A Systemwide Failure

Police officers at a crime scene in Massachussetts. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Police officers at a crime scene in Massachussetts. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

November 26, 2013
What happens when police face the possibility of domestic violence in their ranks? Watch A Death in St. Augustine, a joint FRONTLINE/New York Times investigation that airs tonight on PBS stations (check local listings). You can also watch it online here.

The deputy and his wife had been married for less than a year, when one night, their neighbors started calling 911.

“You need to get out here right now,” one caller said, according to police reports. “You can hear her clear as day… he’s beating her… I can hear her screaming and screaming and screaming.”

“He threw her in the house,” another caller reported. “She’s screaming. … She said, ‘I can’t hear out of my ear.’ … He followed her in and threw her on the ground, and got on top of her and slammed the door.”

The responding officers were the deputy’s colleagues. By the time they arrived, the screaming was over. The couple assured them that they only had a verbal argument, and both wrote out affidavits saying there was “no physical altercation.” The officers convinced the deputy – who had already been disciplined by his department for an altercation with his former wife – to sleep somewhere else for the night. Then they left.

The deputy was ultimately fired after a detective learned about the incident seven months later, but he was never prosecuted.

Domestic violence is one of law enforcement’s most challenging crimes. It’s vastly underreported, dangerous and difficult to prosecute, with repercussions that extend far beyond the two parties involved. The perils only deepen when the abuser comes from within the law enforcement family — armed with training, weapons and the community’s trust.

“You get that kind of a character in a badge, you got a real problem,” said Mark Wynn, a veteran police officer who trains departments on officer-involved domestic violence. “When you train someone to be a cop, you train them to challenge when confronted. …You train them to [use] fighting skills that no one else has. …You teach them all these skills, and then you add all of that to someone who is violent, you’ve got a lethal combination on your hands.”

A nine-month investigation by FRONTLINE and The New York Times found that law enforcement often downplays domestic violence allegations in their own ranks, letting abusers remain on their beats and victims fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system.  Interviews with former prosecutors, judges and officers, and a review of police and court records show that most departments lack policies to deal with the problem, and harbor a general perception that OIDV isn’t as serious as other crimes. It’s an attitude that extends beyond law enforcement into the courtroom, where prosecutors and judges also play a role in failing to hold offenders accountable.

“In many areas of law enforcement in general, we’ve been moving with jet-like speed,” said David Thomas, a 15-year veteran of the Montgomery County, Md. police department and domestic violence educator. “But with respect to violence against women and in particular OIDV, we’re still moving at a horse-and-buggy pace.”

Policing the Police

With no national data on the problem, it’s hard to gauge how often OIDV occurs. But domestic violence is believed to be at least as prevalent among law enforcement as it is in the civilian population, according to a 2003 assessment by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a national nonprofit organization, and the federal Office of Violence Against Women. Nationwide, about 25 percent of women have been severely physically abused by their partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest survey on intimate partner violence.

In 1999, the IACP first released a model policy that recommends a zero-tolerance approach in which all complaints are investigated internally and referred for criminal prosecution.

But the IACP has no power to enforce the policy and doesn’t track how many departments have adopted it. So far only one of 56 of the largest city and county departments — Nashville — has adopted it entirely, according to a survey by FRONTLINE and The New York Times. Only one-quarter of the departments who responded to the survey have a distinct policy for domestic violence involving officers.

Most said that they treat OIDV just like any other crime: arresting an officer with probable cause and sending him through the system.

“In theory they do, but in practice they don’t,” Thomas, the veteran officer, said. “As law enforcement, we have a great deal of discretion. Time and time again you see people say, ‘You’re going to ruin this guy’s career over this incident.’ You continually hear this attempt to lessen what the individual has done. With other criminal activity, we don’t do that.”

Most law enforcement agencies operate in small towns and rural areas — about three-quarters of local police departments serve less than 10,000 people, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Everyone in town knows everybody else, and if an officer is caught breaking the law, it heightens the pressure on his colleagues and the local district attorney’s office, which usually has only a handful of lawyers.

“Even if you could separate yourself from all that, the appearance alone [is problematic],” said Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, who worked as a district attorney for 16 years. “If you charge him, it’s because you don’t like him. If you don’t charge, it’s because they’re your friend. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation.”

Prosecutors are expected to recuse themselves if they have a conflict of interest in a case, but even unknown officers present a challenge, Burns said.

Attorneys rely on law enforcement to testify in their other cases. So they can be more inclined to cut a deal, experts say — in some cases, for example, reducing a battery charge to a misdemeanor count of disturbing the peace.

Judges, who are often elected in rural areas, can lose their jobs if they make unpopular rulings, said Eugene Hyman, who served as a judge for 20 years and now works as an advocate against domestic violence and sexual abuse. Granting a restraining order against an officer means he isn’t allowed to carry a weapon — which means he’s off the job.

“It’s not that someone is coming and saying one of our fellow officers is in trouble. It’s always so much more subtle than that,” Hyman said. “It’s nuanced, it’s very subtle, it’s very awkward.”

The Victim Dilemma

When prosecutors do bring charges, victims don’t always cooperate, often out of fear or love for the abuser, or because they have nowhere else to go. The dilemma is compounded when their abuser is an officer.

“The stakes are different,” said Dottie Davis, a veteran police officer who survived an abusive relationship with another officer and has become an advocate for survivors. “A plumber, an electrician, a construction worker, doesn’t have the ability to run a license plate to find out whose vehicle that is. … They don’t have the ability to check phone records, to call the phone company and say, ‘I’m doing an investigation,’ and get confidential information. A victim who is being abused by a police officer has to be extremely careful.”

In one case FRONTLINE reviewed, a woman filed a statement in support of her ex-husband, a retired police officer who had been charged with hitting her until she blacked out, leaving her with large, swollen lumps on her head and face, according to a police report. “I love my husband,” she wrote, adding that they were going to get re-married in a few weeks. “This is not anything that has happened before. I need him home.” Above her statement, she added in parentheses, “Never happened.” The prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges, citing, in part, her unwillingness to prosecute.

“We called them recalcitrant victims because it was becoming so common,” said Burns, the former prosecutor. “What I didn’t appreciate is the cycle of abuse. … They have nowhere to go and they’re trapped.”

‘An Environment for Change’

There’s a growing effort among former law enforcement officials and prosecutors to educate their colleagues about the dynamics of domestic violence and how to combat it. They urge police departments to conduct rigorous background checks, and look for red flags — a hot temper or too many civilian complaints — that might indicate that an officer has a deeper problem.

They teach attorneys to turn to evidence-based prosecutions, using 911 calls and crime-scene photographs so that a case doesn’t hinge on the victim’s testimony.

The training “has created an environment for change,” said Marcus Bruning, a retired officer from the St. Louis County, Minn. sheriff’s office who now trains law enforcement officers on the problem. “…In these smaller agencies, I raise awareness. They say, ‘Holy crap, this is not good,’ and hopefully next time something comes up they’ll deal with it.”

Some in law enforcement say attitudes about domestic violence have started to shift, if slowly, as more women enter the ranks. The number of women serving as local police officers has risen about 5 percent since 1987, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“I think that we’ve made strides,” said Davis, the officer-advocate. “We have an awful long way to go. … Unless we police ourselves, we’re never going to change this issue.”

Sarah Cohen and Rebecca R. Ruiz from The New York Times contributed reporting to this story.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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