Article: The Misuse of Police Powers

Diane Wetendorf & Dottie L. Davis ©2003 Diane Wetendorf. All Rights Reserved.
Victims of police officers typically report that advocates don't appreciate how different their situation is because the abuser is in law enforcement. It is disappointing and frustrating for a victim to have to educate the very people she had hoped would be able to inform her. To begin to alleviate this problem, advocates can familiarize themselves with aspects of police-perpetrated abuse that place the police victim in a category of their own.

Police culture

It is necessary to know some of the basics of the police culture and police training to gain insight into the victim's experience. Being culturally sensitive helps to place in context some of the types of abuse only batterers within law enforcement inflict, how these abusers minimize and justify their behavior, and their sense of entitlement to exercise power and control over their victims.

Many view law enforcement as an ongoing battle between order and chaos, or the forces of good and evil. The police, who uphold and enforce the law, are the "good guys." Those who break the law and challenge police authority are the "bad guys." To keep the bad guys under control, the police must continually demonstrate that they are smarter and tougher than everyone else, because everyone is a potential bad guy. We arm the police with equipment and weapons, provide access to information, and confer the authority to enforce the law. If anyone resists the authority of an officer, police have the authority to use the amount of force necessary to bring the person into compliance. The police are given the power to deprive citizens of their right to freedom.

It is easy to understand the formation of unbreakable bonds of loyalty and solidarity among officers in the context of good guys fighting the bad guys. One side is going to win and the other is going to lose in battle, and all are potentially life and death situations. Sometimes staying alive requires officers to not do things by the book but rather to be creative with their resources, utilize their discretionary powers, and do things their own way. In this game of cops and robbers, the game is not over until the cop says it is over. Since officers' lives and the public's respect for police authority is on the line, the police believe that the end justifies the means. They stick together and present a united front when called upon to defend their actions.

The solidarity of the group depends upon no single officer pointing the finger of blame at another officer. When the public or the commander asks questions, the blue wall goes up and no one talks. This is known as the code of silence. There is frequent acknowledgement within the criminal justice system that this code of silence comes into play when an officer is accused of wrongdoing, either on or off duty. It is difficult for the system to hold any officer accountable unless another officer is willing to face being ostracized and labeled a whistle-blower.

Because of their discretion, authority, power, solidarity and union protection, some police officers come to see themselves not simply as enforcers of the law, but as the law itself.

Authority and discretion

Society grants members of law enforcement enormous power over citizens to enable the police to keep the peace and to preserve social order. Since the police encounter every possible combination of circumstances and behaviors, it is impossible for the law or department protocols to direct officers' actions in every situation. So, the police are granted a great deal of freedom to use their judgment regarding which laws to enforce, when, and against whom. For example, if a citizen violates a law but poses no threat or harm to anyone (such as driving with a broken taillight), the police have a wide range of options available: they can ignore the offense, issue a verbal warning, give the person a citation, or place the person under arrest.

This wide range of options and authority can lead to the abuse of their power. Individual police abuse their power of discretion when they consistently base their law enforcement decisions on a suspect's race, profession, gender, or other characteristics. When several police officers in a particular department exercise their discretion in a way that consistently works either for or against certain people, it becomes institutionalized racism, elitism, sexism, etc. This pattern becomes ingrained in the culture of the department, and officers use it to justify targeting certain individuals. Racial profiling, for instance, is established when it has become an accepted common practice for officers to approach, harass, and/or arrest Blacks or Latinos simply because they are Black or Latino. A pervasive sexist belief that the man of the household is entitled to control his household will be evidenced by the police routinely blaming the victim of abuse for the abuser's violence against her.

On the other hand, police officers can abuse their discretion by consistently making law enforcement decisions in favor of certain groups or individuals. Police officers in some departments extend what they call "professional courtesy" by not enforcing the law against prominent citizens, political figures, or other police officers. Women battered by police officers generally are correct in their assumption that the police will extend professional courtesy to the police abuser. Responding officers may not write a report, write an inaccurate report, not arrest the abuser, or neglect to collect evidence or take photographs of her injuries.

