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Police officers and domestic violence: Two stories

By Mike Wasilewski & Althea Olson, LCSW

The client walks into the therapist’s office, sits down, and takes off the sunglasses that were hiding tear-reddened eyes from the others in the waiting room. Pulling a Kleenex from the box she allows her pain to come out as she begins to talk about the events of the past week. The story she tells is one the therapist has heard many times and begins four months ago after the client’s husband had an affair with a coworker. Soon after it was discovered he moved out of their home, leaving behind his wife of fifteen years and four children, to move in with his new girlfriend and the girlfriend’s two kids. The difference in this story is that client’s husband is a cop.
As in any separation new stressors were introduced into their relationship. Before the separation finances had never been a concern. He provided adequately for the family which enabled her to be a stay-at-home-mom for the last ten years. Now he is financially supporting two families and she knows it is only a matter of time before she has to put the house, which she can no longer afford, on the market. Her husband no longer shares in the day-to-day parenting of their kids and has become a “weekend dad.”  Her husband has recently isolated himself from family and friends and has begun drinking excessively. The caring and loving husband she once knew has left her life. Neither of them has filed for divorce since neither can afford an attorney. 
This brings us to four days ago.  He had come over to discuss finances and child visitation and they started to argue. This was not new, they had argued many times since he left, but this time was different.  This time harsh words became shouted words, and then he shoved her. They continued arguing more angrily, more harsh words were exchanged, and then he punched her. As she held their baby he made a fist and punched her in the kidneys. Her knees collapsed and she crumpled to the floor, clutching her baby tightly to her chest. As she fought the blinding pain, she heard her husband storm through the house, out the front door to return to his girlfriend’s home.  It was the one and only instance of domestic violence between them.
She wanted to call 911.  She was horrified and angry and wanted to report him.  She knew that, as bad as things had become, turning her husband in would make everything worse.  Unlike the business executive or tradesman across the street, an arrest for a police officer carries a much greater impact. He could lose his job immediately resulting in no income, health insurance, & pension. She feared reporting him would be financial suicide and she could not do that to her kids.
The therapist has another client who is more shocking than the first. He is a male police sergeant who has been married for five years with a two year old child.  His wife has always been manipulative and controlling, but since the birth of their child, she has become increasingly abusive toward him, both emotionally and physically. 
She starts arguments that often lead to her slapping and punching him. She manipulates and emotionally abuses him by saying she will injure herself, call 911, and report he beat her up.  He has come close to calling 911 but stops in fear of losing his job and the humiliation he would face from his colleagues. The constant shame he feels has led him to the therapist’s office.
Domestic violence involving police officers as either perpetrators or victims is a phenomenon that has received little empirical study. It is understandable that police officers, even when promised anonymity, would be reluctant to self-report behavior that could put them in serious jeopardy at work. Denial, rationalization, and minimization of behaviors are normal human responses when “regular” people are questioned about their own bad or maladaptive actions and it is reasonable to expect police officers would be no different.
It is also reasonable to expect domestic violence would be under-reported among police and their families. When an officer is accused of domestic violence it is likely he or she will face consequences both legally and professionally. Unlike most professions, a criminally charged police officer faces consequences ranging from the loss of professional respect up to the loss of employment. The financial ramifications for the spouse are as significant as they are for the officer. The Lautenberg Amendment of 1996, banning anyone convicted of even misdemeanor domestic battery from possessing a gun, can signal “financial sudden death” for an entire family.  

Even when the officer’s partner wants to report an incident there will be increased pressure not to, due to the potential consequence, and the victimized spouse risks further victimization. Finally, there are the victim’s frequently expressed feelings that, “No one will believe me” or “No one will take it seriously.”
Many police officers who are victims of domestic abuse are reluctant to report it. Fear of losing the respect of peers and supervisors or of having a troubled home life laid bare before colleagues is enough to prevent an officer from reporting the abuse. Some also report they are afraid they will be falsely accused by their partner or their attempts to defend themselves will cause them to be arrested.  
Even among various theorists and experts it is difficult to reach consensus about not only domestic violence rates and frequency, but even about what constitutes domestic violence and abuse. Rather than spending time debating statistics, we want to proceed from the position that domestic abuse does occur in some police families, officers can be both offender and victim, and the law enforcement profession has an obligation to address the issue of officer-involved abuse. Domestic abuse involving police officers is one the law enforcement profession must face directly and decisively, but with compassion.

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