EXCERPT from When the Batterer Is a Law Enforcement Officer: A Guide for Advocates

Diane Wetendorf & Jane M. Sadusky, Copyright ©2004 for The Battered Women's Justice Project All rights reserved. Advocate Guide in PDF

How to Use the Advocate Guide

As an advocate for battered women, you are used to supporting their efforts to survive, escape, and stay safe. The purpose of this Guide is to prepare you for the complexities victims face when the batterer is a police officer. Since most advocates do not encounter police officer domestic violence every day, the realities of a victim's experience can take you by surprise. As Diane Wetendorf notes in her introduction, you will find that much of your usual safety planning advice does not work very well. In this Guide, "police officer" has the same meaning as "law enforcement officer," and encompasses municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement officers.

The Guide is built around three "Top 10" lists that provide essential cues for advocates: 1) Ten Things Advocates Must Know, 2) Ten Things Advocates Should Discuss with the Victim, and 3) When the Victim Is an Officer. They are meant to flag your attention: Be aware, Be alert, and Read further. The lists are meant to be available at the crisis line desk and in the legal advocate's handbook. In the pages following you will find detailed information about the characteristics of police officer domestic violence, challenges to systems' advocacy and collaboration with law enforcement, and the numerous safety planning considerations to keep in mind when working with victims.

The Guide assumes that as an advocate you have a good understanding of the dynamics and tactics of battering, safety planning strategies, and advocacy. If you are a new advocate or want to boost your skills and understanding of domestic violence, the Battered Women's Justice Project has resources and links available. Many of the issues discussed in this manual are similar to those experienced by military victims of domestic violence. You will also find "Understanding the Military Response to Victims of Domestic Violence: Tools for Civilian Advocates" by Judith E. Beals on the BWJP site.

Policing remains an overwhelmingly male profession, and most victims of police officer batterers are women. Therefore, throughout this Guide we refer to the batterer as "he" and the victim as "she." This in no way diminishes the Guide's application, however, to those situations where the batterer is a woman or when the victim is a man, including same-sex relationships.

You will find the words of many survivors in this Guide. Unless attributed by citation to a public source, such as a newspaper article, they are based on Diane's personal contacts. To guard their safety and confidentiality, they are not identified by name or initials. During the writing and editing of this Guide, the murder of Crystal Brame in Tacoma, Washington by her police chief ex-husband, provided a tragic and all too timely example of every point and caution contained in its pages. We respectfully dedicate the Advocate's Guide to the memory of all women who have not survived, and to those who are working hard every day to stay safe and alive.

Download Advocate Guide in PDF


Since 1983, as an advocate for battered women, I have listened to women's stories and tried to appreciate the uniqueness of every woman's life. I have learned that to be of any support, we must be sensitive to each woman's individual and cultural perspective on herself, the world, and her place in the world. As I listened to victims of police officer batterers, I recognized that they were describing their lives within a particular culture: the police culture. Women referred to the "police family" or "the brotherhood." They explained that being the wife or girlfriend of a police officer means abiding by that culture's rules: "What happens in the family stays in the family, and what happens in the police family stays in the police family." Every victim told of being warned by the abuser that if she interfered with his career she would pay dearly. Victims knew that they put themselves and everything they had in danger by talking to anyone about what was happening to them. As their situations grew more intolerable, they were willing to take the risk of reaching out for help, but only to someone whom they felt would keep their confidence.

The most important thing to police officer victims was the assurance that we were independent advocates who were not required to share information with the police. It was common for a woman to tell me that the abuser seemed to find out everything she did, everywhere she went, and every word she said on the telephone. Not surprisingly, she was reluctant to trust anyone, including a well-intentioned advocate.

In my early experience working with victims of officer batterers, I would launch into my standard explanation of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act and its provisions for police response, shelter, and protection. One day a woman looked at me, dumbfounded, as if I hadn't heard a word she'd said. She asked what it was that I didn't understand about her husband being a police officer. She said, "He'd beat me within an inch of my life if he even suspected I was here talking to you. What do you think he'd do if I called the police, signed a complaint, or walked into a courtroom to get a protective order against him?" And, she asked, who did I think was going to enforce the law against a police officer?

