On March 17 of this year, Florida resident Michael Bigwood drunkenly pounded on his ex-wife’s door and demanded to speak with her, in violation of a domestic violence protective order. On June 7 of last year, Daniel Diaz Deleon fired six gunshots into the walls of his Denver, Colorado home while his wife and children cowered in the bathroom. This past November, George Holcombe threatened to kill his wife in front of their child and two police officers from the Philadelphia police force.
These three men have something in common other than committing acts of domestic violence: all were active duty police officers at the time they committed their crimes.
Police officers are trained how to intimidate and interrogate suspects, conduct surveillance, find people who don't want to be found, and use force without causing serious injury — all valuable and important skills when used to protect the public. But when used against an intimate partner, such efforts can be devastating. Studies and various academic papers dating as far back as 1991 and continuing through 2006 suggest that police officers commit intimate partner violence two to four times more often than the general population.
This has some stark implications for victims, even beyond the initial abuse they suffer. For one thing, in a society in which the primary response to domestic violence is to call 911 and proceed through the criminal legal system with cops acting as the go-betweens, the partners of police officers often have nowhere to turn when they are victims of domestic violence. Police officers know the locations of domestic violence shelters and often have collaborative relationships with the staff, which means that the partners of police officers suffering from intimate violence don’t see women's shelters as viable options.
Officers can also appeal to the “blue wall of silence” to protect fellow officers from intervention in domestic violence situations. Few police departments, in fact, have specific policies for responding to intimate partner abuse perpetrated by one of their own. A study by Kimberly Lonsway in 2006 found that only 29% of police departments had any policy at all, despite the efforts of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which, in July 2003, promulgated a model policy that adopts a “zero tolerance” stance on officer-involved intimate partner abuse and sets forth procedures for prevention and training, early warning and intervention, incident response, victim safety and protection, and post-incident administrative and criminal decisions.
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There is a significant overlap between police officers who commit intimate partner abuse and officers who commit other forms of violence. In their study of media reports of officer-involved domestic violence between 2005 and 2007, officer-turned-academic Philip Stinson and professor John Liederbach found that almost 22% of the officers accused of domestic violence had also been named as defendants in federal civil rights police misconduct claims.
This is not wholly surprising: Officer-involved domestic abuse arises, in part, out of the hyper-masculinized world of policing, which often not only tolerates, but encourages, the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that undergird intimate partner violence. From the minute they enter the police academy, even when the training is facially gender neutral, police officers are expected to adhere to a form of masculinity that devalues and objectifies women. In their 2002 study of one law enforcement training academy, sociologists Anastasia Prokos and Irina Padavic found that male recruits at this academy regularly belittled and objectified women, adopting the phrase “There outghtta be a law against bitches” as their mantra when joking about female police recruits and women generally.
Male recruits at this academy also downplayed the seriousness of violence against women, ignoring the content of a domestic violence training film in order to rate the attractiveness of the actresses playing roles in that film. (This type of verbal degradation can continue even after officers leave the academy; criminologist Susan Miller, in her 1999 book "Gender and Community Policing: Walking the Talk," describes how, in a progressive, diverse law enforcement agency, female officers were “still privately classified as ‘bitch,’ ‘whore,’ ‘dyke,’ or ‘prude,’ and never seen as just another officer.”)
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Despite the high rates of intimate partner abuse by police officers, incidents of officer-involved abuse are treated as isolated events, rather than part of a systemic problem. Every day, one can find individual news stories about cops who are abusive, but policy makers and domestic violence advocates generally don’t explain how police culture creates an atmosphere in which abuse flourishes. Considering the resounding silence from policymakers, and the lack of any outcry about the fact that most law enforcement agencies don’t have any policy, officers are largely able to act with impunity because of their centrality in the legal and policy solutions to intimate partner abuse in the United States.
Since 1984, federal policy and funding have prioritized law enforcement responses to domestic violence over other types of support. For example, $290 million dollars was allocated in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to criminal justice initiatives, versus about $40 million that was set aside for transitional housing, even though housing is regularly cited as the top need by people who have been abused. And because the Violence Against Women Act disproportionately funds law enforcement and incentivizes close collaboration between law enforcement and the non-profit organizations that serve people subjected to abuse, addressing the problem of intimate partner abuse by law enforcement officers could jeopardize the relationships police and anti-violence advocates have developed. (Illuminating the problem also threatens significant funding sources for both non-profits and law enforcement, calling into question the wisdom of continuing to rely on law enforcement as the primary means of addressing domestic violence in the United States.)
The state has a serious stake in this conversation, not only because it trains and arms abusers, but because it depends upon these same abusers to enforce the very laws that they are violating in their own relationships. (There is a growing conversation about decriminalization, but since we can't get policymakers and practitioners to even acknowledge the problem, finding alternatives isn't really on the radar.) And without fundamentally changing the cultural context within which police officers do their jobs — environments in which violence against women or against those who are feminized is both tolerated and used to assert one’s own masculinity— intimate partner abuse among officers is unlikely to decrease.
Leigh Goodmark is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Frances King Carey School of Law. Professor
Goodmark directs the Gender Violence Clinic, a clinic providing direct representation in matters involving intimate
partner abuse, sexual assault, trafficking, and other cases involving gender violence. Professor Goodmark’s
scholarship focuses on domestic violence; her book, A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal
System, was released in 2012 by New York University Press.