EXCERPT from Crossing the Threshold: Female Officers & Police-Perpetrated Domestic Violence


ISBN 978-1-933556-48-2 Diane Wetendorf, ©2006 All rights reserved. Available through Amazon and PG Direct

Members of law enforcement have long referred to themselves as the 'police family.' They equate the love, concern and protectiveness that bonds all those who wear the badge to the love, concern and protectiveness that bonds members of biological families. The police family, like many biological families, maintains its privacy by abiding by the absolute rule that "What happens in the family stays in the family." The loyalty, solidarity, and privacy of the family must be impenetrable. This loyalty and solidarity protects the family from outsiders. It also leaves family members extremely vulnerable to one another. The mandate to keep what happens in the family private forbids members to reach out for anything, especially for protection against one's own.

The "blue wall of silence" has prevented, and continues to prevent, any honest examination of police-perpetrated domestic violence. The "powers-that-be" don't want the public to see how the institutional police family responds to domestic violence among their own — whether an officer is the perpetrator or the victim. They don't want the public to see the ways in which the attitudes of the police, fortified by police power, undermine society's efforts to hold batterers accountable in the criminal justice system. Police-perpetrated domestic violence, like domestic violence in the general population, is entrenched in its culture with deep historical roots. Police agencies have to identify and examine the deeply ingrained beliefs, values and attitudes that have condoned and perpetuated violence against women for centuries. Acknowledging the problem, writing policy, and training officers are all steps in the right direction; yet they do not substitute for a true understanding of the issue and will not bring about substantive change.

Though male and female recruits go through the same training and indoctrination into police culture, the impact is quite different. Men and women come into the training and culture with different backgrounds and socialization. It is easy for men to fit into the culture because they are already socialized in the male-dominated and male-oriented hierarchy of power. Male officers trust each other to abide by the code of silence, but many fear that women will not. Many minority and female officers testify that they have to work twice as hard, receive extra training, and constantly prove themselves, yet superiors still overlook them for promotion because of the brass ceiling. Women and minorities find themselves in aggressive competition with each other because they are vying for a single token opportunity. Rather than being able to bond and support each other, they are alienated from one another. Promotion, once achieved, also sets an individual apart.

In order to remain in the profession, women have had to tolerate a hostile work environment of both overt and subtle harassment and discrimination. Some agencies have learned through costly discrimination lawsuits that they cannot afford be overtly discriminatory, so they employ covert and subtle ways to perpetuate the male hierarchy. Supervisors may covertly give men the message that they can do and say whatever they want against women as long as they don't get caught. Some supervisors and instructors get away with insults and slurs by saying they are part of training and that they are trying to "toughen up" the officers and prepare them for what they will experience on the street. Some officers admit that when women aren't around they use derogatory language, talking about women as pieces of ass, tits, and cunts. They ridicule and tell stories about female officers to damage their reputations and/or undermine their authority. When a female officer confronts them, she's accused of being too sensitive, exaggerating, or being out to get them. She learns to overlook, minimize, deny and joke about what is actually offensive and demoralizing. When female officers dare to talk about the harassment and/or violence that they experience, they're labeled as radical troublemakers, feminists or lesbians. It is impossible to separate issues of gender from issues of race, class, and sexual orientation. The female officer has to constantly navigate her way through contradictory expectations and choose her best survival technique.

Many female officers say that they initially had reservations about getting romantically and sexually involved with a male officer because of things they heard about them. Male officers know this, and are well-versed in ways to overcome a woman's resistance. Typically, an officer will assure her that he "isn't like the other guys" — a statement that admits that what she's heard about most male officers is true. He tells her that, in contrast to the others, he is sensitive, trustworthy and he doesn't sleep around. He says he isn't threatened by her being a cop; rather he admires her independence and assertiveness. The male officer who is trying to overcome a female officer's resistance will explain to her that his ex-wives were abusive and were to blame for his failed marriages and failed relationships. He convinces her that she is perfect for him. She has what all the others were missing. She feels sorry about his past experiences with women who have hurt him, and she becomes determined to make it all up to him. He may say that he likes that she's on the job, and she isn't "like other women cops" he knows. She's happy to hear that she doesn't fit any of the negative stereotypes of women cops, especially if she is new in the department. She may be grateful that he recognizes her for what she is — she is exceptional. She is proud of being able to balance her life as both an officer and a woman. He assures her that he sees her as feminine and sexy even though — and maybe because — she wears the uniform and badge. At this point, her higher rank — or her ambitions to further her career — are a turn-on and a challenge, not a threat. Conquering a female cop who is strong, confident, and ambitious requires far more skill than conquering a mere civilian woman, an enticing challenge for a male officer