Parallels to domestic violence

We know that most batterers hold traditional values and the belief that the man is entitled to be the head of the household. Many male police officers are conservative people who share these traditional family values. Officers are committed to maintaining social order, and they believe that social order depends largely on men maintaining power and control over women. They believe that men are entitled to dominate because they are emotionally and physically stronger, and more intelligent than women.

Sexist men, including those who are police officers, are deeply invested in maintaining the status quo of gender inequality. This group of men accepts a man's violence against a woman as a necessary reminder of her place. Male dominance that is reinforced by police culture breeds strong resistance to considering domestic violence a criminal offense. This is evidenced in police reports that blame the victim for her injuries because she was intoxicated, had talked back to her abuser, or had not completed her chores. When the crime has occurred within another officer's home, the resistance of the officers to investigate thoroughly is often magnified with greater blamed placed on the victim. They may justify their actions because a police officer who commits domestic violence may face greater consequences to his career than might a civilian.

Many police officers view the penalties imposed by the courts as discriminatory against men, especially if the court is willing to remove firearms from a man's possession. An officer's weapon is usually an essential piece of equipment. Losing his right to bear arms equates to losing his career. Officers who perpetrate domestic violence consume time and energy telling their victims that they will lose their job(s), their home, and life as they know it if the victim reports the violence.

Batterers within law enforcement consistently claim during in-service trainings and roll call that women have been given power over men. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they profess to believe that "all a wife, ex-wife or girlfriend has to do is accuse a police officer of assault or domestic battery, and she can ruin his career." This perceived threat to their careers has made many officers determined to ensure that no officer loses his job because of a woman's allegations of assault or battery.

Misuse of police power

Every abuser frequently reminds his victim that it is within his power to deprive her of her physical safety, security, privacy, freedom, and life when he chooses. Most abusers, however, are not able to enlist the help of the criminal justice system to carry out their threats. Batterers within law enforcement are. Officers tell their victim, "Call the police. Who are they going to believe?"

Police presence

Professional: Officers are taught to develop a command presence. They are schooled, "If you look good, you feel good. If you look confident, people will perceive you to be confident." A morph occurs through training and attire. The command presence is instilled. Many police trainers acknowledge that men and women change once they don the uniform and equipment of an officer. The uniform, bulletproof vest, badge, gun belt with all its accessories, and the police vehicle are all powerful symbols of authority.

Personal: An officer intimidates his victim by:

  • His mere presence in uniform while standing with his hand on his gun.
  • Giving her "The Look" that he knows everything she is up to and with whom.
  • Letting her know that he can always watch her by showing up at unpredictable times and/or locations.
  • Driving by the house or workplace numerous times during his shift.
  • Making her check with him before she leaves the house.
  • Sitting in the house dry firing his weapon or cleaning his wide array of weapons in her view.


Professional: When the police identify a suspect, they begin surveillance of the person to gain information and to attempt to catch the suspect in criminal behavior. Once the suspect realizes he is being watched, he will alter his behavior.

Personal: Allowing the victim to know that she is being followed is an effective manner of surveillance. She will alter her behavior to avoid disapproval, isolation, or physical punishment. The abuser robs the victim of her sense of privacy and control over her life when he tracks her physically, telephonically, or electronically. She alters her behavior based upon the possibility that he is watching. By spying on her, the abuser gets information about where she goes, whom she spends time with, and what she does. This gives him the ability to intrude upon her life whenever and wherever he pleases.

Stalking is a perverted form of surveillance. A police officer who is stalking his victim...

