When women are victims of violence by their male partners who are also members of police services they are in a uniquely vulnerable situation. When women experiencing abuse consider police a part of their safety plan, they are entrusting the police. Women who are subject to abuse by a member of police services may actually be unable to receive assistance, police services may not be a safe resource for them. Research studies out of the United States indicate that police involved domestic violence exceed the general population by 2-4 times.
In January 2015, a Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officer was arrested and charged with two counts of unlawful confinement of a young woman and her mother and one count of assault causing bodily harm against the mother. The man involved in the alleged assault was an off-duty Vancouver police officer who has been on the force for 10 years and has now been taken from “front line duties, pending the results of the investigation.” Battered Women’s Support Services responded immediately highlighting critical concerns relating to police accountability and women victim safety.
“If there is evidence and I am not talking about a conviction. I am talking about evidence. This member of Vancouver Police Department that he has committed domestic violence, he would need to be removed from the Vancouver Police Department. He no longer has the privilege of participating in law enforcement and it will be the duty of Vancouver Police Department to remove him from duty.” Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director of Battered Women’s Support Services
We know, well, through our work with women who have been victims of police-involved domestic violence that when the one doing the abuse is a police officer, they have particular advantages and women victims have enhanced vulnerabilities. The strong loyalty bonds within policing services personnel, along with the individual discretion granted and taken by officers in deciding how to respond to abuse allegations, creates the potential for the police members colleagues not to act according to policy, to minimize the problem as a familial in nature, and therefore not criminal. Men who are abusive as well as police officers may be able to use their increased knowledge of criminal legal proceedings to maintain power and control over the woman within the relationship. Police are also often well-acquainted with transition houses, rape crisis centres, women’s shelters, women’s ending violence organizations and other community/advocacy programs with services for women victims of male violence.
In many domestic violence against women situations, the main witness is more often the woman herself and her testimony is crucial to proving the allegations of abuse. It is routine that the woman’s credibility is weighed with the accused and determined through examination of the evidence. When the accused is a member of police services, his status is authoritative and as a respected member of the community therefore given more weight than the woman victim.
Women victims of police officer involved domestic violence will often experience tremendous hesitancy to report for very legitimate reasons. Women may be aware that reports of abuse made to a police department will not be kept confidential within that police department. If the abusive police officer works for the same department where the report was made, he will learn of the victim’s allegations. All this goes to reinforce the doubt women victims may have that their case will be handled well by other members of police services. Women victims may also be concerned that reporting domestic violence will impact the accused employment and she may fear retaliation by other police service personnel, his family and friends as well as the accused.
These concerns are compounded if the woman victim is also a member of police services.
National Centre for Women and Policing – Police Family Violence Fact Sheet
Two studies have found that at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence, (1, 2) in contrast to 10% of families in the general population.(3) A third study of older and more experienced officers found a rate of 24% (4), indicating that domestic violence is 2-4 times more common among police families than American families in general. A police department that has domestic violence offenders among its ranks will not effectively serve and protect victims in the community.(5, 6, 7, 8) Moreover, when officers know of domestic violence committed by their colleagues and seek to protect them by covering it up, they expose the department to civil liability.(7)
Domestic violence is always a terrible crime, but victims of a police officer are particularly vulnerable because the officer who is abusing them:
- has a gun,
- knows the location of battered women’s shelters, and
- knows how to manipulate the system to avoid penalty and/or shift blame to the victim.5, 6
Victims often fear calling the police, because they know the case will be handled by officers who are colleagues and/or friends of their abuser. Victims of police family violence typically fear that the responding officers will side with their abuser and fail to properly investigate or document the crime.5, 7
Failure of Departmental Policies
These suspicions are well founded, as most departments across the country typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report, investigation, or even check of the victim’s safety.5, 8, 9 This “informal” method is often in direct contradiction to legislative mandates and departmental policies regarding the appropriate response to domestic violence crimes. Moreover, a 1994 nationwide survey of 123 police departments documented that almost half (45%) had no specific policy for dealing with officer-involved domestic violence. In that same study:
- The most common discipline imposed for a sustained allegation of domestic violence was counseling.
- Only 19% of the departments indicated that officers would be terminated after a second sustained allegation of domestic violence.9
- A recent study of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department found inconsistent policies and practices for officers accused of domestic violence, regarding arrests, seizure of firearms, and Employee Assistance treatment.10 There is no reason to believe that the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department is unique in this; rather, this inconsistency is typical for police agencies responding to domestic violence committed by its own members.
Although the International Association of Chiefs of Police have prepared a model policy on police officer-involved domestic violence, there is no evidence that police departments across the country are doing anything other than simply including the policy in their manuals.
Violent Police Officers Receive “Exceedingly Light Discipline”
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.5, 6, 7 For example:
- In 1998-1999, 23 domestic violence complaints were filed against Boston police employees, but none resulted in criminal prosecution.6
- The San Diego City Attorney typically prosecutes 92% of the domestic violence cases that are referred, but only 42% of the cases involving a police officer as the perpetrator are prosecuted.11
- Between 1990 and 1997, the Los Angles Police Department investigated 227 cases of alleged domestic violence by officers, of which 91 were sustained. Of these 91 allegations that were sustained by the department, only 4 resulted in a criminal conviction. That means that the LAPD itself determined in 91 cases that an officer had committed domestic violence, but only 4 were convicted on a criminal charge. Moreover, of these 4 officers who were convicted on a criminal charge of domestic violence, one was suspended for only 15 days and another had his conviction expunged.12
In fact, an in-depth investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department conducted by the Office of the Inspector General concluded that the discipline imposed on officers found guilty of domestic violence “was exceedingly light when the facts of each incident were examined” (p. i).12
Performance Evaluations Not Affected; Violent Officers Often Promoted
The study of the Los Angeles Police Department further examined the 91 cases in which an allegation of domestic violence was sustained against an officer.
- Over three-fourths of the time, this sustained allegation was not mentioned in the officer’s performance evaluation.
- Twenty-six of these officers (29%) were promoted, including six who were promoted within two years of the incident.
The report concluded that “employees with sustained allegations were neither barred from moving to desired positions nor transferred out of assignments that were inconsistent with the sustained allegation” (p. iii).12
- Abuse of Power: Clearinghouse for Officer-Involved Domestic Violence Advocacy, Consulting, Training, Diane Wetendorf, Inc., available at http://www.abuseofpower.info (last visited Feb 2, 2015).
- Police Family Violence Fact Sheet, National Center for Women & Policing, available at http://www.womenandpolicing.org/violenceFS.asp (last visited Feb 2, 2015).
- Police Domestic Violence, LifeSpan, available at http://www.life-span.org/ (last visited Apr. 23, 2009).
- Domestic Violence in Police Families, Purple Berets, available at http://www.purpleberets.org/violence_police_families.html (last visited Feb 2, 2015).
If you could do something to end violence against girls and women, wouldn’t you?