Domestic violence in police families: Causes, effects & intervention strategies

Unlawful officer behavior undermines the credibility and effectiveness of the department

Q: I’m no angel, but I’m a good cop and I take care of my family. It’s just that I have a temper that I inherited from my dad and sometimes me and the wife get into it, and the other night things got physical and, next thing I know, I’m being cuffed and taken in like some skell by the local deputies to be booked for domestic violence. My wife’s long since forgiven me, but now my life is hell because, in addition to the legal charge, I’m in danger of losing my badge. How could all this be happening to me from one little mistake?

A: At one time, this was law enforcement’s dirty little secret, although it’s not much of a secret anymore. The issue of domestic violence in police families often overlaps with the discussion of administrative discipline (see my Police1 column on officer misconduct) insofar as the officer’s department will eventually become involved, however unwillingly, if a domestic violence charge is filed.

Police officer domestic violence: Facts and stats

It is not known whether police officers have a higher or lower rate of domestic violence than the general public, primarily because potentially higher rates of abuse might be offset by lower levels of reporting by fellow officers. The repercussions of an arrest and conviction on a domestic battery charge are far greater for a police officer than for the average citizen because it can mean the surrender of his weapon and loss of his law enforcement career.

Thus, until recently, many departments have maintained a conspiracy of silence around such occurrences, often persuading the complaining spouse that loss of her husband’s job would be potentially devastating to the family, and urging the couple to settle things “off the record.” In other cases, especially where the call is to the home of a senior officer, patrol partner, or member of an elite unit, there may the palpable, if unstated, threat of ostracism, lack of backup, or general opprobrium for cops who rat out other cops, similar to what occurs with other abuse-of-authority cases.

However, like other unlawful behavior on the part of officers that is actively or passively overlooked or abetted, undeterred domestic violence undermines the credibility and effectiveness of the department with both its own personnel and the general public, and sets the agency up for civil and criminal actions relating to negligence and malfeasance. And again, like other disciplinary protocols, a program of domestic violence response within police agencies need not be brutal or unfair; indeed, the more equitable and just it is perceived to be, the greater the likelihood it will be implemented and used as needed. Accordingly, the following is an outline of a protocol that addresses the key elements in police officer domestic violence intervention.

Policies and procedures

As with all law enforcement departmental programs, success stands or falls with the level of commitment and buy-in by the upper administration. Police leaders need to demonstrate by both their words and deeds that unwarranted violence by police officers will not be tolerated in any venue, on the street or in the home. Many agencies endorse a zero-tolerance policy with regard to violent behavior, but as with most such behavioral concepts, “zero” is not necessarily always an absolute quantity. Accordingly, departmental policy should spell out as clearly as possible what specific types of behaviors will not be tolerated. Two standards that most departments adhere to are “conduct unbecoming” and “failure to conform to law.” Most departments also require officers to make a report of any kind of police call to their own residence, whether or not arrests were made.

As with most departmental policies and procedures, domestic violence protocols will have little real bite if they are not enthusiastically endorsed by the agency’s leadership. Police leaders should have a good understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and the magnitude of the problem, both within their own department and in their communities. A commitment to addressing the problem forthrightly includes the creation of a culture of disapproval among department leaders and the allocation of time and resources for adequate training and dealing with incidents.

Domestic violence response training

The key to any credible and permanent strategy for preventing domestic violence is adequate and appropriate training. Training for police officers should cover a comprehensive range of topics, including response, tactics, officer safety, and verbal crisis intervention and conflict resolution skills. In particular, special training must be provided for officers on how to handle domestic violence calls involving other officers.

Problem recognition

Astute police supervisors may be able to detect signs of impending or ongoing domestic violence in officers within their own department. The legitimate response to “What happens at home is my business” is, “No, it’s not, because (a) if it escalates to an arrestable offense, we lose a good officer; (b) there are liability issues for the department of letting a potentially violent situation go unaddressed; and (c) any kind of family stress that affects our personnel concerns us.”

Many of the signals that a domestic violence problem may be brewing or ongoing in an officer’s family are generic stress-related symptoms, while others are more specific and may include increased isolation of the officer; signs of sleeplessness or alcohol abuse; erratic mood swings or Jekyll & Hyde personality changes; increased incidences of excessive force on the job; talking about the spouse in a particularly derogatory way; blaming the spouse for all the officer’s problems; or signs of physical injury that are attributed to “accidents,” but may represent wounds received in physical altercations with the spouse.

The key is to identify and correct the problem before it escalates to the point of an officer losing his career and facing criminal charges. Departments have to take an assertive and forthright approach to officers at risk if they are serious about salvaging those officers’ careers. Officers themselves, too, have the responsibility of getting some kind of help for their problem, lest they risk losing everything they’ve worked for.

Investigation and response to incidents

A comprehensive approach to responding to domestic violence incidents is the key to an effective law enforcement program. Some authorities recommend that the Internal Affairs department immediately conduct an initial preliminary inquiry to determine the need for a formal internal investigation. The latter would follow the agency’s established protocol for criminal misconduct cases, including suspension of the officer’s police powers and reclamation of their weapon and police vehicle. Officers should be placed on off-duty status, pending administrative investigation and referral for a psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation.

If the officer is found psychologically fit for duty, administrators might transfer the officer from off-duty to modified-duty status, such as noncontact status assignments (the dreaded “desk job”), until the investigation is complete. If the officer has sustained a criminal conviction related to the domestic battery charge, he will usually be terminated from the department. If lesser or suspended charges ensue, the department retains the right to keep the officer or let him go; if he stays, the officer will be expected to comply with any departmental follow-up measures, as well as with any court orders, that arise from the case.

Mental health intervention

If an arrestable offense has not yet been made, or sometimes as a condition of a suspended sentence, the officer and his spouse may be referred for some type of counseling or family therapy. This may include anger management training. As I’ve stated repeatedly, this resource should be an option, not a requirement or punishment or a way of deflecting legitimate legal consequences for the officer’s actions. For the most part, when people are “forced” to go to any kind of psychological treatment, true progress is rarely made. Nevertheless, I have seen many cases where a skilled individual or family therapist can stem the tide of deterioration in a police officer’s family and also be instrumental in salvaging a career. If this option is available, officers should take advantage of it.

To learn more about this topic:

Miller, L. (2007). Police families: Stresses, syndromes, and solutions. American Journal of Family Therapy, 35, 21-40. [Reprints available from the author].

Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [Learn more about this book at].

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

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