The consequences of police violence are indelible. It impacts communities large and small nationwide — still, research data suggests a connection between police violence on the job and police domestic violence at home. As Black Lives Matter protests happened last year, video after video showed law enforcement going after unarmed civilians — shoving, punching, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases, using live ammunition against civilian populations. In Louisville, local businessman and community leader David McAtee was shot and killed by law enforcement at a protest over the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Add that to the fact that, so often, police can get away with nearly murder, accountability and justice in the public sphere, and in the private sphere, when police domestic violence happens in the home, doesn’t seem achievable.
There are those who argue that the police can be trusted always to act in the public interest, protecting and serving the innocent. Surely many do, but research into the private lives of cops suggests that that faith in the restraint of police officers on the job is founded at least in part on men who abuse their wives and children. And what percent of cops are domestic abusers is conspicuously quite high.
Though data on police domestic violence is not only notoriously difficult to gather but also skewed by a culture of silence and intimidation, it suggests that police officers in the United States perpetrate acts of domestic violence at roughly 15 times the rate of the general population. Because officers tend to protect their own, domestic victims of violent cops often don’t know where to go. Sometimes they reach out to Alex Roslin, author of Police Wife: The Secret Epidemic of Police Domestic Violence, the American Society of Journalists and Authors-award-winning book that constitutes perhaps the only major work on this subject.
“I get emails that would make your hair crawl,” says Roslin, a Canadian freelance journalist who came to the issue two decades ago after a friend working with survivors of abuse informed him police wives and biker gang spouses constituted the bulk of her patient population, suggesting a hidden epidemic of police domestic abuse.
Indeed, police domestic abuse, Roslin points out, is an open secret. In 1991, sociologist Leonor Johnson presented to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, suggesting that 360,000 of the then 900,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. were likely perpetrating acts of abuse. After a Los Angeles Police Department officer murdered his wife and committed suicide in the late 1990s, a review of domestic abuse allegations brought against officers showed that between 1990 and 1997, 227 alleged cases of domestic violence were brought against police officers, only 91 were sustained and only four resulted in the conviction of criminal charges. Of the four convictions, only one officer was suspended from duty. He was asked to take three weeks off.
For many, cops remain heroes. But the law enforcement culture lionized by reactionaries is also a culture of silence antithetical to the values of most partners and parents. Fatherly spoke to Alex Roslin about the extent of the police domestic violence problem and why it persists.
The numbers in your book are absolutely shocking. In particular, the number 15 is shocking. You support the claim that abuse is roughly 15 times more pervasive within police families than in the general population. Where does that come from?
The major study here was done by a police officer and a sociologist in Tucson, Arizona, working with a collaborator who had studied domestic violence in military families. It wasn’t by the police department officially. That study found that 40 percent of cops reported having participated in domestic violence in the previous year. The researchers questioned spouses and officers separately with anonymous questions and came up with strikingly similar figures.
An FBI advisory board later found that roughly 40 percent of officers who filled out questionnaires in a number of different settings admitted to being physically violent with their spouse in the previous six months. The general population data for self-reported abuse is closer to 4 percent when people are asked to report on the last 12 months.
The numbers are higher for cops who work night shifts.
It’s worth noting that the sample sizes are a bit small and that these are older studies. Given the potential scale of the crisis, it’s bizarre that there wouldn’t be more available numbers.
The 40 percent number is the closest I could figure while trying to do an apple to apple comparison. We know for sure that the rate of domestic violence among cops from the little data we have is ridiculously high. We know that thanks to research done in part by police officers, some of whom suggest that number might be low. So we wind up with cops being around 15 times more likely to engage in domestic violence than members of the general population. [Editor’s Note: The comparison here is based on 1.5 to 4 percent of U.S. and Canadian women reporting domestic violence by a partner and an estimate that 6 to 14 percent of children are abused each year. These numbers vary because data is based largely on incidents and self-reporting.]
We should consider why the data is nonexistent or decades old. Why is no one looking at a massive issue of public interest? I’ve been working on updating my book for a third edition. Doing research I’ve found 40 examples of cops in the United States murdering their spouses. That’s over just three years.
Is there data available on the children of cops? Is there any reason to believe that abuse doesn’t extend beyond partner violence?
Sadly, I’ve seen no data on that, but anecdotally… I’ve heard a lot of stories. It’s not just police partners that face abuse. It’s children. There have been a lot of reports of that and it makes sense.
It’s a broad question, but unavoidable: Why is this happening?
Abuse is an open secret among police officers. Many officers claim that it’s the result of a stressful job. But in my research and in talking to domestic violence researchers, it becomes clear that stress doesn’t really cause abuse. There are lots of stressful jobs. Paramedics and surgeons and firefighters don’t have this kind of problem.
The more honest officers will tell you that policing is a job about control — controlling people and controlling chaotic environments. It attracts people with that mentality and that desire. Not all police officers are the same, but the more authoritarian police officers are the more likely they are to be violent at home.
These men aren’t losing control. They are maintaining control. That’s different.
That’s a disturbing idea because it suggests a strong connection between domestic violence and public violence. Do you see a strong link there?
The reality is that police are being put into places in society where they are supposed to be in control, but we have both movements toward recognizing the rights of more groups — notably women and minorities — and also more inequality than ever. Maintaining control in that environment becomes extremely taxing. My fear is that this is trending the wrong way. When police are protecting this kind of status quo, you’re going to see more domestic violence, not less.
The inequalities of society force us to empower the police. And that empowerment results in the hiring of abusers. Police domestic violence is a mirror held up to our society. Who polices an unequal and violent society?
Are there causes beyond the desire for control? It feels like that impulse would be tempered by the proximity of… law enforcement officers. Is it not?
No. Cops get away with it. Anthony Bouza, a one-time commander in the New York Police Department and former police chief of Minneapolis, said that ‘The Mafia never enforced its code of blood-sworn omerta with the ferocity, efficacy, and enthusiasm the police bring to the Blue Code of Silence.” That’s reflected in the rates at which violence is reported and the degree to which there are consequences.
What happens to partners abused by the police?
In general, these women are terrified. Normally, domestic violence survivors are not in a good place. But these women know the cop has a gun and knows how to commit violence without leaving a mark and they say, “Everyone will think you’re crazy.” And she can’t necessarily go to a shelter because he knows where they are.
Some of these women contact me. I’m a freelance journalist in Canada. I’m happy to do what I can to help, but why is there no one else?
You’re a father. What do you tell your kids about the police? How do you talk to them about law enforcement given what you know and given your work?
My daughters know what I do. They know what I’m writing about. My wife has two uncles who are retired officers. We live in a small town and a former police officer is now the mayor and lives down the street. Police officers are humans. At the same time, my kids know that there is a darker side to policing.