Deadly Secrets: Violence in the Police Family

By Lott, Lonald D. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Deadly Secrets: Violence in the Police Family

Lott, Lonald D., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Early morning telephone calls rarely signal good news; this one was no exception. A fellow officer reluctantly disclosed that one of our officers had beaten his girlfriend badly the previous night. Although I sensed the hesitation in his voice as he briefed me on the incident, we both knew we could no longer avoid the inevitable: We would have to arrest the officer.

Arresting one of your own officers is a difficult task, especially when that officer is a friend. And, although I was saddened by the news, I was not surprised. After all, most everyone in the department knew the officer was having domestic problems. But as I discovered a few days later, the officer's friends also knew that his domestic disputes had turned violent.

The Family Enigma

Through 20 years of police work, three separate law enforcement agencies, and my own failed marriage, I have come to know intimately the innumerable family problems police officers experience. In many ways, police families resemble other families. However, in addition to dealing with the same daily frustrations that confront all families, they must cope with all of the exceptional pressures that accompany police work. This extraordinary stress makes police officers more prone than average citizens to alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, and suicide.(1)

Clashing Traits

The very nature of police work teaches officers to control their emotions. They discipline their minds to remain focused in dynamic situations, no matter how bizarre or terrifying. Above all, they must prevail in the face of adversity.

Officers learn to interrogate when suspicious, to intimidate or match aggression when challenged, and to dominate when threatened. Granted, these actions are necessary for survival and control. However, when combined with the unfavorable conditions of police work - undesirable shifts, rotating work schedules, days off spent in court, exposure to pain and suffering, and violent confrontations - even exceptional police officers can become very poor spouses, parents, and friends.(2)

Law Enforcement's Response

Sadly, though numerous case studies document the susceptibility of police families to domestic problems, police officers rarely receive advice on avoiding such pitfalls. For the most part, senior officers only admonish rookies to "leave the job at work."

If art imitates life, then the media's portrayal of many police officers as grumpy, quarrelsome, divorced alcoholics is right on target. Indeed, law enforcement seems to have institutionalized marital and family turmoil into the profession.(3)

Do Unto Others

Traditionally, the police have chosen not to get involved in domestic disturbances in the general population. Unless a family fight turned violent and resulted in severe injuries, the police viewed it as a civil problem inappropriate for police attention. Often, the reluctance of law enforcement to get involved led to temporary, nonlegal remedies, designed to ease the tension between the victim and the abuser.

Responding officers might make one party leave the house for a cool-down period. Or, they might convince one partner to apologize and promise not to repeat the behavior. As a general rule, though, officers did not take anyone into custody.

Gradually, however, lawsuits and political activism brought about a change in law enforcement's attitude toward domestic violence. Research indicated that arresting batterers reduced the likelihood of repeat violence, compared with police mediation or similar counseling-oriented intervention techniques.(4) In the face of this emerging empirical evidence, laws dealing with family violence took an extreme turnabout.(5)

Most States enacted legislation mandating police action in cases of suspected family violence. Unfortunately, although officers increasingly became involved in private citizens' family disturbances, they were less diligent in policing their own. …

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