It may be difficult for a female officer to identify abusive and controlling behaviors in intimate relationships because women cops become desensitized to many of the similar (normal) behaviors of male cops on the job. This conditioning on the job is likely to result in an increased tolerance of the demeaning, insulting and humiliating behavior of an abusive intimate partner. Though female officers wield the authority of the badge on the street, they are expected to submit to male authority in the department and in the home.

When she begins to see signs of controlling and intimidating behavior, she maintains faith that underneath his tough macho shield is a tender man and heart that she can reach if she just gives him enough love and affection. She excuses his occasional outbursts of anger. She knows that he is trained to control others through intimidation, aggression and violence, but she is also an officer who has received the same training. She knows she'd never use her training against him and she feels certain that he'd never use his training or tactics to hurt or control her.

If her supervisor or fellow officers suspect that she is being abused, it might open the door to the department scrutinizing their private life, discovering that he is abusing her and that she has been hiding it. It may raise questions about her fitness-for-duty. The pressure to perform both on the job and at home takes its toll on her. Her abuser tells her that she is disappointing him and she knows she is disappointing her fellow officers, supervisors and herself. But, if she quits her job, she'll lose everything she's worked for. She blames herself and keeps trying harder. She doesn't see that he and the job set her up in a no-win situation. Instead of recognizing that he and the job have ensured that she cannot meet their impossible standards, she feels inadequate that she cannot make the grade in her relationship or in her career.

As time goes on and the abuse continues, the victim realizes that she is in a significantly different, more dangerous and more vulnerable situation than if she were a civilian. Though she knows that statistically the most dangerous place for a woman is in her own home, she never dreamed that she, as a police officer, would ever be in that vulnerable position. She may have bargained for putting her life on the line as a police officer, but she didn't bargain for putting her life on the line when she married one. Contrary to the male officer who enjoys his home as a haven from the job and the streets, her home is not a haven. She feels safer on duty than she does in her own house. She knows that she is expected to fight back on the street, but she is forbidden to defend herself in her home. She realizes that of all victims of domestic violence, she may be the most at risk and the least likely to receive police protection.

She simply cannot afford to identify herself or have others identify her as a "battered woman." She fears that others will question how, if she can't even protect herself, she can protect others. She may want help, but she remains silent because she fears that the consequences of reporting will be worse than the consequences of living with the abuse. She feels alone and doubts that anyone will understand, much less be willing and able to help.

Female officers have firsthand knowledge about how many officers — male and female — feel about domestic violence, what they say about the victims, how they joke about the calls. She also knows that the "Brotherhood" may protect a female officer "as if she were a sister" when her abuser is a civilian, but not when he is a member of the police family. When he is family, they will probably see things his way, protect him and invoke the code of silence to cover for him. She fears they will see her as the traitor, the one who ratted out an officer.

When a woman reports that a male police officer assaulted or battered her, the network of power functions very efficiently. Making a complaint against a police officer is a dangerous act, especially when the complainant is herself an officer. She puts herself at risk of retaliation from her abuser, from other officers and from the department. The female officer knows that being a member of the police family might protect her if her abuser was a civilian, but the family won't protect her against a male "family" member. The abuser calls upon his network of relationships for support and defense against the allegations. Police-perpetrated domestic violence, like other types of police brutality, could not occur without implicit or explicit approval of other officers, supervisors, and, ultimately the chief.

hough it may be true that the majority of officers do not commit violence against women, there are those who do. Rather than confronting the abuser, other officers wittingly or unwittingly collude with him in countless ways. A direct supervisor who doesn't want to know the details of a specific incident from the reporting female officer can blatantly or subtly communicate that she'd better stop bringing her personal problems to work, and warn her not to become an embarrassment to the department. The supervisor can communicate to the male officer that he'd better "take care of things at home." The woman gets the message that she should keep her private life private. The male gets the message that he needs to get back in control at home. The message to both is that they had better handle it themselves or the department will intervene.

