Understanding Police Officer-Perpetrated Domestic Violence

We still have much to learn about police-perpetrated domestic violence, but the power imbalances and the precarious situation of survivors are urgent.

Read Time: 5 minutes


April 27, 2024 marked 21 years since Tacoma police chief David Brame murdered his wife Crystal and then killed himself. What have we learned about domestic violence and police perpetrators since then? Not nearly enough.

A number of compelling domestic violence cases involving police have happened since Brame, with several in the last few years. In June, we’ll be three years out from the firing of Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White, who was let go in part because of domestic violence accusations made by his ex-wife 20 years earlier.

One of the biggest challenges is quantifying the problem. High-profile cases make the news, but hard numbers are difficult to find. The earliest research on police who perpetrate domestic violence came out in the 1990s, finding that 40% of officers surveyed had assaulted family members in the last six months. The research since then has been sparse and highly variable.

While we may not know the numbers, we do know the power dynamic is uniquely imbalanced, even compared to other domestic violence cases.

This privileged access can create opportunities to groom survivor support systems in their favor.

First and foremost, police officers are conditioned to act as authority figures and to use violence on the job. This violence, even when deemed excessive, often comes with legal protection and without consequences. Police officers’ training, experience, and access to military-grade weapons and technologies make them particularly equipped to abuse.

Distinct features of police culture may also create an environment in which domestic violence can thrive among officers. The “blue wall of silence” promotes secrecy around conflict rather than encouraging intervention. Similarly, the development of the warrior cop and a violent form of militarized masculinity empowers abuse while also punishing survivors who come forward.

What’s more, police are trusted by many to uphold and even embody law and justice. This, along with some consistent messaging, sets the expectation that police “protect and serve,” that they do not use their power to abuse.

Lastly, many police officers know the domestic violence support system well. They may have relationships with shelter and local court staff, and officers who respond to their partner’s 911 call are their colleagues. This privileged access can create opportunities to groom survivor support systems in their favor. A similar pattern of abuse has been found in sports and other spaces. Think Jerry Sandusky and how he used his role and power to groom and abuse a community.

Beyond police culture, zero-tolerance policies like the Lautenberg Amendment make domestic violence by police difficult to track. The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1996 as an amendment to the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, denies those convicted of a domestic violence offense the right to own firearms. While this makes sense, it can have the unintended consequence of protecting police officers. If an officer can’t carry a gun, they can’t work and will likely be put on administrative duty or suspended while a case is ongoing. Such measures may make partners who are being abused even more reluctant to report the violence.

Some scholars have pointed out that, once Lautenberg was passed, the number of officers who reported abuse went down significantly. The question becomes: Did Lautenberg stop domestic violence, or did survivors just stop reporting their partners?

Zero tolerance in general might not achieve the results we want. At best, it creates a culture of punishment for those committing an offence. At worst, these policies further isolate survivors who want the abuse to stop, but may not want to compromise their partner’s career or family’s livelihood.

Given the distinct power and policy dynamics at play, officer-perpetrated domestic violence is challenging to understand and address. Better research, better support for survivors, and better public policy are good places to start.

To be clear, we don’t just need more research, we need better research.

We may not know much about domestic violence perpetrated by police, but the power imbalances and the precarious situation of survivors are urgent

This begins with collecting more specific descriptive data, especially on survivors. We should ask basic questions such as a survivor’s race, disability status, and income level, and we should also ask about the violence they are experiencing.

Generating survivor-focused and survivor-led research or surveying domestic violence shelters and hotline workers would also yield new insights. Previous research has almost exclusively been officer-focused, trying to understand who abuses and why. Grounding new research in survivor experience would help identify pitfalls in the survivor support system and guide practitioners on future responses.

We also need better care for survivors. Resources for domestic violence services are extremely strained. Shelters need more funding to better support all survivors of domestic violence and offer specific services for survivors abused by their police officer partners.

Lastly, most existing policies focus on punishing the abuser rather than supporting the survivor. Moving towards concepts like transformative or restorative justice would give communities new ways to center those affected by abuse rather than those who transgress.

We may not know much about domestic violence perpetrated by police, but the power imbalances and the precarious situation of survivors are urgent. Careful research and action today will drive a better tomorrow for survivors.