, this may not be a safe option for you. However, if you do decide to go to a shelter, choosing a city with several shelters is safer because it will be more difficult to find you. If you live in a small town or rural area, you might have to travel to a shelter outside your area. Though it presents other problems, it is much safer not to take your car to the shelter because your abuser can alert police to look for your vehicle.

No "Underground"

There is a rumor that an "underground" exists for victims of police officers. There is no such underground. Even with a new social security number, there are many other ways your batterer can track you including bank records, credit reports, medical or school records, proof of licensing or accreditation, and phone records of family and friends. Police officers can easily access these records. Computerized records make it almost impossible to hide every link to your former identity. If you are planning to flee, you need to consider how you would get credit, secure a loan, find employment, register your children in school, with no personal history or references. It is just as important to ask yourself how well you would cope day-to-day without any support from your family, friends, familiar surroundings, and all that you know.

If you have children and you are even contemplating leaving the state with them, it is absolutely imperative that you discuss this with an attorney. Child abduction is a serious offense, and if you take the children from their father without notifying him within a specific length of time as to where they are, you can be charged with a crime. State laws vary on this issue, so you need to get specific information on your state's law. Should 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.

The justice system does not function in a rational manner, so don't try to figure out what might happen by yourself. It may be more difficult and dangerous for you to obtain an order of protection because your abuser is in law enforcement.

Excerpt from Police Domestic Violence: A Handbook for Victims. Diane Wetendorf, ©2000, 2006, 2013 All rights reserved.

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