  • Sits outside her residence, workplace, gym, or friends' homes in his personal vehicle, squad car, or unmarked police vehicle.
  • Gains access to her apartment or house and leaves evidence such as turning a light on or moving a picture to let her know he has been inside her personal living space. This begins the cycle of the victim believing that she is imagining things or going crazy.
  • Provides her with gifts of cell phones so that he can always reach her.
  • Installs software/apps that enable him to read her e-mail.
  • Leaves cards and notes on her vehicle no matter where she parks or where she frequents.
  • Places recording devices/apps on her telephone.
  • Leaves flowers on her front porch to let her know he has been around.
  • Installs a tracking device/app on her vehicle which allows him to know her travels and destinations.
  • Checks for her name in the data system to learn whether she has contacted the police, names of the responding officers, and the type of complaint filed.
  • Uses enhanced 911 through dispatch, and other contacts with the phone provider to check whom she calls and the name of the caller of her incoming calls.
  • Places hidden cameras in the house. (Electronic stores and spy stores report their biggest customers are men who suspect their wives are having an affair and are trying to catch them.)
  • Films her using his vehicle or body cam as she walks to and from her residence.
  • Secretly records her voice on his bodycam or lapel mic when she talks with him. (He may later listen to the recording repeatedly just to hear her voice and feel close to her.)


Professional: While on duty and while conducting official investigations, police officers have access to numerous law enforcement data systems containing confidential information. They can acquire a vast amount of information through local, state, federal and even international databases. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Person's full name, aliases, or previous names
  • Date and place of birth
  • Social security number
  • Current and former addresses
  • Vehicles registered to a person
  • Driving records
  • Passport and related travel documents
  • Immigration status
  • Criminal history
  • Warrants, protective orders, and other court documents
  • Credit reports

Personal: Although officers are only justified in accessing these files for official investigations, some officers use these databases for personal reasons. "Running a plate for a date" is not uncommon. Not only can the officer learn a woman's name and address, but perhaps her marital status through the vehicle registration information. Previous police reports, complaints, and protective orders can also be accessed. He may get information on a victim's previous relationships through these records. The police abuser can use all this information in countless ways to harass or harm the victim.


Professional: Rookies are taught how to interview people in their basic training. Eye contact, how to stand, where to stand, non-verbal body language, voice control, and spotting signs of deception are areas that officers learn to practice and to observe. Police learn to treat witnesses and suspects differently. A witness will be asked to accompany the officer to the station for an interview and the interviewer will seek to gain the witness's trust. A suspect will be taken into custody where they may be held in a small interview room until the investigator declares the interview is completed. Only if the investigator allows it will a suspect receive something to drink, use of restroom facilities, access to a telephone call, or contact with family and friends. The officer is in charge. Although the suspect may object to the treatment, the officer has total control.

Personal: She is a suspect in her own home.

  • He interrogates her and the children about any suspicions he may have concerning finances, infidelity, or friendships.
  • He stands over her in uniform using his command presence and asks where she has been.
  • He demands to know who she was talking with on the phone when he called home.
  • He demands that she look at him while he is talking.
  • When she refuses to answer his questions, he blocks the doorway so she cannot exit the room without physically touching him. He continues to barrage her with questions.
  • He raises his voice in disbelief at her responses.
  • He slams his fist on the wall or table to intimidate her.
  • He rips the telephone from the wall so she cannot summon anyone for help.
  • Despite her pleading, he refuses to allow her to leave until he is done with his questioning.
  • If she attempts to push past him, the physical altercation begins. In his mind, he can justify his behavior because she touched him first. He was merely trying to talk to her.
  • He has total control of the situation. If she answers his questions, she could be in more danger. If she does not answer his questions, the same could be true.


Professional: Lying or deceiving a suspect is legal in many policing scenarios. Police officers pretend to be prostitutes, gang members, drug dealers, or delivery truck drivers to facilitate the arrest of a person involved in illegal activity. They learn to speak the slang, wear the appropriate attire, and associate with others who believe they are a part of the illegal activity.

Personal: An abusive officer has become proficient at lying and gets satisfaction from being able to deceive others. He can lie to the victim while appearing to be thoughtful and sincere. He can use unfamiliar language/slang to confuse the victim. He has learned to be quick on his feet and can quickly adapt to changing situations. He can lie his way out of anything.


Professional: Police seek to build trust and cooperation with the public though community outreach programs. Community policing seeks for each participant to hold the others accountable and report any deviances from the agreed-upon goals. Their named objective is to increase public safety; their goal is for the public to report crime and identify suspects.

