'Why Won't She Go to the Police?' or How the Police Tolerate Gender-Based Violence in Their Own Ranks

Why won't women "just go to the police"? Maybe because they don't have faith the police will help them. Brutality often begins at home, including in police families. In department after department, law enforcement officials are ignoring disciplinary and legal standards for officers accused of sexual violence and domestic violence.
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Young woman standing by window
Young woman standing by window

Why won't women "just go to the police"? Maybe because they don't have faith the police will help them. Brutality often begins at home, including in police families. In department after department, law enforcement officials are ignoring disciplinary and legal standards for officers accused of sexual violence and domestic violence.

The vast majority of law enforcement officers are not abusing spouses or raping members of the public. However, the culture in which they serve is enabling those who do, both inside and outside of police agencies. Police departments that cannot police themselves cannot be expected to safely, fairly and effectively police our communities.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that a year long investigation had "uncovered about 1,000 officers who lost their badges in a six-year period for rape, sodomy and other sexual assault; sex crimes that included possession of child pornography; or sexual misconduct such as propositioning citizens or having consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse." AP explained that their sexual misconduct findings represent a gross undercount, since they only looked at decertification and most states and jurisdictions have no standardized ways of either collecting this information or decide what is worthy of decertification. While awful, this information is hardly new.

One study, conducted in 2013 found that among 14 departments studies, none had policies for police sexual misconduct at all. The Cato Institute, which publishes a daily national digest of police misconduct as part of its National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, found, during 2010-2011, that sexual misconduct is the second most reported type of police misconduct, after excessive force.

There is, likewise, no standardized metric for understanding the rates of and tolerance for officer perpetrated domestic violence. An investigation conducted by the New York Times found that only 25% of the 56 largest police departments in the country surveyed have a clear policy for officer-involved domestic violence. One study in Florida found that more than 25% police officers accused of domestic violence stay in their jobs. In another, in Puerto Rico, 86% of officers, even after two or more domestic violence arrests, remain on active duty. Law enforcement perpetrators are less likely to be arrested, charged or referred for prosecution. In addition, in too many cases, there are little or no professional consequences. In many places, police officers will be regularly fired for possession of drugs, but not for domestic assault.

"It seems incredible," write investigative journalist Alex Roslin and Susanna Hope, an ex-police wife, in their new book, Police Wife: The Secret Epidemic of Police Domestic Violence, "that a crime wave of such magnitude and far-reaching social ramifications could be so unknown to the public and yet at the same time an open secret in a mostly indifferent law enforcement community."

Police families cannot publicize what is happening or ask for help easily. Victims are exceedingly vulnerable and suffer greater trauma because they have nowhere to turn. "If your abuser is an officer of the law," writes Diane Wettendorf, a longtime advocate for domestic violence victims, researcher and writer, "You may be afraid to call the police -- He is the police. Go to a shelter -- He knows where the shelters are located. Have him arrested -- Responding officers may invoke the code of silence. Take him to court -- It's your word against that of an officer, and he knows the system. Drop the charges -- You could lose any future credibility and protection. Seek a conviction -- He will probably lose his job and retaliate against you." In addition to this list, officers have access to vital personal information, nationally cross-referenced, making it difficult for a woman to relocate.

For victims of police sexual abuse, the situation is similar. Women, particularly the most vulnerable in society -- trafficked girls, sex workers, trans women -- are hurt by the fact that police officers have status and credibility that they don't. They are not likely to be believed if they go to the police with claims of officer-perpetrated assault and have legitimate fears for their safety if they do. Even in cases where officers are found guilty of assault, the criminal justice system is not prone to exact just penalties. After an off-duty police officer was found guilty of a felony charge of sexual abuse, a judge sentenced him to two years of probation, community service and treatment. She told the woman, "If you wouldn't have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you."

Domestic abuse and sexual assault are still too frequently thought as "private" problems, but they incorporate violence that is publicly and socially consequential. Intimate partner violence relies on fear, degradation and sexual assault as part of a system of domination, so to do communities or societies that tolerates them. In addition to statistics about officer-perpetrated crimes, consider the dense matrix of public and social costs resulting from pervasive silence around, and tolerance for, domestic and sexual violence:

路 Forty to forty-five percent of women in physically abusive relationships are raped and/or assaulted during that relationship. There is no reason to think this is not the case in the case of officer-perpetrated cases.

