The Police and Police Deviance: Domestic Violence

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

Four major research studies have concluded that at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence in contrast to 10% of families in the general population. Although the research shows that among veteran police officers this percentage declines to about 24%, the fact remains that domestic violence is 2-4 times more likely in police families than in American families in general.  Obviously, a police department that has domestic violence offenders among its ranks will not effectively serve and protect victims in the community. Moreover, when officers know of domestic violence committed by their colleagues and seek to protect them by covering it up, they expose the department to civil liability.

Domestic violence is always a terrible crime, but victims of a police officer are particularly vulnerable because the officer who is abusing them:

  • has a gun
  • knows the location of battered women's shelters
  • knows how to manipulate the system to avoid penalty and/or shift blame to the victim

Victims often fear calling the police, because they know the case will be handled by officers who are colleagues and/or friends of their abuser. Victims of police family violence typically fear that the responding officers will side with their abuser and fail to properly investigate or document the crime.

These suspicions are well founded, as most departments across the country typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report, investigation, or even check of the victim's safety. A nationwide survey of 123 police departments documented that almost half (45%) had no specific policy for dealing with officer-involved domestic violence. In that same study it was determined that:

  • The most common discipline imposed for a sustained allegation of domestic violence was counseling.
  • Only 19% of the departments indicated that officers would be terminated after a second sustained allegation of domestic violence.
  • Most police departments who do have policies have inconsistent policies and practices for officers accused of domestic violence, regarding arrests, seizure of firearms, and Employee Assistance treatment.

The reality is that even officers who are found guilty of domestic violence are unlikely to be fired, arrested, or referred for prosecution, raising concern that those who are tasked with enforcing the law cannot effectively police themselves. For example:

  • Of the most recent 23 domestic violence complaints filed against Boston police officers, none resulted in criminal prosecution.
  • The San Diego City Attorney typically prosecutes 92% of the domestic violence cases that are referred, but only 42% of the cases involving a police officer as the perpetrator are prosecuted.
  • The Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation of the most recent 227 cases of alleged domestic violence by officers sustained only 91 of them. Of these 91 allegations that were sustained by the department, only 4 resulted in a criminal conviction. That means that the LAPD itself determined in 91 cases that an officer had committed domestic violence, but only 4 were convicted on a criminal charge. Moreover, of these 4 officers who were convicted on a criminal charge of domestic violence, one was suspended for only 15 days and another had his conviction expunged.

The study of the Los Angeles Police Department further examined the 91 cases in which an allegation of domestic violence was sustained against an officer:

  • Over three-fourths of the time, this sustained allegation was not mentioned in the officer's performance evaluation.
  • Twenty-six of these officers (29%) were promoted, including six who were promoted within two years of the incident.

The questions are obvious. How can organizations which can’t control the misconduct of their own employees be trusted to control the same activities in society at large?  In addition, what is it about the nature of policing that creates a violent culture of ultra-masculinity in which sexual assault, child abuse and battering are such common occurrences? And most importantly, if the police can’t or won’t enforce the law against their own ranks why should we give them the authority to enforce the law against anyone else?

This article was based on 2010 data. For additional insight on police deviance in that same time period, see the related article on police deviance.


EKU professor Dr. Gary Potter has written many books, including Drugs in Society,Criminal Organizations, Organized Crime and Controversies in White Collar Crime.

Published on October 29, 2013