Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I Can't Call the Police -- He is the Police: Intimate Partner Abuse in Police Families

Governments around the world are assuming greater responsibility for ending violence against women.   In fact, a ground-breaking European treaty on violence against women will enter into force on August 1, 2014.  But co-editor Leigh Goodmark asks, given the devastating statistics on officer-involved domestic violence, should governments be delegating front-line implementation responsibilities to the police?  Professor Goodmark writes:

Last month, Javier Acevedo shot his wife, then himself, in a murder-suicide.  Earlier in April, Ryan Anders broke into his ex-wife’s home and shot her before killing himself.  Murder-suicides, though not a common occurrence, are hardly unknown to those of us doing domestic violence work.  What makes these two incidents less ordinary is that in both cases, both the perpetrator and the victim were police officers.

Domestic violence, even fatal domestic violence, is far from an isolated incident within police communities.  Research shows that intimate partner abuse is two to four times more prevalent in the families of police officers than in the overall population.   The media regularly reports on officers who have been suspended or arrested for engaging in intimate partner abuse.  In recent years, the murder of Crystal Brame, by her husband, Tacoma, Washington police chief David Brame, and allegations of domestic violence against San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarimi have made national news.  Brame committed suicide after killing his wife; after pleading guilty to the false imprisonment of his wife, Mirkarimi was reinstated as sheriff.

Because of their training, police officers can be particularly dangerous abusers.  As Diane Wetendorf, an expert in officer involved domestic violence, explains, police officers are taught how to intimidate suspects, conduct surveillance, find someone who doesn’t want to be found, and interrogate suspects.  Police officers expect compliance with their orders, bolstered by the authority granted to them by the state.  Officers learn how to use force without causing serious bodily injury.  When used to protect the public, these are all valuable and important skills.  When used against an intimate partner, they can be devastating.

The partners of police officers may have few options available to them for addressing their abuse. Most police departments have no specific policy for responding to intimate partner abuse perpetrated by one of their own, despite the efforts of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which promulgated a model policy in July 2003.  Officers’ intimate partners fear calling the police, because he is the police; they are well aware of the culture of silence that cloaks officers’ actions.  They know that their partners are well-versed in courtroom procedure and known and respected by judges and prosecutors, making the prospect of court proceedings daunting.  Their abusers have access to information systems that allow them to track their partners.  They know where the shelters are and often have working relationships or are engaged in collaborations with shelter staff and service providers.  Officers’ partners also know that pursuant to federal law, a domestic violence conviction means the officer will lose his gun, and therefore his job, making him that much more vindictive and dangerous.  In a society in which the primary response to domestic violence is through the criminal legal system, the partners of police officers often have nowhere to turn.

How can we better protect the intimate partners of police officers?  Urging local police departments to adopt strong policies for addressing intimate partner abuse by officers would be a good start.  But it is also worth questioning the nature of our response to intimate partner abuse more generally.  Should the criminal justice system be the primary response to domestic violence in a country where police officers are disproportionately committing such abuse?  Providing options beyond the legal system would benefit many people subjected to abuse, but few would benefit as much as the partners of abusive police officers.

(Adapted from an earlier blog post on the NYU Press Blog, From the Square)


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