QUESTION: I’m being abused by my police officer husband and don’t know where to go for help. What can I do?
You are not alone. Many police family members have gone through abuse and found a way out. You can find a better life too.
No one deserves to be abused. You are courageous to be looking for ways to improve your situation. You know best how to be safe and what steps to take. No one understands your situation better than you.
Here are some tips that might be helpful:
• Be careful about devices—Be careful about your safety when using computers and cellphones for research or calls. Police officers often have training and tools to monitor communications and other records. Deleting documents or emails doesn’t rid them completely from a computer. You may want to use a friend’s device or a computer in a library. Consider creating a special online account and password for this purpose.
Also avoid unusual changes, such as deleting your internet browsing history or changing your daily routine. Officers are trained to notice anything out of the ordinary.
• Save evidence—Documentation can be very helpful. Save communications with your abuser, including email, phone messages and other correspondence. After an incident, ask someone to take photos of the scene and any injuries. Do not take photos on your own cellphone as your abuser can find them or, if you delete them, may be able to restore them.
If you feel it is safe, keep a diary to record details of incidents, including the date, time and names of any witnesses (writing them down as soon as possible afterward).
Put copies of all this material in a safe place, such as with a domestic violence counsellor or lawyer or in a rented mailbox or safety deposit box.
• Consider making a safety plan—Plan where you and your kids would go in an emergency, how you would leave your house if needed and whom your kids would call. Discuss with your kids what to do if you or they are in danger. Tell your kids not to get between you and your partner if there is violence or potential for it. Plan a code word to tell them to leave or get help.
In a violent situation, you can put your arms around each side of your head to try to protect your face and head. If an argument starts, consider moving to an area where you can exit the home quickly. Don’t go where the children are. Try not to wear clothes or jewellery that could be used to strangle you. Seek medical attention if you or your children are injured. Ask for injuries to be documented.
• Think about getting help—Always remember you’re not alone. People are out there who want to help you. Think about people you trust whom you can talk to. It is normal to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, but help can come from taking things one small step at a time.
If you feel safe doing so, it can be a good idea to get to know a counsellor at a local domestic violence agency or help hotline. A counsellor can give advice and information, help you plan for your safety (including possibly getting a protection order) and safeguard documents.
These services are usually confidential and anonymous, but keep in mind that in many jurisdictions a counsellor who is concerned that you or a child is at risk of harm may have to contact authorities and give them your contact information or, if you’re using a chatline, your computer’s Internet Protocol address (i.e. your computer’s location). Check the agency’s privacy rules or clarify with the counsellor before deciding what to disclose.
When you seek help, you may have to explain your unique situation to other people—and especially how officer-involved domestic violence is different from other abuse.
• If you or someone else calls 911—If 911 is called, ask that a supervisor attends the scene. Provide a complete and truthful account without understating the severity of the abuse. If your account changes over time, you will undermine your credibility. Ask to read the police report and/or criminal complaint to ensure it is accurate. If not, ask for it to be amended. Try to get a copy, and take down the report number and responding officers’ names and badge numbers.
If you have a safe opportunity to do so before 911 is called, familiarize yourself with your local police jurisdiction’s policy on domestic violence (it should be on the department’s website). Check if the department also has a specific policy on officer-involved domestic violence. Note any discrepancies in how responding officers deal with your case. Be ready for responding officers to pressure you to drop the complaint.
Be prepared for an abusive police officer to lie and try to undermine your credibility. That could include saying you assaulted him, abused the children or have mental health or substance-abuse problems.
• Leaving the relationship—Leaving an abusive relationship can be a dangerous time for anyone, but especially so for the intimate partner of a police officer.
Think of places to go where he wouldn’t look for you—the home of an old friend or distant relative he doesn’t know about; to another state or province. Local shelters for abused women are known to most officers. You may have to go further away.
Leave quickly and at an unexpected time, such as when it’s calm and no argument has occurred. If possible, take important phone numbers, medication, a list of bank account numbers, ID and documents, school and medical records and valued possessions.
Keep in mind a police officer may be able to track you via your vehicle GPS, phone calls, credit card and bank transactions, cellphone, hotel registration, plane tickets and border crossings.
If you stay in your home but your partner has left, consider changing locks and installing steel or metal doors, outside lighting with motion detectors and security cameras. Be sure your house is equipped with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
Don’t meet your partner alone. Discuss a safety plan with your children and anyone else staying with you. If you have a restraining order, always keep it with you and inform family, friends, employers, neighbours and your kids’ school or daycare provider, leaving them a copy.
