Officer Domestic Violence

By Lonsway, Kim; Conis, Pete | Law & Order, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Officer Domestic Violence


Lonsway, Kim, Conis, Pete, Law & Order


On April 26, 2003, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot his wife Crystal and himself in front of their two children. Media attention both in Tacoma and elsewhere focused on this terrible tragedy and briefly raised the issues of domestic violence in police families for public scrutiny. However, now that the media spotlight has moved on to other issues, police executives everywhere must continue to struggle with this problem.

Law enforcement simply must do a better job of identifying domestic violence perpetrated by members of the law enforcement community, and protect the safety and well-being of victims while holding perpetrators accountable.

The problem of officer domestic violence is a matter of life and death.

Victims of domestic violence involving an officer are uniquely vulnerable because the officer who is abusing them holds all the cards. Perhaps most obvious, the officer who is perpetrating the violence has a gun and all the authority of a position within law enforcement to use against his victim. If the victim tries to escape or seek help, the officer knows the location of battered women's shelters and many of the people involved in the system. Of course, the officer also knows how to manipulate the system to avoid detection and accountability, and abusive officers arc often masters at shifting blame to the victim and creating the impression that the victim is the one who is crazy or perpetrating the abuse.

For example, Chief Brame reportedly described himself as the victim of his wife Crystal's ferocious temper. It is not unusual for abusive officers to create the impression that they are the real victims in the situation. Some even race to the courthouse to get a Protective Order before the victim is able to obtain one. This is an effective strategy that undermines the victim's credibility and puts the victim on the defensive.

For example, most people- including judges- believe that an armed male officer who is willing to endure the humiliation and embarrassment of admitting to the court that he lives in fear of his female partner must truly be the victim. This belief often prevents judges from considering the obvious. It fails to recognize the relative size and strength of the two parties, who is more reasonably and likely to be afraid of whom, and the imbalance of the personal, financial, social and institutional power of the officer versus the victim.

Victims of domestic violence by an officer understandably fear calling the police, because they know the case will be handled by officers who are colleagues and friends of their abuser. They typically fear that the responding officers will side with their abuser and fail to properly investigate or document the crime. Historically, these fears have been well-founded, because many agencies handle cases of domestic violence by their own members informally, often without an official report or investigation.

Many victims fear that officers will extend the traditional professional courtesy to other members of law enforcement by not reporting any allegation of domestic violence made against them. This informal method is often used despite legislative mandates and departmental policies dictating a more formal response to domestic violence crimes, including mandatory arrest if probable cause exists.

Victims also fear reporting because any risk to the officer's job can pose a terrible financial burden on the victim and any children. If the officer loses a job with the police department, this means that the victim loses not only the family income from that job, but also any health insurance, pension and other benefits. This can be devastating to the family, and often serves to keep victims in an abusive relationship that they would otherwise leave.

How Often Does it Happen?

To date, most of the estimates of officer domestic violence have been developed by simply asking police chiefs, victim advocates or others how frequently it occurs. …

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