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Society has now come to the knowledge that domestic violence is a serious preventable crime. Researchers have concluded that domestic violence crosses all socioeconomic classifications. A rich man may beat his wife in the same way that a poor man does. Society also has come to understand that a person in any profession, whether a doctor, lawyer, judge, or even a police officer, may commit an act of domestic violence. By the same token, an individual of any background or profession may also be the victim of domestic violence. However, the issue of domestic violence by law enforcement officers has become a controversial topic among researchers, professionals, and the media, though several researchers have examined the dynamics of domestic violence committed by law enforcement officers.
I. Definition of Domestic Violence
A. Effects on Victims
III. Causes of Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement Officers
B. Personality and Behavior
C. Police Culture
IV. The Lautenberg Amendment
V. Law Enforcement Response to Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement
A. Prevention and Training
B. Early Warning
E. Incident Response Protocols
F. Victim Safety and Protection
G. Post-Incident Administrative and Criminal Decisions
Definition of Domestic Violence
No one single definition of domestic violence exists. Different authorities include different forms of violence within their definitions. For the purpose of this entry, ‘‘domestic violence’’ is a broad term that includes threats or violent acts against an existing or former intimate partner. The term ‘‘law enforcement officer,’’ for the purpose of this research paper, refers to a police officer. This is because victims of domestic violence by police officers are in a very different situation than that of other victims of domestic violence. The term ‘‘intimate partner,’’ for the purpose of this research paper, is defined as someone, of the same or opposite sex, with whom the officer has or had a relationship with, including dating, marriage, cohabitation, or parenting/raising a child. This definition is very similar to that used by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in their policy on domestic violence by law enforcement (International Association of Chiefs of Police 2003). A serious flaw with the IACP’s policy was its failure to include elder abuse and all forms of child abuse among the forms of domestic violence within its definition. Domestic violence by law enforcement officers includes, but is not limited to, physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse.
Feminine pronouns will be generally used to indicate the victim or abused party throughout this research paper. This does not mean that males are not victims of domestic violence. In fact, some studies indicate that male victims of domestic violence, particularly spousal abuse, are far more common than imagined. However, female victims of domestic violence generally suffer from more severe and long-lasting abuse than male victims.
The extent of domestic violence by law enforcement officers is still unknown, though researchers have conducted studies to explore its extent. Because police officers hold a special place in society, it is assumed that they will always obey all laws and regulations. Therefore, some people may expect the prevalence rate of domestic violence by law enforcement officers to be lower than that of the general population. However, according to the IACP, domestic violence among law enforcement officers occurs as frequently as among the general population.
Researchers conducted a study on the extent and nature of domestic violence by officers in a large western police department. This study involved 353 sworn police officers. Researchers found that 4.8 percent of the officers admitted that they engaged in domestic violence and that 7.4 percent reported having been a victim of domestic violence (Klein and Klein 2000).
Ryan (n.d.) examined the extent of domestic violence in the police family. This study used a survey of 210 police officers and self-reported data obtained from tests that were taken by applicants for law enforcement positions with several law enforcement agencies. The survey found that 54 percent of the officers knew an officer who engaged in domestic violence. The self-reported data showed that 10 percent of respondents (148 candidates) admitted that they had engaged in acts of violence toward a spouse or intimate partner, including slapping and punching. Male respondents were 67.6 percent of the sample, and 32.4 percent were female. Subsequent investigation of these candidates found that only one of the 148 candidates who engaged in violent acts became a police officer.
One study by Neidig and his colleagues (1992) examined the prevalence rate of domestic violence among sworn law enforcement officers (Neidig 1992). This study involved a series of surveys of 385 male officers, 40 female officers, and 115 female spouses of officers who were attending a national law enforcement conference. Researchers found that approximately 40 percent of all the officers reported at least one incident of domestic violence within the last year.
In the second study, Neidig (1992) surveyed 891 male officers, 32 female officers, and 119 spouses attending another conference. This group of officers was of a higher rank than those surveyed at the first conference. The result indicated a lower percentage of domestic violence by the higher-ranking of officers. However, 24 percent of the male officers and 22 percent of the female officers still reported at least one incident of domestic violence in their personal relationships within the preceding year.
