Police take a beating on spouse abuse

By Deborah Richardson

Law enforcement has been taking a beating by the press concerning police officer involvement in domestic violence. As recently as Aug. 23, 1996, Washington, D.C.’s, free weekly “City Paper” ran a cover story, complete with black-and-white images, about Metropolitan police officers and domestic violence. The cover caption read: “D.C. cops know a thing or two about domestic violence. Just ask their wives.”

The perception is that police families and police relationships have their share of domestic problems that trigger domestic violence. What was once considered a family’s or couple’s private shame has become a public declaration: “Domestic violence will not be tolerated.”

Further evidence of this fact is seen in Congress’s passage of the gun ban for individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. From a police perspective, it means that those officers convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence will not be allowed to ship, transport, possess or receive firearms, which virtually ends their careers in law enforcement.

Being arrested, convicted and subsequently losing employment may not be a remedy for domestic violence. It may not even be a deterrent. However, for law enforcement officers who participate in domestic violence, this scenario is a real possibility. It has negative implications not only for these officers but also for the entire law enforcement profession. Reductions in workforce credibility and professionalism may result.

Historically, domestic violence has been considered a family matter. That is, “family problems” that involve aggressive or violent encounters between family members should be handled within the family, and outsiders should not interfere. However, evidence suggests that “outside” interventions such as counseling and safe houses are often necessary to help stop or stem domestic violence. Given that law enforcement officers respond to, witness and/or deal with domestic violence cases on the job, the question is, how could these same officers, who are charged with the responsibility of investigating and mediating domestic disputes involving violent encounters between family members, resort to violent behavior when dealing with their own loved ones?

Several theories have been offered as explanations for the incidence of domestic violence within police families. One theory points to the stressors that are inherent in police work, such as shift work, the police hierarchy, and the sanctioned use of force for conflict resolution. Another theory suggests that officers’ overuse of alcohol in social situations and as “novocaine for the soul” triggers domestic violence. Yet another theory  concerns the connection between domestic violence and the “authoritarian” police personality.

All these theories, along with ones not mentioned here, are viable. At issue is whether domestic violence is a real, not imagined, problem for law enforcement officers and their loved ones. For this we need statistics, and statistics mean going to sources such as police officers, spouses and significant others.

At the Fraternal Order of Police’s national board meeting in September 1996, attendees and FOP Auxiliary board members were asked to take part in a survey on police and domestic violence. When asked, “Do you feel that domestic violence is a problem for police families?” 82 percent responded affirmatively. Seventy-three percent indicated that questions about domestic violence are not too personal to be asked in a survey.

Based on survey results, and in light of heightened public scrutiny, it is imperative that law enforcement examine the issue of domestic violence for officers and their loved ones. The more we know about the reasons why domestic violence occurs and the situations that elicit violent disputes in police families and relationships, the better prepared the law enforcement community will be to help officers and their loved ones break the cycle of domestic violence and prevent violent disputes before they occur, and protect officers and their loved ones from the devastating physical and mental repercussions of domestic violence.


(Deborah Richardson, M.A., is the executive director of the Center for Criminal Justice Studies, which is the research component of the National Fraternal Order of Police.)

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.