Department policy may mandate officers to report knowledge of officer misconduct. If the policy does not exempt victims of domestic violence from the mandate, the victim has to choose between jeopardizing her safety and her intimate relationship by reporting, breaking the code of silence by ratting on a cop, or violating department policy by not reporting. If she violates policy by not reporting, she is vulnerable to discipline later if the abuse comes to the attention of the department. She could be punished even though she may not have identified the behavior as "abuse" or had not yet broken through her own denial.

Many female officers who have reported say that if they had to do it over again, they would avoid reporting despite all costs to their personal well-being and safety. They say it was not worth the emotional trauma and embarrassment. They testify that fellow officers and supervisors punished them by ostracizing and shunning. They were harassed, radio calls interfered with, assignments were changed, they were transferred, backup failed to be provided. Such retaliation takes a tremendous emotional toll and may break a victim's spirit and determination to stand by her complaint. Some victims recant, others choose to leave the profession rather than endure the hostility and harassment. No matter what the outcome of her complaint, having made the complaint does extensive damage to her career, reputation, and her relationships within the department.

Sadly, many female officers don't seek assistance from domestic violence advocates because they don't trust them. They fear that the advocates' allegiance to or fear of the police officers they work with will prove to be stronger than their ability or willingness to assist her. They are aware that the advocates know the abuser; all too often he is on the domestic violence response unit. He may be the one the advocates and victims see as the "knight in shining armor," the sensitive cop who gets it. He appears to have respect for the women cops he works with, for the advocates and for victims. They feel comfortable with him, confide in him and trust him to protect them from violent men — and from the less sensitive cops in the department. The female officer whose abuser is the favorite of the advocate community is not likely to look to the advocates for help.

Warning signs of intimate partner abuse are difficult, if not impossible, to identify in a hypermasculine culture where "normal" behavior is very similar or identical to the behavior of a batterer. If the particular department's culture allows or encourages aggressive, intimidating, misogynistic behavior, abusive behavior will simply blend in. Men complain that the definition of domestic violence and abusive behavior is so broad that it covers just about all male behavior. The fact that abusive behavior doesn't stand out as abusive should be a warning sign in itself. Men reassure women they're not like other men, male officers reassure women that they're not like other cops, they're safe to be with, they won't harm her. What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong is that "normal" is indistinguishable from abusive behavior. Lip service isn't enough. Going through the motions isn't enough. Attitudes and beliefs seep through. The goal is not just to make it appear that police officers get it. The goal is to make them actually get it.

Law enforcement is the only institution that has the authority to use force to control others. Since they are the last bastion of male power and authority, the public should be paying attention to the way that police departments treat female officers both on the job and in their intimate relationships. The way the police culture treats female officers gives us tremendous insight into how it views all women and all "others." It tells us everything about the dynamics of social justice and the preservation of male power.

We see the results of male violence. Police violence against women isn't contained in the police agencies or in their homes. It spills over on all of us. Police-perpetrated domestic violence is perhaps the most insidious form of police brutality. Citizens foot the bill. We pay for the selection, hiring and training of police officers. We pay for their equipment, their salaries, their benefits and their retirement. We pay for the defense of lawsuits and we pay the settlement costs of the lawsuits — millions of dollars a year in many cities. The costs in terms of social justice are incalculable.

It isn't just the good police officers who stand by and do nothing. We all collude when, as good citizens, we stand by and do nothing. Whose responsibility is it to change the culture? The presence of female cops influences the police culture, but they cannot change it without a tremendous shift in society's attitudes towards women and others. We need to wake up and break through our denial because society cannot afford to lose the women who work in the criminal justice system.

Female officers are leaving the profession because of men's attitude towards them, the network of power from which they are excluded, and because they are victims of assault and battery perpetrated by male officers — even in their own homes. We will not stop violence against women as long as we refuse to challenge men's sense of entitlement to do as they please in their own homes. We find ourselves in a vicious circle that starts and ends with law enforcement. We have to cross the thresholds of their homes.

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