No agreement on the prevalence rate of domestic violence by law enforcement officers exists among authorities. This may be because different authorities have different definitions of domestic violence or differences in their methodologies.
Effects on Victims
Danger. Victims of abuse by law enforcement officers face special dangers that civilian victims do not. These dangers include the officers’ familiarity and experience in using weapons, their police training regarding subduing suspects, their ability to access information that is not normally available to citizens, their knowledge of the criminal justice system, and their fear of losing their job as a result of any conviction.
Unique Access to Information. Police officers have special training regarding accessing information. This includes the locations of shelters and other community support groups. By training and experience, they are able to conduct investigations that result in gaining information about such services. Thus they will be able to identify the location of the victim, family, and friends as well as any other persons who might be inclined to help the victim. Training. Law enforcement officers receive special training regarding surveillance, investigation, and use of force. This training, especially in the area of use of force, may make them especially dangerous, since they will know how to use weapons such as their duty-issued handguns, batons, and handcuffs, as well as their own hands.
Police Culture and Department Response. In the event the victim files a complaint, the responding officers may not want to do anything, since they may know and have worked with the batterer. They may be less sympathetic to the victim and more supportive of their fellow officer. Police culture may foster a belief that things that happen in the family stay within the family and are not to be reported officially. Nine hundred and eleven calls may be handled differently when the victim identifies the offender as a police officer. Emergency protection orders in many jurisdictions are issued by police officers, who may be reluctant to issue such an order against his/her own.
Loss of Job. In many departments, a conviction of a misdemeanor would be sufficient for the department to terminate the officer’s employment. Even assuming the conviction of a misdemeanor by itself would not be sufficient to cause an officer to lose his or her job, there are other consequences that affect an officer’s employment if convicted in a domestic violence case. The Lautenberg Amendment prohibits any individual who is convicted of committing domestic violence from owning a firearm (18 U.S.C. 992 (d)(9) 1997). Since owning and possessing a firearm is a requirement of almost all law enforcement positions, the officer will be unable to carry out the required duties. The victim may be reluctant to report the abuse because of fear that the officer may lose his job. The offender may also react more violently toward the victim out of that same fear.
Linkage between Police Officers and Other Professionals. Dispatchers, prosecutors, and even judges may be reluctant to pursue proceedings against an officer they know and have worked with for a number of years. The prosecutor’s decision to proceed or file charges of battery against an officer may be influenced by the police reports, collection of any evidence, and other factors.
Knowledge of Criminal Justice System. Police officers know how the criminal justice system works. They can use this knowledge against the victim. For instance, police officers would know when courts are busy and can ask for continuances. They also know which judges are hard and which ones are lenient when it comes to domestic violence cases.
Assumption of Credibility of Police Officers. By the very nature of their training and job, police officers carry distinct credibility with citizens, fellow officers, and other professionals in the criminal justice system. Officers have been trained in how to testify in court hearings and therefore are very credible witnesses. When it comes to deciding whom to believe—a police officer accused of domestic violence or the alleged victim making the accusation— many will want to believe the police officer.
Police Officer as the Victim. When the victim is a police officer, the process becomes more complex. A female officer’s victimization may be viewed by other officers as a sign that she is weak or not competent. Other officers may also be concerned that she is a whistleblower. Her safety on the job may also be jeopardized, because fellow officers who are friends of the abuser may not respond as quickly to her request for help or backup.
Long Arm of the Law. Hiding from law enforcement is difficult. Because the officer is aware of where shelters or other support groups are located and is trained in investigation, he may be able to follow the victim’s trail as she moves from location to location. Therefore, fleeing or hiding from an abuser who is also a police officer is difficult if not impossible.
Suicide and Homicide as Threats. Average citizens are not trained in the use of firearms and may not lose their jobs even if they are convicted of domestic violence. Because the officer is trained in the use of weapons and may fear loss of his job, there is a heightened risk that he may take the life of the victim, kill himself, or kill both the victim and himself.
