Dealing with Domestic Violence in Law Enforcement Relationships

By Kruger, Karen J.; Valltos, Nicholas G. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Dealing with Domestic Violence in Law Enforcement Relationships


Kruger, Karen J., Valltos, Nicholas G., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Domestic violence remains a prevalent social and law enforcement problem in the United States, and the public demands that law enforcement agencies work aggressively to prevent it. Sadly, several studies show that too many law enforcement officers themselves commit acts of domestic abuse, (1) which is not only devastating to the families of these officers but also damaging to the agencies and communities that they serve. This unlawful behavior undermines the credibility and effectiveness of the officer and diminishes the standards of the department and the profession. (2)

As law enforcement responds to the demands of the community for stronger enforcement of domestic violence laws, it cannot ignore those within its own ranks who commit the same offenses. Law enforcement managers must respond when domestic violence occurs within the ranks-to enforce the law, to protect the integrity and reputation of the agency, and to reflect the ethical standard of stewardship expected of law enforcement leaders.

Responding appropriately and adequately when domestic violence hits "home" often is not as easy as it may sound. The problem comprises many issues and requires a comprehensive approach, involving leadership, recruitment screening, policies and procedures, training, and violation investigation and response. As always, because state and local laws may vary, readers should consult their legal advisors before embarking on a new departmental policy and response plan. Be forewarned, however, law enforcement administrators should not delay in implementing such a plan. The next family tragedy could fall squarely on anyone's doorstep.

Step One: Leadership

Effective law enforcement executives lead both by example and by setting clear expectations for the behavior of those who serve under them. The first step in establishing an effective intradepartmental response to domestic violence involves the leader demonstrating intolerance for such behavior, speaking out against it, and standing as an advocate for those who are harmed by it. Leaders' public policies, established for enforcement by the officers in their communities, must remain consistent with those that they establish for their law enforcement personnel.

Domestic violence has many faces and harms many victims. It proves critical that administrators' messages address all of the forms of prohibited conduct to place all personnel fairly on notice and to deter all family violence. To have an effective message, managers must have a good understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is defined, in part, by the nature of the relationship between two individuals and, in part, by the conduct of the offender. It includes abuse inflicted on spouses; children; older or otherwise vulnerable adults, including parents; and any other persons similarly situated to a spouse, child, or parent. The abusive conduct may be physical, sexual, emotional, or financial.

The behaviors identified as domestic violence are varied, but have several common unique characteristics. (3) First, it occurs within an intimate relationship. Officers may commit physical violence against a family member that they never would consider inflicting on a criminal suspect, in part, because of the perceived "safety" of the intimate relationship. Second, domestic violence is a learned behavior; it cannot be attributed to genetics, illness, use of alcohol or other drugs, or stress, although these elements may increase the likelihood that violence will occur. Behavior is learned and reinforced as an acceptable, or even expected, way of behaving toward family members. Finally, domestic violence is recurrent and generally follows a cycle and involves various abusive behaviors.

Keeping all of this in mind, law enforcement administrators must explore ways of helping their employees avoid violence in their personal relationships. To have an effective approach to officer-involved domestic violence, managers must begin with--

* a good understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and the magnitude of the problem;

* a commitment to addressing the problem and the support of other top members in doing so;

* an ability to create a culture of disapproval of abusive behavior and the means to communicate that position; and

* the resources to follow through on the commitment. …

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