路 Seventy-five percent of incarcerated women, according to the Correctional Association of New York, have "histories of severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood," 82% were seriously physically or sexual abuse as children.

路 It is estimated that up to 90% of women in jail for homicide in California killed spouses that had physically assaulted them, including rape.

路 According to a recent report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls' Story, up to 80% of girls in the juvenile justice system pipeline have been sexually abused. Once in the system, they face re-traumatization and repeated sexual victimization.

The number of women in U.S. prisons has increased by more than 800% in thirty years. We house one-third of the world's female prisoners and Black girls and women are almost four times as likely to be incarcerated as their non-Black peers.

And people keep asking why women who are abused or rape don't turn to the criminal justice system? Women of color, who, for a variety of complex reason are more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, have even greater reason to be wary of going to the police. For them, the situation is even more dire.

Lastly, what is happening in police families spreads like a virus through the nation's bloodstream. Intimate partner violence is a canary in the coal mine for public violence and police abuse. Time after time after time we are presented with horrible examples of this pattern. Seventy percent of mass shootings begin in homes; 57% involve violence against spouses, intimate partners or other family members. High, tolerated levels of intimate abuse don't only mean that the police are ill-equipped to deal with other people's domestic or sexual violence claims, it means that departments are actively colluding in greater public violence. Officers who abuse partners with relative impunity, or for whom intimate violence is normalized, are more likely to engage in or tolerate other forms of brutality at work.

While the same people may not be involved in what are often complex crimes, the same culture is tolerating both categories of violations and that is a matter of efficacy and public safety and health. Even though there are no viral videos.

The past week was filled with media pundits and law enforcement officials opining on degradations of law enforcement's ability to do the job of policing safely and well due to viral videos, or hashtags like #BlackLivesMatters and #SayHerName, democratic responses to systemic failures. The degradation of law enforcement's ability to do the job of policing safely and well begins when a person going to the police for help after being battered, strangled or raped potentially has a two-in-five chance of reporting a crime to an officer who's similarly violated a person's civil and human rights at home. It begins when a person who is pulled over, frisked, questioned, and reasonably fears being shot has a two in five chance of being detained by an officer for whom violence might well be intimate, normalized and tolerated by peers. It begins when police officers suffering from excessively high rates of depression, substance abuse, PTSD, suicide and is very possibly measurably predisposed to assault or sexually abuse, are handed guns and a license to use them.

It is estimated that more than one million reported rapes are missing from national counts for the past 15 years because of officer implicit bias, acceptance of rape myths, downgrading of claims and failure to investigate. We have no similar assessment for domestic violence. However, it doesn't take a leap in logic to understand that tolerance for gender-based violence is a significant issue in the criminal justice system.

Understanding rates of domestic violence and tolerance for sexual assault is critical to understanding police brutality and to finding ways to improve community relationships. "The fraternal order" isn't just a throwback description. Women police officers may similarly be perpetrating harm, but 87% of police are men, and 88% are white. These are very gendered crimes and have to be considered together. Like fraternities in general, there are aspects of the culture that lend themselves not just to tolerance for sexual abuse and violence against women, but increase propensities to be agents of the very violence they are charged with stemming. These cultures are more likely to be sex segregated, male dominated spaces where women do not hold positions of authority. Private domestic and public authoritarian violence, often sexual, doesn't reveal a lack of control. It reveals a cold and calculated exercise of control, based on feelings of entitlement and cultural superiority that fraternal societies almost always cultivate.

Despite clear evidence of racial bias and acts of brutality, most police officers are not monsters. They are not explicitly hateful. They share the biases that we all do. They lead stressful lives, permeated with risk, trauma and the daily possibility of violence and they do not get enough support, including, notably, help dealing with "private" issues like substance abuse, depression or domestic abuse. Suicide, the rate of which is higher among police than the general public, kills more officers than duty related accidents or homicides.

Over the years, the issue of Officer Involved Domestic Violence (OIDV) has become more visible. There are toolkits, detailed legal analyses, social support networks, and papers. Some departments are tackling the problem head on, with more rigorous hiring and, evaluation procedures, special training, resource databases and model policies. Very few, if any leaders have taken the approach recommended by the IAPC: "zero-tolerance policies to address and prevent sexual misconduct." These issues require more than just policies and new forms of measurement or oversight over individuals. They require community engagement and demands of accountability.

This article was adapted from an earlier version, published Oct. 20, 2015.

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