After hearing variations of this response from other women, I began to realize how naïve I was. Each woman reacted with frustration that the information I was giving her about "options" and "safety planning" might work for other women but would not work for her. Most options were based on the cooperation of the police and the courts, systems on which these women could not rely. Women repeatedly showed me how police abusers' institutional power makes safety planning very complicated. Remedies such as safe houses, shelters, address confidentiality, or identity change are undermined by a police officer's knowledge of investigative techniques and his access to all types of personal information through private and government databases searches. Victims had all been warned: "There is nowhere you can hide that I won't be able to find you." Women were very patient in educating me to understand what they were up against. They explained the risks and potential consequences involved with each remedy on our menu of options. We would eliminate one option after another because the risks to her safety and well-being were too great.

Some victims called me regularly or came into the office to talk, and several wanted to meet other women in their situation. They requested that we form a support group where they could talk openly. They wanted to be with other women who would understand their inability to use the legal system, call the police, or to file for a protective order. They were hoping to gain information about what to be aware of, how they could best protect themselves and their children, and to give each other validation and emotional support.

In 1995, a few women began meeting weekly. At the beginning of every group, we talked about what to do if an abuser were to show up or was waiting outside when we left. Most of the group members were opposed to calling the police under any circumstances but conceded that we would have no choice. This experience was eye-opening for me, and reinforced that we were all in danger if we could not rely on the police for protection. Women promoted the group by word of mouth and distributed brochures to other shelters and intervention services. By July 1996, ten women attended the group in a typical week, and we received support from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to advocate on behalf of victims who were battered by an officer.

1996 also brought passage of the Lautenberg Amendment, prohibiting or restricting gun possession in the event of a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction or protective order. Because it was retroactive, police departments had to comb through their records to verify that they did not have any officers in illegal possession of a firearm. The gun law was soon followed by a model policy developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), with a clear message of zero tolerance. Many victims were alarmed by the Lautenberg Amendment and by the prospect of departments adopting a "zero tolerance" position on domestic violence. On the surface it sounds contradictory. How could anyone, especially a battered woman, not be in favor of zero tolerance of domestic violence? For many victims of police batterers, however, their greatest fear is that he will lose his job and hold her responsible. They anticipated that the amendment and the policies would have a chilling effect on victims of police officers and that they would be more reluctant than ever to report the abuse. They could foresee that an abuser would use the written law and policies to prove to a victim that if she reached out for help, it would cost him his job. I was reminded again that well-intended attempts to improve safety can have unintended consequences.

As an advocate, you may be the only source of support and information for the victim of an officer batterer. It is your responsibility to learn about police culture, address the issue of police domestic violence with local departments, and search for creative remedies that decrease the victim's vulnerability and risk. This is a challenging task. Even police departments and advocates who have a history of enjoying a respectful and cooperative relationship can become adversaries when advocates work to protect the victim of an officer perpetrator.

Over the years, through the experiences of hundreds of victims of police officer batterers, I have learned that domestic violence within police ranks is a litmus test of law enforcement's commitment to public safety. If it looks the other way when violence against a woman is perpetrated by one of their own, no woman in that community, or our wider society, can count on police protection.

Advocates are rethinking many of our strategies on many different levels. Police perpetrated domestic violence brings us face to face with the challenges inherent in institutional reform work. This holds true whether we are talking about the criminal justice system, child protective services, the mental health system, the welfare system, government housing, or child custody and visitation. The issue of police perpetrated domestic violence puts us on notice that we need to reclaim and hold our ground as independent advocates who monitor systems from outside, while attempting to build meaningful partnerships to change the response from within.

This Guide is intended for advocates who work with victims whose abusers are members of law enforcement. It explores the reasons why familiar remedies are often inadequate against an officer batterer's power and control over the victim and his influence within the criminal justice system. It challenges us to find alternatives, and to hold both police officer batterers and policing accountable for violence against women and their children.

Download Advocate Guide in PDF

Back to top


Diane Wetendorf books, OIDV research, on-line resources

Our books are available through:

SmashWords (e-book)
Victim Handbook
Crossing the Threshold
Amazon (print)
Hijacked by the Right
Crossing the Threshold
Diane Wetendorf Inc logo