Standards and Remedies. The traditional response to battering by the criminal justice system may not be available to the officer. For instance, some jurisdictions or judges may be reluctant to place the officer in a batterers’ program, where he may be in a group that includes persons he has previously arrested for domestic violence.
Causes of Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement Officers
The issue of why law enforcement officers engage in domestic violence is controversial among scholars and professionals. Little, if any, consensus exists among researchers regarding the cause of domestic violence by law enforcement officers. Several researchers have examined the factors that have an impact on police officers in an attempt to find specific influences that may contribute to domestic violence within police families. Three factors that may be part of the pressures faced by police officers and that may cause them to engage in acts of domestic violence are stress, personality and behavior, and police culture.
Many scholars believe that police stress has no limits or boundaries. The primary stressors for police officers consist of the continuous exposure to traumatic events and tragedies experienced by victims of crime, the attitude of perpetrators, and the risk of physical danger that exists all the time in police work. Any stress experienced by police officers during duty hours may result in increased stress within the family system as well (Wallace 2005).
The nature of police work is highly stressful. Police officers may confront traumatizing events at any time on duty. Mullins and McMains (2000) examined the correlation between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events and domestic violence committed by law enforcement officers. Individuals with PTSD suffer from various types of psychological and behavioral symptoms, which may include nightmares, feelings of self-doubt, and extreme anxiety or fear. Mullins and McMains believe that there exists a positive correlation between PTSD and domestic violence by police officers. They acknowledge that further study must be conducted to understand this relationship.
Personality and Behavior
Some authorities have examined the possibility that certain personalities or behavioral characteristics of police officers contribute to domestic violence within police families (Wallace 2005). These researchers found that police officers place a high value on cognitive functioning, responsibility, and self-confidence. They also found that these officers have guarded, moralistic, rigid, and controlling personalities. Other researchers examined individual cases and results of psychological screening tests to explore profiles of abusive police officers compared with those of non-abusive officers (Inwald, Traynor, and Favuzza 2000). The researchers state that officers who engage in domestic violence within the family may have feelings of social failure or a sense of loss of control (often influenced by drug and/or alcohol abuse). They concluded that alcohol/ substance abuse, low self-esteem, and antisocial behaviors contribute to domestic violence committed by law enforcement officers (Inwald, Traynor, and Favuzza 2000).
It is important to discuss the basics of police culture in order to understand the special situation faced by victims of abuse by officers. Understanding police culture would help professionals to be sensitive to the needs of victims of domestic violence by law enforcement officers and respond appropriately to these needs.
One of the most important basics of police culture is a sense of power (Wetendorf and Davis 2003). Law enforcement officers are tasked with the responsibility of enforcing laws in society. Therefore, they are considered to be the ‘‘good guys,’’ and those who break the laws or challenge them are regarded as the ‘‘bad guys.’’ In order to keep these ‘‘bad guys’’ under control, law enforcement officers are trained to consider themselves to be smarter and tougher than normal citizens. Officers are armed with weapons, wear uniforms, and use special equipment. They have the power to take control over an individual by using their authority.
Another basic concept of police culture is loyalty and the code of silence. Law enforcement officers face potential life-or-death situations on a daily basis. Facing such situations together fosters bonds of solidarity among police officers; they are united by bonds of loyalty and will defend each other. The complexity and dynamics of police activities sometimes require police officers to use their discretion when responding to certain situations. Additionally, the solidarity of the group creates the code of silence among officers. This code of silence, which still exists in some departments, is an unofficial acknowledgment that no officer blames or implicates another officer who is accused of wrongdoing.
Law enforcement officers rely on their individual authority and power as well as the solidarity of the group and the code of silence. Wetendorf and Davis (2003) state that this makes it difficult for the criminal justice system to hold some officers accountable. As a result, some officers come to consider themselves as having an ultimate power over others (Wetendorf and Davis 2003).
Sgambelluri (2000) examined the literature of several aspects of police culture, including isolation, need for control, entitlement, loyalty, rugged individualism, and authoritarian spillover. He concluded that the police culture itself encourages isolation, a sense of entitlement, authoritarianism, and a need for control, characteristics which are often present in a domestic abuser. However, Sgambelluri also noted that although police work and culture have a clear impact on officers’ attitudes and behaviors, they do not cause domestic violence by police officers (Sgambelluri 2000).
The Lautenberg Amendment
One of the most influential laws that have affected the issue of domestic violence by law enforcement is the provision of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997, known as the Lautenberg Amendment to Title 18, United States Code 922 (d)(9). This law explicitly prohibits any individual who is convicted of domestic violence from owning a firearm. It specifically prohibits possession of a firearm by a police officer with a misdemeanor conviction of domestic violence. Though this law does not exempt the police officer, other federal gun control laws do exempt even those officers who are convicted of any kind of felony crime (Nathan 2000). The Lautenberg Amendment applies to all local, state, and federal law enforcement officers and to all misdemeanor convictions, including those that occurred before its enactment on September 30, 1996.
Law Enforcement Response to Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement
Response to domestic violence by law enforcement officers varies from department to department. Some police departments have established a clear ‘‘zero tolerance’’ policy on domestic violence by officers, while others have unclear policies or have not established any policy. One study found that in most law enforcement agencies, allegations of domestic violence by law enforcement officers were frequently handled informally (Lott 1995). This study also found that most agencies did not make an official complaint of these allegations or maintain records of the incidents.
Between 1990 and 1997, the Los Angeles Police Department handled 227 alleged cases of domestic violence by police officers. Only 91 of these allegations were classified as sustained or proven cases. Of these 91 cases, only 4 resulted in conviction of criminal charges. Of the four convictions, only one officer was suspended from duty, for a mere fifteen days, and another had his conviction expunged (Domestic Violence in the Los Angeles Police Department 1997).
The IACP has addressed the issue of domestic violence within the police community. This international group of law enforcement officers is concerned about professionalism within the law enforcement community. The organization holds an annual meeting and publishes research that focuses on various law enforcement issues. In 1998, the IACP released a draft policy on domestic violence by law enforcement in an attempt to assist police agencies in developing effective policies for dealing with it. The draft policy was revised and released in July 2003 and is based on the principles of (1) prevention and training, (2) early warning, (3) intervention, (4) responsibility, (5) incident response protocols, (6) victim safety and protection, and (7) post-incident administrative and criminal decisions.
Prevention and Training
Comprehensive prevention and education will assist departments to accomplish zero tolerance against the issue of police officer domestic violence. One of the most important means of prevention is establishing a corroborative relationship with other professionals, including victim advocates, shelter staff, hotline crisis workers, social workers, and others who work with victims of domestic violence. Departments should actively collaborate with these professionals in order to establish an implementation strategy and effective training for officers. It is important for comprehensive training to cover basic topics such as the dynamics of domestic violence and departmental response protocol. Additionally, the efforts of the prevention and training program should be reinforced regularly.
It is critical for departments to minimize the risk of police officer domestic violence when they screen candidates during the hiring process. In order to identify individuals who may engage in domestic violence, the department should ask all candidates about past arrests, investigations, or convictions for any crimes related to domestic violence during the screening process. During the background investigation of officer candidates, the department should look for any history of violence. Additionally, the department should conduct a psychological examination even if a candidate’s background investigation does not find a history of violent acts. This examination will indicate whether a candidate has abusive tendencies.
The department should ensure that all officers have a clear understanding of the department policy on domestic violence. It should ensure that officers’ family members are aware of the policy by creating opportunities such as family orientations. Providing information to officers’ families will encourage them to identify potentially problematic behaviors or report incidents of domestic violence. It should be noted that it may be difficult to reach family members when an officer is abusive and controlling. Therefore, information regarding the issues of domestic violence by officers should also be available to family members through other means such as an outreach campaign.
Departments, supervisors, and officers must understand their responsibilities to handle the issue of domestic violence by officers. When partners or family members of police officers notice anything that may indicate possible violent behavior, they may contact fellow officers or supervisors about their concern. The department should ensure that all employees of the department are able to properly respond to such informal contacts. They should be knowledgeable and able to recommend available resources such as referral or counseling services for officers or their family members. It is ideal for the department to have a policy or formal system to respond to partners’ or family members’ concerns. Confidentiality of information or of any report should be required to protect the officer’s partner or family member from potential violence. Additionally, the department should be wary of officers who defend fellow officers who are accused of domestic violence.
Supervisors should be sensitive to subordinate officers’ potentially problematic behaviors, which may include excessive power and control issues, aggressiveness, or deteriorating work performance. Such behaviors can be indicators of domestic violence. If a supervisor observes these indicators, it is important for him or her to take proper actions, such as documenting the officer’s problem, informing the chief of the problem, or ordering the officer to seek counseling or a batterer program.
All officers should clearly understand their department’s policy on domestic violence by law enforcement officers and be aware of their responsibilities. They should understand what the repercussions may be if they do not report information about another officer’s engaging in domestic violence or if they attempt to interfere with domestic violence cases brought against fellow officers.
Incident Response Protocols
A department should establish a clear incident response protocol for responding to domestic violence by law enforcement officers. 911 dispatchers should have instructions on how to respond to domestic violence cases involving a police officer. This will ensure that information will be sent to the proper supervisors. It will also prevent the call from being handled informally.
The dynamics of a domestic violence situation involving a law enforcement officer may become complex when a relationship exists between responding officers and the officer who is accused of domestic violence. These dynamics may involve mutual respect or rank differences between officers. Therefore, the responding officers should be directed to report to a supervisor who is of higher rank than the accused officer. Additionally, a supervisor who is in charge of the scene must respond to the call and coordinate all decision making, including crime scene documentation, arrest decisions, and weapon removal.
When the victim and the abuser are both police officers, standard domestic violence response and investigation procedures must be pursued. The department should ensure the safety and privacy of the abused police officer. It is important that referrals to confidential domestic violence services are made available to the abused officer. In addition, special attention must be paid to the victimized officer so that the reported domestic violence case does not have any negative impact on the performance and evaluation of the abused officer.
Victim Safety and Protection
Victims of domestic violence by law enforcement officers face unique situations. Police officers may be well known in the community and well respected among fellow officers. In these situations, the victim may feel powerless and may not be willing to seek police assistance. Thus the department must provide partners and family members with a variety of information within the community, including advocacy resources, designated principle contacts, and victim safety advocates. The department also should ensure that the victim receives information regarding victim’s rights, applicable laws on domestic violence, and the procedures for obtaining a restraining order if the victim wishes to do so.
It is important for the department to establish a designated principal contact for victims of domestic violence by police officers. The designated principal contact person must ensure that the victim is informed about all elements of departmental procedures and policies, including the department policies regarding victim confidentiality and its limitations.
Departments must always be aware of the possibility that domestic violence situations may become worse when an abusive officer finds out that the victim has reported the domestic violence incident. This could result in extremely violent behaviors by the abuser, such as committing homicide and/or suicide. The department must assist the victim in developing plans to handle the situation through a safety plan and danger assessment.
Post-Incident Administrative and Criminal Decisions
Once an abusive officer has been arrested, the department must pay careful attention to the case in order to properly handle it. Three steps should be followed for the consideration of post-incident administrative and criminal decisions: administrative investigation and decisions; criminal investigation and decisions; and termination procedures. The first two processes should be conducted in a separate but parallel manner.
First, the department should assign its internal affairs division or appoint an investigator to conduct a post-incident administrative investigation. Based on the administrative investigation, the department must make a decision regarding whether weapons should be seized. Although many departments have a wide range of policies, it is critical for the victim’s safety that decisions on administrative sanctions are made as soon as possible. It is recommended that any officer who is found through an administrative investigation to have engaged in domestic violence be terminated from the department.
Second, a special unit for domestic violence should be assigned to conduct the criminal investigation of the accused officer. If a department does not have such a unit, the criminal investigations team or the detective division can be used to conduct the criminal investigation. All information found during the investigation must be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office. This information may include all documentation regarding previous concerns about the officer’s problematic or abusive behaviors, damage or injuries of the victim, and danger assessment findings.
