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What Came First, the Abuser or the Officer?: Examining the Behavior of Cops at Home

CW: domestic abuse, police violence, sexual assault


Digital art by Claire Crittendon

Ever googled “40% of cops”? Before reading further, I implore you to do so. With study after study proving just how prone law enforcement officers are to perpetrating domestic abuse, it brings into question, is this a cause or a correlation? And on that same train, why does the United States justice system continue to fail so many survivors of domestic abuse?


When asked about what is responsible for this striking statistic, Laura R. Van Zandt, Executive Director of REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, said it might be a little of both. “I think the culture of policing, the way it’s evolved, and the way it is today is very much a command and control organization. There’s a lot of unchecked power and there’s a lot of power inherent in the role,” she said.


The key word here is power. The current definition of domestic violence is when one partner creates or enforces an unbalanced power dynamic to engage in a pattern of coercion and control over their partner and uses violence to extend that control, with fear as a common factor.


“Unfortunately, there are some people who think of policing the same way …  about exerting power and control,” Van Zandt continued. “And it also might be that the experience that they had [before becoming an officer] leads them to want to be the one in control versus the one being controlled.”


In an essay anonymously published to Medium that went viral, “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop”, many unsavory details of police academy training techniques were brought to light. The essay reads, “Official training teaches you how to be violent effectively when you’re legally allowed to deploy that violence, but ‘unofficial training’ teaches you to desire violence, to expand the breadth of your violence without getting caught, and to erode your own compassion for desperate people so you can justify punitive violence against them.”


This “desire” for violence is given life both when citizens are brutalized by police while on duty, and once officers clock out and shift the focus of their unchecked power to their spouses and children.


The author continues by writing about how throughout training, officers were shown video after video of on-duty cops being killed  by civilians, and then being told the only people the officers can trust to protect them are their partners in uniform.


“This ‘they hate you for protecting them and only I love you, only I can protect you’ tactic is familiar to students of abuse. It’s what abusers do to coerce their victims into isolation, pulling them away from friends and family and ensnaring them in the abuser’s toxic web,” said the author.


He is entirely correct. Isolation is among many shapes domestic abuse can take, as well as physical, sexual, mental, emotional, technological, and financial abuse. Once a victim is isolated from those they trust, it’s easy for an abuser to skew their partner’s perception of the world and the people around them.


Often, when people picture abusers, they have a stereotype in mind taking the shape of an uneducated outcast on the fringes of society. In reality, abusers are all around. They can be charming, social, well-respected community members. This makes it difficult for victims to seek help within their community;abusers tend to be aware of this and play up the fact that allegations of abuse against them will not stick.


Another element of policing that may fuel abusive behavior is the effects of both trauma and vicarious trauma absorbed on the job without a proper, healthy outlet. Coined by psychologists Perlman & Saakvitne in 1995, vicarious trauma is currently defined by the American Counseling Association as “the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”


While police officers aren’t necessarily labeled as counselors, there’s no argument that they are exposed to death and violence on the regular, as well as the fact they bear responsibility for conducting many witness and victim interviews.


Vicarious trauma can manifest itself in poor decision-making and risk-assessment skills, as well as eventual job exhaustion and burnout. The frustration borne of this needs an outlet, which may translate and contribute to domestic violence.


For victims, leaving violent partners can be incredibly dangerous. When the abuser is involved in the justice system, leaving the relationship can look different. Laura Van Zandt said, “I do think it can make someone who’s been victimized by a police officer very skeptical of whether the system is going to protect them, because we’ve worked with folks who’ve been involved with police officers, or even people who are involved in courts. They question whether they’re going to be able to get the protection that they need, because they know that the system is where their partner works, and has networks.”


According to Van Zandt, the majority of survivors REACH works with choose to never seek the involvement of law enforcement. However, this is not a unanimous decision, and some survivors do value the police as a powerful resource.


Nonetheless, without negating the faith some survivors have in the justice system, there is no denying blatant correlations present.


There are endless factors contributing to the root causes of domestic violence. To say there is a correlation between officers and domestic abuses is true, but to leave it at that is an oversimplification. There is so much in the world around us that enables and supports abusive relationships in our society.


If you or a loved one are looking for support, staff from REACH are available 24/7 at 1-800-899-4000. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also accessible 24/7 via phone at 1-800-799-7233 and by texting LOVEIS to to 1-866-331-9474.

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