Officer-Involved Domestic Violence

Last updated Dec. 26, 2018

Individuals who are the victims of domestic violence at the hands of police officer-batterers are often in a unique and particularly vulnerable situation. Unlike most victims of domestic violence, where the success of protective efforts depends on the cooperation of law enforcement, those subject to officer-involved domestic violence (OIDV) may, for a variety of reasons, be unable to secure the assistance they seek. This is particularly troublesome in light of increased rates of domestic violence in police officer families. Some studies have indicated that women in around 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence.[1] In light of this alarming statistic, it is important to note a lack of recent research on OIDV. However, this is not a reason to entirely discount high rates if OIDV reported by earlier studies. Discussing this issue, one author noted:

The data on intimate partner abuse by police officers are both dated and potentially flawed, but in ways that make it more likely that abuse is being under—rather than over—reported. Most of the studies rely on self-reporting by police officers to establish prevalence of abuse. Self-reporting is a notoriously unreliable measure; as one study noted, ‘The issue of the reliability of self-reports data is problematic when considering any socially undesirable behavior.’[2]

One reason why it is more difficult for a victim of OIDV to seek help is the strong bonds of loyalty within most law enforcement communities. Coupled with the discretion granted to officers in determining how to respond to allegations of abuse, this may lead an abusing officer’s colleagues to not take action or to emphasize the private, familial nature of the problem.[3]  This is true in some instances even when the woman is also a law enforcement officer, especially if she is seen as breaking that bond of loyalty by reporting the abuse.[4]

Victims of OIDV may be more reluctant to report abuse for a number of reasons. Victims may be aware that reports of abuse made to a police department will not be kept confidential within that police department. If the abuser works for the department, he may learn of the victim’s allegations. Further, victims may lack confidence that they will be treated fairly if their cases are handled by the batterers’ colleagues.[5] Multiple studies of OIDV investigations in the U.S. have revealed systematic mishandling of the investigations.[6]

Batterers who are police officers may be able to use their increased knowledge of the system to manipulate the victim and prolong the abusive relationship. Police officers have access to a great deal of information from a variety of sources, for example, police scanners, vehicle tracking devices, or recording equipment. Abusers may be able to utilize this information in order to control or harm their victims. Activist Diane Wetendorf recalled the experience of working with women experiencing OIDV:

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 make 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 database searches. Victims had all been warned: ‘There is nowhere you can hide that I won’t be able to find you.’[7]

Additionally, the unique situation of victims of OIDV means that they may in fact face more harm from laws and measures intended to help them. In 1999, the U.S. passed the Lautenberg Amendment, which prohibited or restricted gun possession by a person who had a domestic violence conviction or who had a protective order against them. Wetendorf noted that:

[m]any victims were alarmed by the Lautenberg Amendment and by the prospect of departments adopting ‘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 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.[8]

In the U.S., a law enforcement officer must be able to carry a gun in order to work. The officer may be placed on desk duty during an investigation.  By reporting her abuser, however, a victim of OIDV risks her abuser losing their job if he is convicted. This can lead to both retaliation and—if the officer is the only or primary wage-earner—a loss of household income.

Due to the unique challenges encountered by victims of batterers who are police officers, it is particularly important that these victims have the support of independent advocates who are not affiliated with law enforcement communities. A guide for advocates can be found here. Additionally, although a 1994 nationwide survey of 123 police departments revealed that 45% had no policy to address the problem of officer-involved domestic violence, police departments have begun to implement policies.[9]

[1] Rafaqat Cheema, Black and Blue Bloods: Protecting Police Officer Families from Domestic Violence, 54 Fam. Ct. Rev. 487, 489 (2016).

[2] Leigh Goodmark, Hands Up at Home: Militarized Masculinity and Police Officers Who Commit Intimate Partner

Abuse, 2015 B.Y.U.L. Rev. 1183, 1195 (2015) (quoting Peter H. Neidig et al., Interspousal Aggression in Law Enforcement Families: A Preliminary Investigation, 15 Police Stud. Int'l Rev. Police Dev. 30, 31 (1992)).

[3] Diana Wetendorf, The Brotherhood, Abuse of Power, (last accessed Nov. 8, 2018).

[4] Sarah Cohen et al, Departments are Slow to Police Their Own Abusers, N.Y. Times (Nov. 23, 2013),

[5] Police Family Violence Fact Sheet, National Center for Women & Policing, (last accessed Nov. 8, 2018).

[6] Alejandra Avila, When the Batterer Wears a Badge: Regulating Officer-Involved Domestic Violence as a Line-of-Duty

Crime, 42 Am. J. Crim. L. 213, 216 (2015).

[7] Diane Wetendorf, Battered Women’s Justice Project Criminal Justice Center, When the Batterer is a Law Enforcement Officer: A Guide for Advocates (2004), at 4.

[8] Id. at 5.

[9] Police Family Violence Fact Sheet, National Center for Women & Policing, (last accessed Nov. 8, 2018).