By Heidi Hiatt
On any given day, anyone with Internet access can go to websites like Behind the Blue Wall and Injustice Everywhere to view the latest news reports of domestic violence committed by police officers.
This abuse is not only devastating to victims but damaging to the agencies and communities these officers serve. This behavior harms the credibility and effectiveness of law enforcement and diminishes the standards of the department and the profession (Kruger & Valltos, 2002).
Thus began my dissertation titled The Necessity and Effectiveness of Police Officer-Involved Domestic Violence Policies. As a multiple-time survivor, a former civilian law enforcement employee defamed by a superior trying to conceal abuse, and a friend and family member of honest cops, this is a subject I feel strongly about. The costs of standing up for myself and other victims have been immense and ongoing. Taking a stand on this issue and exposing the abusers and murderers among us—not a term I use lightly—has financial, social, professional, and other impacts.
People who fight to bring the stories of victims both living and dead into the light often risk everything. Personally I’ve experienced perjury, stalking, slander, bullying, harassment, and loss of income not because I did something wrong, but because I stood up for myself. That’s not even a complete list. In doing so, I shone light in dark places, sometimes inadvertently. Not long after the first time I began to fight back, an officer came to me and reported that their squad was told to ignore the allegations of abuse and death threats because I was “making things up to get attention.”
I don’t want sympathy. How does sympathy help me? Being a martyr doesn’t interest me. I want to live, and after taking the first step to stay alive, my fear was gradually replaced by a justifiable righteous rage. I was never made to be small and meek and cowering in a corner. I’m a fighter. I am passionate about truth and justice. I’ve needed people around me who challenge me to get back up every time I’m sucker punched no matter how badly it hurts, not people who coo over me as I lie on the ground. When you’re a fighter and an honest person, just being yourself is threatening to people with something to hide. I like to say that initiative, intelligence, and insight is threatening to the immoral and insecure, and that is especially true when you’re a woman.
In time and through faith, staunch allies within the criminal justice system and politics, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree, that righteous anger would become a steady resolve to help other victims of officer-involved domestic violence. So far I haven’t earned a dime off of this informal advocacy, like many survivors and advocates who speak out. We do it because an estimated 20 to 50 percent of law enforcement families experience some form of domestic violence according to studies, which is a rate much higher than in the general population. We also do it because officer-involved domestic violence is different and can be more dangerous than the usual kind. OIDV victims are the least acknowledged and least studied group of perpetrators and victims within the phenomenon of domestic violence.
Researchers ask, “does society want to send domestic violence offenders in response to emergency calls for assistance from victims of this crime?” Some have found that officers who have committed domestic violence are less effective in domestic violence situations than those who have not (Morgan, Nackerud, & Yegidis, 1998).
Additionally, allowing officers who commit domestic violence to police the public is hypocritical and a dangerous irony for their victims. A deputy sheriff quoted in an analysis of the firearms rights of uniformed abusers said, “The officer who is beating his or her spouse may be the same one who answers a domestic violence call at your neighbor’s house or yours. When the abuser wears a badge, the victim can be the most helpless one in town.” (Adelman & Morgan, 2006)
When I was writing my dissertation, a review of relevant literature showed an astounding lack of material, academic or otherwise, on this subject. A keyword search of academic databases in which I skimmed over 6000 published articles turned up just seven full-text articles that dealt specifically with issues pertaining to officer-involved domestic violence. OIDV is the elephant in the living room but it’s not widely understood and not dealt with as uniformly as domestic violence in the general population.
In 2003, in the wake of the Brame homicide in Tacoma, Washington, the International Association of Chiefs of Police revised their model OIDV policy to help individual agencies develop their own. Recent studies have shown that there’s no evidence that the IACP’s model policy has been widely adopted or implemented. Just over a quarter of law enforcement agencies surveyed by Dr. Kimberly Lonsway in 2006 even had OIDV policies, and a policy is only as good as the leadership that’s willing to enforce it.
So where do victims of OIDV go to get help? Diane Wettendorf and Ellen Kirschman have written excellent books on this subject that I highly recommend. Susan Murphy Milano, whose police officer father murdered her mother, has a fantastic guide to leaving abusive and stalking relationships in general. Sandra L. Brown’s book on psychopathy will sound eerily familiar to men and women whose abusers are police officers. But victims often want or need immediate help and they turn to the Internet to find it. People like me, people who’ve been through it or want to help them, have turned to the Internet as well. The world wide web is where people go to find solutions, especially when they don’t know if they can trust the authorities.