If possible, change your work hours, change your phone number and use a new cellphone. Vary your route to and from work and school. Carry a charged cellphone preprogrammed to dial 911.
• Hold on to hope and get informed—No matter how frightened you may feel, it can help to know you aren’t alone and to inform yourself about resources available to you. This knowledge may open up new options for you and give you hope.
Read more detailed tips and resources in this free extended excerpt of the Police Wife book, which includes appendices with tips and resources for people in a relationship with a police officer. The complete book is available on Amazon here.
Also see the excellent information on officer-involved domestic violence (also known as OIDV) on counsellor Diane Wetendorf’s website. Life Span, a Chicago-based non-profit domestic violence agency, may be another good resource, offering specialized support for intimate partners of police officers.
QUESTION: Do you believe all police officers are abusive? Such blanket statements are offensive.
No, Police Wife doesn’t say all police officers abuse their spouse. I spoke with many officers who are upset about the widespread abuse going on in fellow officers’ homes and are trying to do something about it. Many active-duty and retired officers have been supportive of the Police Wife book, including the current and past presidents of the International Association of Women Police, whose words of praise are on the back cover.
QUESTION: I’ve been married to a police officer for many years and have never been abused. Why does your book cover have a quote saying that every police wife or girlfriend should be given a copy of your book? I find that insulting.
The quote you mention is from a veteran police sergeant who has two PhDs and was president of the International Association of Women Police. The book isn’t only for abused police spouses.
Studies suggest that domestic violence is a major job hazard for police officers, potentially affecting 40 percent of law enforcement families. The risks are so high that it’s important for law enforcement families to be informed about them proactively, not just after violence occurs.
Timely information may help officers, their families and police departments address problem behaviours before they cross the line into abuse.
An analogy could be being a firefighter’s wife but being unaware of the risks your husband goes through putting out fires all day. As a police spouse, you’re likely aware of the on-the-job risks that officers face—but the off-the-job risks such as abuse are little-known, and police departments do little to help families deal with them.
And even if you don’t face abuse yourself, some of your police spouse friends might, and you may not know it. From the outside, it’s very difficult to know if a particular family is experiencing abuse. Learning about the special challenges of OIDV can help you spot the warning signs of abuse and know how to support another police wife appropriately. You may even save a life, a marriage or the career of a good officer.
Educating yourself will help you realize that abused police spouses often don’t feel safe calling 911 or shelters for help. Most police departments have a poor record of disciplining abusive officers, even when they’ve been convicted in the courts. The punishment is often milder than for theft or lying. These women are typically desperate and feel they’ve got nowhere to turn. Information and help can be very difficult to find.
Learning about the abuse may also show you how the problem affects everyone in the law enforcement community. For example, covering for an abusive officer could put another officer’s career in jeopardy. Also, Arizona State University sociologist Leanor Johnson found a strong correlation between officers who abuse at home and those who assault fellow officers on the job.
It’s also important to remember that many people endure abuse without even realizing it. Abuse can take many forms. It’s not just hitting. It can also include throwing and breaking furniture, controlling behaviour, threats and stalking. Some people become so despondent after years of abuse that they may not realize they don’t deserve to be treated that way.
QUESTION: My sister is going out with a police officer who is very controlling. I’m worried she is being abused. She seems distant and fearful since they’ve been together. How can I help her?
We’re often reluctant to get involved or interfere if we think a friend or family member may be in a violent or abusive relationship. We may be scared, not know how to help or not want to make the situation worse. But your help may be critical for an abused person and her children. You may even save a life.
Keep in mind that any support you offer should aim to empower your sister to help herself. When someone experiencing domestic violence is ready to talk or get help, this is a first step to freedom. Understand and acknowledge the courage it took to reach this point. Be a good listener. An abuse survivor may have a hard time trusting anyone, including you. Don’t interrupt, assume or judge. Just having your ear may be of pivotal importance to her.
It’s useful to get informed about the unique warning signs, risks and obstacles of officer-involved domestic violence. You may want to find a time and place to talk privately and offer your support. Tell her she isn’t alone. Assure her you’ll always be there if she wants to talk. Explain what you see and that you are concerned.
Don’t demand to know all the details. Tell her she didn’t cause the abuse. Don’t minimize the abuse, excuse the abuser or express disbelief. Don’t ask her why she stays. Comfort her. You can tell her what you think are her strengths.
Offer to help take care of children and pets. