Editor's Note: Domestic abuse is an unfortunate reality of life. The fact that it is sometimes committed by law enforcement professionals is a harsh reality that many of us don't like to acknowledge, much less deal with professionally. That it exists is not a comment about law enforcement in general. We are all human. No one is perfect. Law enforcement professionals are not exempt. In this article, our Police Life contributor, Michelle Perin, talks candidly about its impact in the law enforcement community, law enforcement families, and her own experience with it. This could not have been an easy article for her to write and we hope that readers approach it with an open heart and mind. This is not a "police-critical" article. Law enforcement as a whole is not being indicted here. Read on. - Ed.
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In 2003, Crystal Judson Brame was killed by her husband Tacoma (WA) Police Chief David Brame, Sr. He shot her and then himself in a public parking lot with their two children nearby. The media went crazy. Headlines shouted out the details of years of domestic abuse and department complacency. It was a tragedy to the family, the community and law enforcement everywhere. Unfortunately, it was one more story added to the book of police-perpetrated domestic violence that continues to get thicker and thicker. A book in which my family also has a chapter.
It was a Wednesday afternoon when my seven year old son came home from school with the bruises. I shared joint custody of him and his two year old brother with my ex-husband. We both worked for the same department. He was a police officer. I was a dispatcher. When I asked my son what happened, he told me his dad had gotten mad and hit him. Then, he went out to play. I sat in my room agonizing. I was in shock. I didn't know what to do. I was angry and scared. Then, my phone rang. It was an officer from the police department who had jurisdiction where both my ex-husband and I lived. The school had called after my son's teacher sent him to the nurse.
Within two days, our lives were turned upside down. My son's father was arrested. News vans were camped in front of my house. Pictures of my ex were splashed on the television and in the newspapers. Quotes attributed to my son blared from the speakers. I have no idea how it was legal for the department to release the statements of a minor or how the media got a hold of them, but regardless, I felt sick every time I heard or saw them. I tried desperately to protect my son from seeing them. I called my department public information office and asked them to help me get the media away from my house. This was my first experience with the departmental barriers I had heard other family members of police abusers faced. I was told to call the department handling the case. That it wasn't their issue and they couldn't talk to me about it or help me. I was frustrated because this was my department too. I just stayed inside and kept the shades drawn.
I was granted a restraining order, but it was promptly contested. The main issue was not that an incident of violence had occurred, but that the order would prevent him from carrying a gun (and therefore couldn't do his job). In court, my ex was calm, collected and comfortable. I was nervous, uncertain and scared. Then, the judge asked me, "You do realize that this will prevent him from doing his job, right?" This was my second experience with how police-perpetrated domestic violence differs.
In the end, my son's father was given diversion because it was his first offense. During a lengthy discussion with the prosecuting attorney, she explained his upstanding position in the community was a factor in sentencing. Third experience. Within our department, he resigned in lieu of being fired. I heard rumors the reporting jurisdiction was pushing to have his certification revoked. Regardless, comments floated around my department about how I had gotten him in trouble. I never regained the comfort I had once felt there. I didn't stay much longer.
Police-Perpetrated Domestic Violence
Domestic violence unfortunately occurs much too often. Police families are not immune to it. Officers can be both abusers and victims. Research into the prevalence of police-perpetrated violence is still slim. One study put the percentage of officers who had gotten out of control and behaved violently toward their spouse or children at 40%. More specific studies indicated over one-quarter of the officers surveyed had engaged in violent behaviors. Even if these studies are disputed and the rate of domestic violence in police families is the same as the general population, Dr. Ellen Kirschman author of I Love a Cop estimates 60,000 to 180,000 families with police officers would be affected.
When a police officer is also a batterer, the situation is unique. Diane Wetendorf, an advocate, trainer and consultant specializing in police-perpetrated domestic violence states, "As the victim of a police officer, your situation is very different than that of other victims. If you have ever tried to get help you may have become discouraged because no one seemed to understand your plight." Ironically, the skills and characteristics officers develop that make them effective on the job also make officers very dangerous abusers. Wetendorf explains police are trained to:
- Walk in and take control of any situation
- Intimidate by presence alone, voice, stance
- Obtain information through interrogation and surveillance
- Deceive and manipulate when necessary
- Use weapons and deadly force
- Attribute the level of force used to the other party
- Assume a position of ultimate authority
Officers have an intimate relationship with their gun. Weapons are almost always in the home of police families. Acts of defiance on the job are viewed as threatening to officer safety. Remaining in a position of authority is vital to handling volatile situations. When an officer does not have tools to communicate with family members in a way different from that of a police officer, many revert to their professional training. This can be disastrous.
Victims of police-perpetrated domestic violence face additional barriers when seeking help. Wetendorf points out:
If your abuser is an officer of the law, you may be afraid to:
- Call the police - He is the police.
- Go to a shelter - He knows where the shelters are located.
- Have him arrested - Responding officers may invoke the code of silence.
- Take him to court - It's your word against that of an officer, and he knows the system.
- Drop the charges - You could lose any future credibility and protection.
- Seek a conviction - He will probably lose his job and retaliate against you.
Although many things have changed in the past ten years, such as the 1999 International Association of chiefs of Police (IACP) Model Policy and supporting Concepts and Issues Paper and the 2005 Crystal Judson Brame Domestic Violence Protocol Program police-perpetrated domestic violence remains a concern. Staying behind a wall of silence is no longer an option. There are police officers battering their spouses and/or their children. There are police officers being battered by their partners. There are police officers who know about it. There are departments who refuse to acknowledge this problem exists. There are also police officers, advocates, survivors and departments making a difference and saying this is unacceptable and doing something about it. Maybe with dialogue, training and accessible help the book can be closed with no more chapters added.