“The majority of police officers will make a deadly force decision but only get services for the traumatic event if they actually pull the trigger,” said Dr. Joel Shults, a former college professor who presently is the Chief of Police for Adams State College in Colorado.
Shults, who is also a PoliceOne Contributor, explained his recent research on police officers as crime victims during the IACP Confernece in Denver last month. Shults’ work with the Violence Against Law Officers Research (VALOR) Project began when he was listening to characteristics of domestic violence victims: repeated voluntary exposure to violence, reluctance to report, refusal to consider themselves a victim, poor access to victim services, and lack of communication with prosecutors and investigators. Recognizing that this sounded similar to police officers dealing with being assaulted, the first VALOR survey questioned attitudes and experiences of police officers regarding victimization on the job.
Shults’ Web site says, “Go to the Internet and search the term ‘police violence.’ The slanderous misinformation and hate-mongering is stunning. We have a good and growing data base about deadly force and murders of police officers but precious little information about other victimization and anti-police violence. In a quest for helpful study of this issue created the Violence Against Law Officer Research (VALOR) Center.”
It’s probable that the attendees to Shults’ talk were unsurprised to learn that nearly every officer who responded to the survey said that being punched or shoved is not acceptable. Equally unremarkable (although I’m remarking on it here) is that some 15 percent believe that their supervisors think being assaulted is ‘part of the job’ — nearly half of those surveyed say that they believe prosecutors think this to be true. These are not exactly shocking revelations. However, here are some more statistics from the VALOR Project survey for you to consider:
• Nearly nine in ten officers reported being threatened with retaliation on duty for doing their job — about one fifth of officers reported being threatened off duty
• Nearly one in five officers have had personal property vandalized by offenders
• Nearly half of those surveyed said they’d been assaulted but had not considered themselves a crime victim
• More than one in ten officers don’t report being assaulted because they know there will be no prosecution
• Nearly two thirds of officers say they’ve seen charges related to assaulting an officer being the first dropped in plea bargaining
• Nearly half report seeing felony assault or resisting cases tried as misdemeanors — half say that case dispositions were made without their knowledge or input
• Three out of four officers have suffered physical pain and injury without seeking medical treatment
• Four out of five report that they were not treated with the same care as a civilian assault victim
• Fifteen percent reported they felt victimized but did not report the crime for fear of criticism from peers
Speaking with Shults during the PoliceOne Ten Year Anniversary Party, it became immediately clear to me that if we’d met under entirely different circumstances (say, for example, at a party), we’d be fast friends. I like to consider myself a thinking man, and Shults’ demeanor and wisdom are appealing in a way I can best describe thusly: “He’s a thinking man’s man.”
“Officers who are victims of crime are routinely denied the rights afforded to other crime victims,” Shults told me. “It is no wonder that fifteen percent of officers every year consider leaving law enforcement due to the dangers and lack of the criminal justice system’s response related to assaults.”
Shults pointed out that many of the ways assaulted officers are treated are in violation of state laws regarding victim’s rights. Knowing that most of his audience had been victims of assault during their careers, he asked how many had been given victim rights information, offered a victim advocate, had been given restitution, and had been consulted on the defendant’s charges, sentence, or release. Few in the audience had.
“How can we expect officers to have empathy with a victim when they never get the very services they offer to others?” Shults asked. “How many use of force excesses are at the hands of officers who feel that their actions at the time of an arrest are the only punishment this offender will ever get?”
To emphasize the disparity between civilian victims and police victims, Shults pointed out that officers almost always investigate their own case.
“Consider the absurdity of handing a notepad, camera, and witness statement forms to a civilian assault victim and asking them to do their own investigation,” Shults said. “That’s something we ask police officers to do all the time, even while knowing that many of those cases will result in complaints or lawsuits.”
Having an uninvolved officer investigate assaults on fellow police officers was one of several policy recommendations from Chief Shults. Other policy recommendations included making sure that all victim rights laws were applied to officers, and that the culture of acceptance of violence against officers be changed by educating officers, supervisors, prosecutors, judges, and potential jurors. Other recommendations were:
• Let officers know they should report when they are a crime victim — including being resisted or assaulted on duty — or victimized off duty as a result of their job
• Make sure any and all victim’s right afforded to a civilian is also afforded to the officer who is assaulted
• Police leadership should be sure that thier officers understand their right to sue for damages
• Officers shouldn’t have to be shot to be visited by police command staff after being injured
The purpose of VALOR is to explore issues related to the integrity of officers’ safety regarding the social ‘norming’ of violence against police. Attitudes of acceptance of assaults on officers can result in the lack of prosecution as well as the lack of support for peace officers in general.
“By most estimates there are about three quarters of a million police officers in America,” Shults told me. “Three quarters of them report being assaulted every year. That’s arguably one of the most pervasive victim classes in the country. Maybe it’s about time to provide them with the same rights as others.”