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January 21, 2004
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Richard Davis, ALM Understanding Domestic Violence
with Richard Davis, ALM

Domestic violence and police officers as abuser or victim

Add your comments to the discussion on Richard L. Davis's column in the Domestic Violence forum

Domestic violence is a multifaceted complex phenomenon. It includes abusive acts towards children, intimate partners regardless of gender, and the elderly. For police departments, acknowledging that police officers can be abusers or can be abused by another family member, regardless of age or gender, may be the first positive step in resolving this problematic issue. Domestic violence inflicts suffering and deaths in too many family's police officers visit and officers know only too well that they don't have to leave home to encounter it.

To get respect you must give respect, not demand it. Perhaps to receive empathy it might be wise to offer some empathy towards the officers. There are few agencies in this country that have made more progress placing domestic violence programs, policies, and procedures in place than police departments.

There are three prominent contemporary theories that attempt to explain the cause of domestic violence. Central to the FEMINIST or COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL model is that domestic violence mirrors the patriarchal organization of society and it is men alone who use violence to maintain their dominate role in the family. Norms and mores in society allow this form of abuse to continue. The behavior of abusers is a result of these learned mores and norms.

However, the norms and mores most of us grow up with teach males that only cowards hit women. In fact it is cowards who hit anyone who is smaller and weaker than they are regardless of age or gender. There are reams of data that document that when one person is bigger, stronger, or has more resources than another person they will use whatever power, control, and resources they have to retain their position, regardless of gender.

In the FAMILY CONFLICT model violence is the result of the stresses created in dysfunctional families. In this model, any family member may intentionally or unintentionally contribute to the escalation of violence. Lower levels of family conflict are often warning signs for families that they are at risk of much greater abuse. Any lower level forms of family conflict are serious as they can quickly escalate into much more violent forms of behavior for all members of the family.

This particular model may be most relevant to police officers and their families. Officers often live in a functional world of family and friends, however, in the officers work they constantly encounter dysfunctional families, a subculture of violent behavior, odd work habits and constantly changing work hours. These are examples of stresses that exasperate the "families in conflict" model of violence.

The number of police officers who divorce and the number of times they divorce is extremely high. All studies document that divorce or the termination of any intimate relationship increases the risk of domestic violence. There are a number of people who are attracted to police officers [or perhaps, to their uniform, weapon, and badge] and it seems that many police officers offer little resistance to this type of attraction. There should be little doubt that often martial problems lead to financial strain as well as continued family conflict.

The PSYCHOTHERAPEUTIC model proffers that personality disorders and/or early traumatic life experiences predispose some people to use violence in family relationships. This model allows for individual or group therapy.

Police officers are not immune from low level forms of family conflict nor are they impervious to more serious forms of domestic violence. However, police officers as either abusers or victims of family conflict has been ignored, misrepresented, and inadequately studied. Few to no studies to date give any credence to the serious psychological effects police officers face due to their attempt to live in one (functional) world and while working in another (dysfunctional) world of crime, criminals and an under funded, understaffed, and imperfect court system.

When we think of domestic violence we think of "battered women" who suffer from what is often labeled "patriarchal terrorism." Most researchers and professionals agree that a "battered woman" is a woman whose life is thoroughly, extensively, and completely controlled by a man and her behavior purposely altered to suit a mans desires while they live in a familial styled relationship. The batterer systematically uses physical violence, economic subordination, threats, isolation, and a variety of other behavioral controlling tactics to ensure she does what he wants her to do.

Studies document there is another and more common type of family violence or conflict that occurs quite often within families. This type of family conflict does not involve a specific long-term pattern of power and controlling behavior. This family conflict is exhibited because of general or specific arguments, often created by stress, and can escalate into violence or physical assault.

These spontaneous arguments that lead to threats or actual physical assaults have no specific patterns, are not frequent, and do not specifically and always escalate to more serious and injurious physical assaults. This type of family conflict does not involve a general motivation by one person to control or alter the behavior of another, they are not frequent, and have no specific pattern. One of the most comprehensive studies concerning domestic violence to date, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence, documents that most physical assaults are relatively minor and consist of pushing, shoving, slapping.

There are many types of tactics employed by family members who attempt to "get their way" in a specific or general disagreement. Civilians and police officers most often think of these feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness, as being created by the stress of the "street job." This is not always the case. Often times this stress is caused by the officer's supervisors or in the case of supervisors, those they supervise. There are of course many other problems, including financial problems, drug and/or alcohol abuse, excessive work hours, problems with gambling, etc.

All employees of police department should have copies of the department's policies and procedures concerning domestic violence and all employees should be expected to comply with them. Departments need written pages to keep everyone on the same page. The Chicago Police Department has for many years now intervened concerning family conflict or domestic violence incidents involving its police officers in a progressive and proactive manner. Perhaps if police departments would demonstrate more compassion and empathy towards the plight of police families in particular, officers in turn would become more understanding of domestic violence victims in general.

All police department should have a Stress Unit independent but connected with the departments domestic violence interventions. Through the Stress Unit police officers should be offered free, private, professional counseling that includes issues of family conflict. This counseling should be available at the request of any employee or employee family members who think that they may be victims of family violence, regardless of how minor. It is vital to the well being of the officers and their families that they are offered this type of intervention. The counseling program and intervention should not in any way alter the fact that the department will continue to thoroughly investigate all allegations of domestic violence and refer incidents, where appropriate, to the District Attorneys office.


About the author

Richard L. Davis completed studies in criminal justice management at LaSalle University. He has a graduate degree in criminal justice from Anna Maria College, and another in liberal arts with a concentration in history from Harvard University.

Contact Richard Davis.





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