Article: Who Can Stop Police-Perpetrated Domestic Violence?

©2004 Diane Wetendorf. All Rights Reserved. Written for Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault newsletter
I have worked exclusively with victims of police-perpetrated domestic violence for the past fifteen years. This article is informed by accounts from victims, their family members and victim advocates. Police-perpetrated domestic violence exacts a serious impact on the community. Experts who address men's violence against women such as Jackson Katz, Michael Kimmel, and Lundy Bancroft agree that women cannot stop male violence. Laws and policies cannot stop male violence — only men themselves can stop it.

The fact that there are police officers who batter their intimate partners — and often get away with it — so greatly disturbs most people's sense of justice and undermines their sense of security that many choose not to believe it. Unfortunately, there are police officers and supervisors who also choose not to believe it. These are the officers who look the other way when they encounter it. Officers who appreciate the problem are offended by it and understand that the bad behavior of one officer damages the reputation of all; everyone loses when the public loses respect for the police.

Police-perpetrated domestic violence is not a new problem, but historically a well-kept secret. Police departments across the country vary in their attitudes and approaches to the problem. I have heard many chiefs and sheriffs claim, "We don't have that problem here." I have met with those who believe that domestic violence is a private marital problem, others who dismiss it with a "boys will be boys" attitude. A few express the sincere wish to eradicate it. Many question the need for a specific policy or training, claiming that if an officer-involved incident ever occurred, they would treat it the same as any other domestic. (Based on victims' accounts, that rarely happens). Officers and supervisors who fail to recognize that non-physical abuse is still abuse often miss warning signs of escalation which too often ends in lethal violence — and claim they had no way to see it coming. Because only a small percentage of police victims ever report their abuse, it has been easy for officials to conceal or at least minimize the extent of police-perpetrated domestic violence.

Abuse of professional power

It is wise to question whether police-perpetrated domestic violence should be treated the same as any other domestic since it is significantly different from any other domestic abuse. Those who work in the system — advocates, police, civil attorneys, prosecutors, judges, and social service providers — often express feeling inadequate and frustrated because remedies and legal strategies commonly used in civilian cases are sorely inadequate or ineffective when working with police victims. They also know that victims and witnesses often recant, evidence mysteriously disappears, and state's attorneys refuse to pursue charges. There are countless obstacles to securing victim safety and holding an officer who batters accountable.

Officers who batter use the same tactics of coercion and control that civilian batterers use, but they employ other tactics as well. They are professionally trained to gain and maintain control, they have access to all kinds of information, they possess firearms and often — perhaps most significantly — they can call on fellow officers and others in the system for backup. Victims of officer-perpetrated domestic violence dare not rely on the standard remedies and safety plans that victims of civilian abusers may find effective.

The abusive officer's entitlement to authority on the street bolsters and reinforces his sense of entitlement to authority and dominance within his personal life. He expects the same level of respect and compliance in his intimate relationships that he expects from citizens on the street. He is likely to perceive any conflict or disagreement with his intimate partner as a threat. He knows how to control, intimidate, and terrorize his partner without ever laying a hand on her. If she resists his psychological and other types of control, he can resort to the use of force. He is adept at justifying the use of force by claiming that she was threatening or attacking him, she was hysterical, or he had to restrain her because she was a danger to herself.

Many abusive officers abuse their professional power by manipulating fellow officers into arresting the victim or seeking to commit her to a psychiatric facility. An officer who batters is also likely to stalk his intimate partner, often under the guise of protecting her. He gathers information about what she is doing and with whom she is spending her time. He uses pretext, interviewing and interrogation skills to keep her under surveillance. He may install recording devices in her home or on her telephone and spyware on her computer. She is always within his reach. If she tells anyone about his surveillance, they misconstrue her concerns as symptoms of paranoia.

Officers who batter are savvy in circumventing the gun laws and department policies and are more often using preemptive strategies to shift the focus and blame to the victim: the abusive officer alerts his supervisors that his intimate partner may come forward with false allegations; he is the one who calls 911, convinces responding officers that there is probable cause to arrest her, he pursues criminal charges; he petitions the court for a protective order and elicits the sympathy of the judge thereby winning possession of the home and temporary custody of the children.

If he has any suspicion that the victim is going to pursue a divorce, he may block her access to legal counsel by being the first to contact local attorneys for information to create a conflict of interest which prevents them from speaking to the victim. He may call the local domestic violence agency (where he may even be friends with the advocates and staff attorneys) claiming to be the victim. This prevents the agency from providing services to the real victim.

Standard options not reliable

The standard legal remedies and safety planning options that victims of civilian batterers use are often useless, or worse, exacerbate the situation for a victim of an officer. Most of the safety measures we usually recommend rely on the police or the court for enforcement, enforcement that the victim of an officer cannot count on. The victim and all who work with her must always be mindful of both the immediate and the long-term implications of every option. Any action she takes that he perceives as a threat to his career is likely to provoke retaliation. Advocates must rethink, reevaluate, adjust, or possibly avoid altogether the standard options.

A victim who comes forward with an allegation is likely to encounter strong resistance from the system. The police and prosecutor may question her motives and her credibility. Officers and supervisors who sympathize with the abuser may see him as the real victim and do everything they can to protect him. If an incident occurs within the batterer's jurisdiction, the responding officers will be his co-workers. Their personal relationship to the abuser, his rank, the policies of the department and many other factors will influence how they handle the situation. If another jurisdiction responds, there is still the possibility that responding officers will know the abuser. Even if they do not know him personally, they may extend professional courtesy to a fellow officer.