Plug “officer-involved domestic violence” into a search engine and a curious mix of websites appears. There is no one foundation or authority on this subject; the IACP has done a good job of pursuing reform but many victims don’t want to trust the police when their abuser is the police. Since the establishment of OIDV policies some victims have found that the policies are just words or are selectively enforced. Debbie Brockman, a victim advocate quoted by Judith Spitzer in a piece on OIDV (thank you BTBW), has said that successful prosecutions of OIDV offenders are rare and the problem has gone back underground.
Some police departments are concerned with the litigation that arises when an officer is disciplined or is terminated. It is expensive and some, with union strength, are rehired plus given back pay. Some cases are resolved by sending abusers to “treatment,” which in some cases is merely an exercise they go through to claim “reform.” Many receive months of paid leave while their cases are investigated and victims are denied access to the results of those investigations (a topic for another day). The bottom line is that a significant portion of the population does not want to trust information provided by police on the web or elsewhere because of the inconsistent response to OIDV by law enforcement.
On that note, people seeking information on OIDV turn to organizations and blogs. Diane Wetendorf’s Abuse of Power website, is very professional and informative. Wetendorf is considered one of the foremost experts on OIDV and her site features valuable information like the police power and control wheel and thoughts on police culture. Her material is objective and consulted by both the police and advocates. Her books are worth owning and I have a deep respect for her work.
Lane Judson’s home page, is a tribute to his daughter Crystal’s memory as well as a portal for victims seeking assistance. Crystal Judson Brame was murdered by her police chief husband in front of their two children in 2003. Lane promised her before she died that he would do whatever he could so that no one else would have to go through what she did. Lane and Patty Judson are phenomenal people who work tirelessly to educate police agencies and the public about OIDV. Lane is a sought-after speaker with compassion and influence.
Judson’s home page links to other pages that deserve mention. One is a photo display of officer-involved domestic violence fatalities, This is a work in progress but gives readers an overview of just how many deaths occur that involve OIDV. Not a lot of these cases make the national news, so it’s sites like this that really reveal the broader picture, compiling homicide and suicide data primarily from local news sources.
Another notable link goes to the Officer-Involved Domestic Violence Network site, . It provides links to safety information, blogs, videos, and other items of interest. This is a good site for networking and its operators have great empathy for cops and the stresses they face. They do this because, like me, they believe that OIDV conditions will never improve unless we’re honest about the issue. (Their Facebook page)
From there we click on the link to the companion blog, Behind the Blue Wall, that tracks OIDV cases in the news, . This blog tracks thousands of such cases from the past decade with the most recent items appearing first. This is similar to a website that logs allegations of police misconduct in general .
What is alarming about both of these sites is that these are only the cases that have made the news. There is no way to track violence that isn’t reported or the cases that are kept quiet. OIDV advocates are all familiar with victims who were shut down before a formal report could be filed. Those familiar with the American justice system know that an allegation or charge doesn’t mean the suspect will be convicted. Sometimes they get treatment to avoid trial and sometimes charges are dropped, which is sometimes due to a lack of evidence or the victim’s reluctance to take further risks. They may also truly be not guilty.
The Purple Berets are a self-proclaimed in-your-face women’s rights group who have taken on the issue of OIDV. The National Center for Women and Policing has an often-cited Police Family Violence Fact Sheet at . It needs to be updated but crams a lot of good information into one page. That site links to Life Span, which lists some great bullet points to help people understand OIDV. One more site that provides honest insight is the advocate’s guide published by the Battered Women’s Justice Project.
Beyond this, things start to get murky. Some sites appear to pull information off of the above pages, mirroring the originals. Other OIDV information is buried in regular domestic violence sites and can be difficult to find. There are those who dedicate pages to OIDV victims as well as their killers. If a website or blog wants to draw attention to those who’ve succumbed to the pressures of police work and their demons, that’s fine. I am outspoken about what can be done ethically and culturally within law enforcement to improve conditions for officers and their families. Memorializing both victims and murderers on the same website, however, is jarring and detracts from the message.
Use caution when trolling the web for help. Just because a site claims to advocate for OIDV victims doesn’t make it safe. If you contact an individual or organization, don’t include specifics unless you know they can be trusted with them. I was very blessed to have law enforcement officials and legislators who listened to and acted upon my concerns. Not everyone is so fortunate and that primes them to want to vent to someone outside the system even more.
