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Police Drag Heels on Officers' Domestic Abuse

Friday, December 3, 2010

Domestic violence is at least--if not more--as prevalent in the homes of police officers as the rest of the population. Very few agencies have adopted programs and model policies to address complaints against their own officers.

Subhead: 
Domestic violence is at least--if not more--as prevalent in the homes of police officers as the rest of the population. Very few agencies have adopted programs and model policies to address complaints against their own officers.



(WOMENSENEWS)--"Deaths of Maine Cop, Wife Were Murder-Suicide."

"Police Officer Arrested for Attempted Murder of Ex-Girlfriend."

"Lieutenant's Death Ruled a Suicide; Girlfriend's a Homicide."

"Cop's Wife Shot, Dies."

"Fired Westminster Sergeant Guilty of Domestic Violence."

"Suit: Police Department, Chief Covered Up Officer's Abuse of Ex."

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Headlines like these speak to the problem of officer-involved domestic violence. The National Center for Women and Policing, based in Arlington, Va., backs these headlines with three studies that indicate domestic violence is two to four times more common among police
families, compared with 10 percent of families in the general population.

Theoretically, at even 10 percent, that means if there are 500,000 police officers in the U.S., there are at least 50,000 domestic violence offenders in police ranks.

Despite headlines and statistics, few police departments in the country have policies and programs to address the problem, according to the National Center for Women and Policing. Citing a 1994 nationwide survey, they say almost half of the police departments surveyed had no specific policy for dealing with officer-involved domestic violence.

Instead, agencies "typically handle such cases informally, often without an official report, investigation, or even a check of the victim's safety," says the Center's Police Family Violence Fact Sheet. "The reality is that even officers who are found guilty of domestic violence are unlikely to be fired, arrested, or referred for prosecution, raising concern that those who are tasked with enforcing the law cannot effectively police themselves."

Dave Thomas, a retired Montgomery County Maryland police officer, now an instructor with Johns Hopkins University Public Safety Leadership Program, trains police departments to respond to officer-involved domestic violence. Thomas collaborated with the International Association of Chiefs of Police , known as IACP, that in 2003-04 produced a model policy for agencies to follow.

Sound Policies Rare

"It's miniscule," said Thomas of the number of police agencies that have good, sound policy. "Maybe 3 to 6 percent (of police agencies) have a good policy. Leaders give a lot of lip service to it, saying they need to have it, but we just don't see it."

Once an organization has been notified about an officer committing domestic violence, he says, they can be held legally liable for what happens next.

"Agencies have been losing in court because they don't do something 'reasonable' to change what was happening," he said. One example is a lawsuit brought by the father of a woman slain by her husband, the chief of police of Tacoma, Wash.

A key principle of any program on officer-involved domestic violence, Thomas says, is the immediate involvement of higher-ranking officers so a junior officer isn't put in the position of arresting a superior.

"When there's a call for a domestic violence incident involving an officer it means that the on-duty supervisor has to respond to the scene; someone of higher rank," he said.

Thomas says agencies must also provide an avenue for family members to reach out to the department and they recommend that it be on a department's Web site. When reports do come in, he says, agencies must act fast so there's no lag time between the time of the report and when something is done.

"If an abuser is in law enforcement he is a batterer with a Ph. D. in power and control . . . that victim is in double jeopardy," he said.

He says the lack of a program or policy is no defense against legal liability.

Roberta Valente, general counsel for the National Network for Ending Domestic Violence, based in Washington, D.C., says some departments are afraid that if they do adopt a policy it will expose them to liability if they don't abide by it.

"The IACP has a model policy that describes protocols they should adopt to safely handle this," Valente said.

Limits of Policies

Washington State shows the limits of programs, policies and legal reforms. It is the only state that requires law-enforcement agencies to have an internal policy on officer-involved domestic violence.

The reform came in 2003, after Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally wounded his wife, Crystal Judson, in a parking lot and then killed himself in front of the couple's two children.

Lane Judson, Crystal Judson's father, was instrumental in bringing legal reform to the state. Today he travels around the country talking about officer-involved domestic violence.

But policy alone is insufficient, says Debbie Brockman, a long-time victim advocate for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, based in Seattle. Successful prosecutions have turned out to be so rare that victims have become discouraged.

Right after the Brame case, Brockman says, she saw numerous officer-involved domestic violence cases going through the system. But after the initial upturn she says she hasn't

seen any new cases in a long time and today she gets few calls from survivors.

"The only thing I can think is that it's gone back underground," Brockman said.

Brockman says law enforcers' work is central to their sense of identity. "So it's not just losing a job. If they are charged with domestic violence and it sticks, their career is over. The victim knows that and it puts them in incredible danger," she said.

At the same time, victims often fear that if they report the violence, their batterer's job could be taken away, losing the source of the family's financial support.

A greater potential for lethality exists in police-perpetrated domestic violence, says Brockman. With the constant presence of weapons in police family homes, the batterer has access to a service weapon, baton, handcuffs and other tools of abuse. Trained in methods of physical control, he can use arm locks or choke holds to subdue with no marks or bruises.

Plus, Brockman says, perception is everything.

"Often it's very hard for people to believe that this 'great guy' could do anything like this. And victims don't want to report the abuse and not be believed. These perpetrators are very, very skilled at testifying in court in front of a jury. They have credibility and they know how to work a jury," she said.

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Judith Spitzer is an award-winning freelance writer living in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

For more information:

Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, WSCADV:
http://www.wscadv.org/

National Network to End Domestic Violence, NNEDV:
http://www.nnedv.org/