Police officers say they live in fear of false allegations of domestic battery or sexual assault because such allegations could effectively end their careers. This collective perception and fear make it easier for an accused officer to manipulate his fellow officers. The abuser makes them aware that they, too, are vulnerable and could be the target of false allegations, reinforcing their need to stick together. It feeds the perception that all a woman has to do is allege abuse and an officer could be out of a job.

There is a code of silence and a solid brotherhood among fellow officers that reinforce what the abuser has told the victim: no one will believe her, she may be the one arrested, the incident could cost him his career. Officers or investigators may tell her that if she chooses to pursue a case, the outcome will hinge on one thing: her credibility. She knows they can undermine or destroy her credibility by including or omitting some detail in the police report or in their testimony that taints her character or casts doubt on her motives. It is indeed within their power to create the reasonable doubt necessary: they write the police report, they take the photographs, they collect and preserve evidence, and they provide sworn testimony.

Should the victim obtain a protective order, an abusive officer perceives it as a threat to his livelihood. He is likely to do everything within his power to persuade the court to vacate the order, usually by casting doubt on the victim's credibility and motive. Obviously, the power of a protective order hinges on the ability and willingness of the police and the courts to enforce it. If the department's priority is to avoid further discipline of the officer, enforcement for violations of the order is likely to be a problem.

The officer who batters assures his victim that there is nowhere she can hide that he won't be able to find her. Women who have tried to escape have been found: they confirm that their batterers went to great lengths to find them and forced them to return. Police officers know how to find people; technology assists them in finding anyone, anywhere. Abusive officers are likely to pride themselves on this ability, and they let their victims know it. When the victim flees, he uses his access to channels of police information, police surveillance equipment, and police personnel to assist him in tracking her down.

The abusive officer may perceive the victim's filing for divorce as the ultimate threat to his power and control over her. There is often a lengthy legal battle over what he perceives as his property, his money, and his children. He is likely to prefer losing everything in the fight rather than appearing weak by accepting a compromise.

Since prosecutors rely on the cooperation of the police in all their cases, they may be reluctant to pursue charges that can potentially destroy an officer's career or embarrass a police department. Prosecutors hesitate to pursue cases they don't believe are winnable. Among factors prosecutors consider when determining whether to proceed with charges are the anticipated cooperation and testimony of the police, the police report and evidence, and the victim's credibility. As noted above, the collection and preservation of evidence that supports the victim's allegations and the police reports are both in the hands of law enforcement. The prosecutor may anticipate that fellow officers' loyalty to the accused officer will compel them to distort their testimony. The prosecutor also knows that the judge and/or jury may be biased in favor of the officer and wish to avoid action that may result in termination of an officer's career. There are also political considerations that may influence the prosecutor's decision.

A prosecutor who anticipates all the above complications may try to avoid the risk of going to trial and offer the abuser a plea bargain. Typically, the charges will be disturbing the peace, criminal destruction of property, or reckless conduct since a conviction for these charges does not trigger the gun prohibition. (The 1996 amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, referred to as the Lautenberg Amendment, removed the official use exemption with respect to misdemeanor domestic violence convictions for members of law enforcement (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9)). This means that an officer convicted of a qualifying domestic violence misdemeanor forfeits the right to possess a firearm even while on duty which could terminate his employment in law enforcement.

Any outcome of a criminal case may well be a no-win situation for the victim. If the abuser is convicted, he is likely to lose his job, leaving the victim to deal with his retaliation and the loss of his financial support. If the officer is acquitted, the court validates his belief that he is invincible and above the law, leaving little deterrent to further abuse.


Police-perpetrated domestic violence exacts a serious impact on the community. When police officers have a reputation for committing — and getting away with — domestic violence the public becomes distrustful of all law enforcement. Citizens worry that an abusive officer will respond inappropriately to domestic violence calls since he may be sympathetic to an abuser and insensitive to the needs of a victim; he may project his own beliefs that women lie about abuse or that women deserve abuse. An officer who believes that the court unjustly restrains him from contact with his intimate partner and his children may believe that other men are also unjustly sanctioned. He may abuse his discretionary power and refuse to enforce court orders.

It seemed that change was imminent with the passage of Lautenberg, but looking back over the thirteen years since the law changed, it is disheartening to see how little real progress has been made. Victims' accounts reveal that attitudes toward police-perpetrated domestic violence remain much the same as they were prior to Lautenberg. What struck me when I began this work was how similar victims' reports were to one another. What strikes me today is that their reports have not changed. Sadly, one change I do see is that police officers and police departments have become more knowledgeable about how to avoid accountability and liability.

Experts who address men's violence against women such as Jackson Katz, Michael Kimmel, and Lundy Bancroft agree that women cannot stop male violence. Laws and policies cannot stop male violence — only men themselves can stop it. They emphasize that while not all men batter, all men are responsible for holding each other accountable. They state that any man who is aware of another man's violence and stands by doing nothing to stop it is colluding with the batterer and contributing to male violence against women.

Similarly, I believe that women cannot stop police domestic violence, laws and policies cannot stop it, only police officers can stop it. Though not all police officers batter their intimate partners, all officers are responsible for holding each other accountable. Those who are aware of another officer's violence and do nothing to stop it are colluding with the batterer and contributing to police violence against women. For years, I have listened to police chiefs and experts in law enforcement lament that police domestic violence is a complex problem for which there are no answers. Truth be told? There is a straightforward solution; but too many just don't like it.

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