Personal: An abusive officer manipulates and abuses the trust of civilians and his fellow officers. Such actions betray not only their oath but violate the spirit of the brotherhood.

  • He befriends her neighbors. They believe he is a knight in shining armor, and a protector of their city. They are more than happy to answer any questions about strangers coming and going from the residence next door.
  • He sends the victim cards and flowers at work to deceive her co-workers that he and the victim share a healthy, loving relationship. When he asks them questions, they unwittingly provide him information about where she is and whom she is with.
  • He tells fellow officers he is concerned for her safety and gives them her vehicle description and license plate number so they can watch for her on the street and report back to him.
  • If the victim lives outside his jurisdiction, he asks other officers to drive by her residence and report any activities including license plate numbers and vehicle descriptions of anyone present.

Challenges to authority

Professional: When an officer directs or gives orders to an individual, they expect that person to listen. Failure to comply with an officer's commands can result in a citation or arrest. For example, if a uniformed officer yells at a person to stop and the individual continues walking away, the officer would be justified to pursue and place their hands on the person to bring them into compliance with their order. The person can be arrested for resisting law enforcement.

Personal: Some officers cannot separate their career life from their personal life. They eat, live, die police work. Any conflict in their personal life may be a challenge to their dominance, authority, power, or control of the other person and the situation. Everything is viewed in a black and white perspective: wrong or right. There are no gray areas with no room for the victim to voice her opinion or position.

  • He will not tolerate his authority being questioned by anyone in the household.
  • She has no right to question him about his whereabouts, activities, or his behavior.
  • She will face some form of punishment should she verbally disagree with his opinion. He will not tolerate disobedience.
  • He will interpret her action as disrespectful if she attempts to walk away from him during his questioning. He will most likely place his hands on her to force compliance to his demands.

Continuum of force

Professional: Law enforcement officers are trained to use only the amount of force necessary to control the situation and the suspect. In the use of force continuum, officers are taught to use techniques to incapacitate the individual without causing death or serious bodily injury. Although the goal is to bring a resistive person into compliance without injury, most of the techniques are likely to cause redness, swelling, and bruising. The continuum begins with officer presence, verbal direction, and soft empty-hand techniques. If resistance continues, the officer may escalate to hard empty-hand techniques, chemical agents, and upwards toward lethal force with a weapon.

Personal: The same techniques used while policing the streets can be used in an abusive officer's home. A continuum of abuse often involves verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual, and physical violence. Physical abuse, however, is not always necessary to control the victim. Many abusers maintain control through intimidation and threats, or a 'gentle' reminder of the last time. She knows what he is physically capable of, his expertise with a variety of weapons, and the availability of weapons within the home, his vehicle, or his workplace. When the abuser uses physical violence, most injuries caused by the following techniques are not easily observable. Victims will have a complaint of pain but may not immediately have an obvious injury.

  • Palm strikes to the rear and side of the head to disorient her.
  • Leg sweeps to take her legs out from underneath her.
  • Knee strikes to the thigh area to immobilize her leg.
  • Bladed hand strikes to the neck, shoulder, or forearm to stun her.
  • Strikes to the kidneys, lower back, and abdomen.
  • Pressure point maneuvers to the jaw, nose, and armpit areas.
  • Come-along techniques involving the wrists and forearms.
  • Neck restraints using the forearm, wrist, and hands.
  • Use of flex cuffs or handcuffs for restraint.
  • Threats to shoot her, himself, and/or the children by displaying service weapon.

Power within the criminal justice system

Professional: Police officers work within the system that answers 911 calls, dispatches police, fire, and emergency medical services, advocates for victims of crime, houses prisoners, prosecutes defendants, sentences those found guilty by the court, and monitors individuals on home detention.

Officers are trained how to present themselves not only at the scene of an investigation, but also in the courtroom where they will appear in uniform to testify and swear to tell the truth. In court, they will recollect the crime scene and evidence to support their written report. With the assistance of the prosecuting attorney, they will testify to the judge and jury what was said by witnesses and the suspect at the crime scene, and the emotional and physical states of these people. Photographs of the scene, damaged property, injuries, blood stains, food splatters, and cowering children and animals will be explained through the officer's testimony.