Third, once the administrative or criminal investigations conclude that the officer should be terminated, the officer must be notified in person and in writing by the department. When the officer is notified of his termination from the department, such notification should include a list of available support services for the terminated officer. It is also important for the department to notify the victim that it intends to terminate the officer prior to the actual termination. This notification allows the victim to take appropriate steps to protect herself from abusive acts by the officer (International Association of Chiefs of Police 2003). Sometimes, after the criminal investigation, the victim may indicate her desire to drop the criminal charge against the abusive officer. However, some jurisdictions have policies that allow prosecutions to go forward without the consent of the victim.
Domestic violence by law enforcement officers continues to be a controversial subject among researchers, professionals, and the media. Society looks to law enforcement personnel for protection from harm; one is shocked and dismayed to learn that an officer has become violent toward a member of his or her family.
Researchers’ best estimates indicate that domestic violence occurs as frequently among law enforcement officers as it does among the general population. Victims of domestic violence by law enforcement officers face special dangers that are unique to police culture. For instance, law enforcement officers have special training regarding accessing information, conducting surveillance, and using weapons and physical force.
Additionally, victims must overcome the secrecy and loyalty of police culture when filing charges of domestic violence against law enforcement officers. Police culture accepts and defends its own members and looks with distrust upon outsiders. Officers are loyal to each other because of the nature of their work and the dangers they face together on a daily basis.
The IACP has recommended a model code for departments dealing with domestic violence by law enforcement officers. It establishes processes and procedures for handling these types of cases. Many departments have begun to adopt this code in part or in full. This is a significant step forward for both law enforcement officers who commit acts of domestic violence and for their victims. However, more training, knowledge, and support is still needed.
- Domestic Violence in the Los Angeles Police Department: How Well Does the Los Angeles Police Department Police Its Own? Domestic Task Force, Office of the Inspector General, 1997.
- International Association of Chiefs of Police. Domestic Violence by Police Officers. 2003.
- Inward, Robin, William Traynor, and Vicki Favuzza. ‘‘Psychological Profiles of Police and Public Safety Officers Accused of Domestic Violence.’’ In Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement Officers, edited by Donald C. Sheehan. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2000, pp. 209–224.
- Klein, Robin, and Constance Klein. ‘‘The Extent of Domestic Violence within Law Enforcement: An Empirical Study.’’ In Sheehan, ed., Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement Officers, 2000, pp. 225–232.
- Lott, Lonald D. ‘‘Deadly Secrets: Violence in the Police Family.’’ FBI Law Bulletin (1995): 12.
- Mullins, Wayman C., and Michael J. McMains. ‘‘Impact of Traumatic Stress on Domestic Violence in Policing.’’ In Sheehan, ed., Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement Officers, 2000, pp. 257–268.
- Nathan, Alison J. ‘‘At the Intersection of Domestic Violence and Guns: The Public Interest Exception and the Lautenberg Amendment.’’ 85 Cornell L. Rev. 822, 2000.
- Neidig, Peter H. ‘‘Interspousal Aggression in Law Enforcement Families: A Preliminary Investigation: 15 Police Studies.’’ International Review of Police Development 30 (1992a).
- ———. ‘‘FOP Marital Aggression Survey: Interspousal Aggression in Law Enforcement Personnel Attending the FOP Biennial Conference.’’ National Fraternal Order of Police Journal 5 (1992b).
- Ryan, Jr., Andrew H. ‘‘The Prevalence of Domestic Violence in Police Families.’’ In Sheehan, ed., Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement Officers, 2000, pp. 297–308.
- Sgambelluri, Anthony V. ‘‘Police Culture, Police Training, and Police Administration: Their Impact on Violence in Police Families.’’ In Sheehan, ed., Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement Officers, 2000, pp. 309–322.
- Wallace, Harvey. Family Violence, Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2005.
- Wetendorf, Diane, and Dottie L. Davis. ‘‘The Misuse of Police Powers in Officer-Involved Domestic Violence.’’ Advocate and Officer Dialogues: Police-Perpetrated Domestic Violence. Fort Wayne, IN: Davis Corporate Training, 2003.
Cases and Statues Cited:
- Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997 (the Lautenberg Amendment) 18 U.S.C. 922 (d)(9).
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