Know who you’re talking to or don’t disclose so much that it can be used against you or repeated to people who want to shut you down. This is a good rule for internet use in general and also for those wishing to discuss OIDV. Before getting involved with an organization as a volunteer, look into their credentials and their finances. Know what other websites and projects that organization has going on and be aware of any conflicts of interest. Delve into what motivates their mission.
One thing I do not want to do is to paint OIDV as a black and white people versus the police issue. There are those in law enforcement, civilian and uniformed, who work tirelessly to eradicate domestic violence from our culture. The fact that OIDV is ever downplayed or concealed is an insult to them. I’ve found that when OIDV isn’t taken seriously, there are other ethical and cultural issues that should be remedied as well. If anything, OIDV is a people versus crime issue since wearing a uniform doesn’t make abuse any less of a crime than if Average Joe Schmoe commits it.
Allowing a double standard for officers who commit crimes and violence is what creates the rift between the police and the public. It also makes working conditions unsafe for those public servants who are ethical and are trying to do the right thing. I want my peeps in public service to be able to go to work and uphold the oath they have taken to serve and protect. I don’t want them to be shunned, harassed, or not have proper backup if they maintain the standard of conduct they’re supposed to.
What is sorely needed to diminish the power of OIDV in police families is a shift in police culture that would demonstrate intolerance for OIDV instead of hiding it. This needs to start at the top and the amoral need to stop enabling the immoral by remaining silent. Officers need to be given appropriate resources and tools for stress management and their families should have safe places to call when things get dangerous. Some of you are sick of hearing this, but police agencies should have debriefings at the end of shift, not just briefings at the beginning.
I also recommend that states establish independent review boards made up of both public officials AND private sector experts that will review all officer-involved domestic violence cases. This would do a lot to lift the veil of secrecy and would allow a wider range of thought processes and philosophies to participate. It would help ensure that victims are being heard and policies and procedures are being followed. Most of all, these boards could hold the police accountable to the taxpayers instead of allowing publicly funded departments to function as private clubs that regulate themselves.
Here’s the big picture: OIDV exists. There is no one website, organization, or resource that provides everything a victim needs to survive it but there are a few that are must-reads. Combating this problem requires the participation of ethical law enforcement officials who are sincere about protecting victims and not allowing a different standard for officers.
Better resources are needed for OIDV victims that exist specifically for them, not just domestic violence in general. I wish there was an easy way to combine the resources of the reputable organizations that exist and make one big monster how-to site to help OIDV victims. I’ve heard exciting buzz about forming an underground railroad as well and am thrilled to see churches finally getting involved.
In conclusion, some might be surprised to learn that I’m a Second Amendment-slinging Christian conservative. Strong women are often stereotyped as radical feminists or some sort of haters (man, cop, etc.). Conservatives are often pigeonholed as blind to social issues or insensitive to crime victims. That just cracks me up given the intense level of involvement in social issues many people of my faith have and how some of the strongest women I know are also the most feminine.
Because I believe in a God who gives life and liberty I believe those gifts should be preserved. If the preservation of life involves standing up to cowardice, immorality, or abuse, then that’s what we have to do. If people are being deprived of their liberty we should work to restore it. In the Manufacturer’s Handbook Jesus preaches freedom, not oppression. He is both truth and grace, not one or the other, and said He came to set the captives free.
Right now we all know someone who is a slave to an abuser, sucked down into someone else’s lust for control. Both people who believe what I do and those who don’t can agree that this is wrong. So let’s stop milling around in our little factions, unite on what we agree on, and go out and slay this dragon together.
We need both liberals and conservatives, both men and women, and both the police and public to work together to end OIDV. This is not a partisan issue and solutions do not need to be implemented at the federal level. We can start in our own communities and raise awareness one step at a time.
I invite respectful feedback from people of all viewpoints as to how to keep OIDV in the spotlight. Thank you to those brave survivors and advocates who have risked so much and given so much of their time to do so already. I am especially proud of the activists that have come out of Washington State– we’ve seen some terrible cases but stand among the strongest voices. We will prevail.
The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. -G. K. Chesterton
Heidi Hiatt, MA recently graduated as a Forensic Psychologist. You can read more of her posts at her personal blog, Truth, Justice, and All-American Allergen-Free Apple Pie Straight Talk in a Crooked World