Personal: The officer has established a working relationship with dispatchers, victim advocates, and officers from his agency and other jurisdictions, prosecuting and defense attorneys, judges, and Corrections personnel. In many cases, they know each other on a first name basis, and rapport has been established.

  • A police officer's testimony at trial often bears more weight than that of the average citizen.
  • When the police arrive at another officer's home for a domestic disturbance, the officer is the model of calm. The victim will most likely be an emotional pendulum.
  • Officers are trained to maintain control of an investigation. Even if they are the accused, the officer knows how to remain calm with the responding officers.
  • Officers are trained to write detailed reports consisting of a chronological explanation of the events. When the officer stands accused, he has an explanation planned for every piece of broken furniture and torn clothing.
  • Officers know that a suitable response to a question is "I don't know," or "I don't recall." They also know they don't have to answer questions at the scene and may refuse to provide their side of the story.
  • Some responding officers will minimize the incident in their police report to protect the accused officer's job and reputation.
  • Victims may be contacted by his friends who are police officers and asked to recant their story. They may be convinced or coerced not to cooperate with the internal investigation and the prosecuting attorney.

Victim advocacy

If the victim decides to file a criminal complaint, she will have to overcome the tremendous systemic resistance that exists against prosecuting an officer. She will have to present an extremely compelling story to the police and to the state's attorney to counter their reluctance to pursue the complaint. She will need to be able to convey that, in addition to common types of abuse, the officer/abuser exploits his professional status and power to control and to terrorize her.

The advocate can talk with the victim about the tactics the abuser uses against her to identify if and how his tactics are related to the job. For example, the use of department time, equipment, and information obtained through police channels demonstrates official misconduct. The abuser is using the privileges of the job to carry out the criminal activities of stalking, assault, and domestic battery. The abuser uses his influence in the system when he pressures other officers to assist him in harassing or stalking her. The victim may no longer think of his behavior as official misconduct because she has grown accustomed to it and because he has convinced her that whatever he does is within his range of authority.

Much of a police victim's terror comes from knowing that the abuser and his buddies know the limitations of the legal system. The laws against domestic violence offer little protection to victims of police officers. Officers know that a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty and that the criminal justice system safeguards the rights of the accused. They know that in a court of law, what matters is not what happened, but what the prosecutor is able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. They know that it is the police who write the report of what happened and collect and preserve the evidence that is required to meet that burden of proof.

Talking their language

Victims are required to tell their story several times. Their account of what happened will be received and weighed differently by various players in the system. It is helpful when talking to the police to be somewhat familiar with the department's perspective and what is a valid complaint appropriate to bring to the department. The victim must focus on instances of police misconduct or behavior threatening to public safety, rather than focusing on behavior of a personal nature.

In the same vein, it is helpful for the victim to be somewhat familiar with basic legal terminology, her role, and the state's role in her case when talking to the state's attorney. The victim's demeanor and presentation of her account will influence the prosecutor's decision whether to pursue charges. The prosecutor needs the key witness (the victim) to be credible, articulate, and composed in telling the court what happened.

We know that victims minimize the severity of the abuse even when talking to non-threatening parties, such as their advocates. It is typical for victims to minimize their experiences even more when speaking to an intimidating authority figure such as a police officer or a state's attorney. The advocate can work with the victim to enable her to describe the incident accurately and in detail. Going over the story repeatedly may help her distance herself from the emotional impact of reliving the incident. It is to her benefit to be able to tell her story clearly and graphically without being overwhelmed with emotion.

Consider the following examples:

  • 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 the light on the car roof 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 drunk 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. Then 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 to jail 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."


Working with victims of police-perpetrated domestic violence has made us acutely aware that the standard remedies are often inadequate and may even leave the victim more vulnerable. We need to rethink many of our strategies on many different levels. Because many aspects of this issue are complex and ambiguous, we need to educate ourselves — and other community providers — before we can hope to adequately serve this special population.

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