Domestic abuse in police families is rarely talked about until it makes headlines. How often it happens and how prevalent it is compared to the general population is a mystery. Even experts in the field of officer-involved domestic violence (OIDV) cannot find any reliable data to answer these questions.

Some of my police psychology colleagues argue that domestic violence occurs less in law enforcement families than it does in the general population because of more effective pre-employment screening, background checks, polygraphs, and zero-tolerance policies (This is an imperfect comparison, because law enforcement officers are a screened population consisting of mostly white males between the ages of 21-50. The general population is much broader and more diverse).

Some of my colleagues believe that pre-employment screening is working to keep abusers out of law enforcement when and if it is properly administered in coordination with a thorough background check and a polygraph. On the other hand, pre-employment screening is just a snapshot in time, valid for one year. It does not address the psychological and behavioral changes that occur after an officer has been on the job.

Getting at the truth is hard because officers and their mates are unlikely to voluntarily admit, even in a confidential survey, to an illegal act that might end their or their partners’ careers, and deprive their families of income, benefits, and status.

A recent article in the New Yorker magazine was disturbing, not just for the story of the young wife’s abuse by her officer husband, but for the claims that OIDV is still being ignored. The article asserted that, according to two studies, officers found guilty of domestic violence were rarely fired or sufficiently disciplined. The article also quoted two studies that suggested a relationship between domestic violence and on-the-job excessive force. One study concluded that officers accused of domestic abuse received fifty percent more complaints about excessive force than their coworkers. The other found that one in five officers arrested for domestic violence nationwide had also been the subject of a federal lawsuit for violating people’s civil rights. Why, the author of this article demanded, are police departments becoming more attentive to officers’ use of excessive force on the job, but not extending that concern to the officer’s behavior at home.

It’s a decent question. I expect the answer will be difficult to pin down.

What Puts Cops At Risk of Becoming Abusers?

Let me say this first and loudest: Job-related stress does not excuse or cause domestic abuse. Intimate partner violence (IPV)  is not about anger. All couples get angry and have fights. Partner abuse occurs when one partner uses anger or force to intimidate the other and control his or her behavior. Hundreds of thousands of cops experience work stress without ever resorting to any of a range of controlling behaviors, from verbal to physical abuse and everything in between, that we call IPV.

Police training, the culture of policing and the job itself can place officers at risk of becoming abusers. Among the known risk factors are the need to control emotions too much, traumatic stress (both acute and chronic), hypervigilance, and sleep deprivation. Over time, officers may become desensitized to verbal, emotional, and physical violence because these are routine parts of their everyday work life. Their family members, on the other hand, are not.

Although it is slowly changing, policing is still a man’s world filled with macho values that affect both female and male officers. Values such as rugged individualism, never needing help, never admitting to problems for fear of looking weak, and rarely showing emotions other than anger are among the most damaging risk factors because they prevent officers from getting help before abuse occurs.

Alcohol and drug abuse do not cause domestic violence but are closely associated with it. Alcohol is an accepted social lubricant in the sub-culture of policing as it is in many other male-dominated occupations, such as construction or the military. Abusers who drink or use drugs have two separate problems that need to be treated independently.

If you are reading this blog because you are experiencing abuse, here are some steps you can take.

  • Call the toll-free national domestic violence hotline at 800-799-SAFE or contact their helpline at thehotline.org. These confidential services provide support, information and help you make a safety plan. If you’re not sure if you’re being abused, talk to them.
  • Don’t deny the abuse — name it for what it is. It is the abuser’s responsibility to control his or her own behavior, even in stressful or provocative situations. Two stressful situations that are associated with an increase in IPV are when a couple is separating or when the woman is pregnant.
  • Substance abuse is not an excuse for violence; it is a reason to seek treatment.
  • Contact your local domestic violence advocate or women’s center. They can provide shelter, legal advice, and psychological support. They may know who in your spouse’s department is trustworthy and reliable. They will help you get an order of protection and review what happens as a result.
  • If your spouse’s police department or other local authorities won’t take action, go to the prosecuting attorney of another county for help. As a last resort, contact federal authorities for help in protecting your civil rights.
  • Don’t work with therapists or advocates who insist that you must leave the relationship, that they know what’s best for you, or that you should discuss your issues and your anger to the exclusion of discussing your concerns about safety and your abuser’s behavior. If there is violence in your relationship, seek separate therapists.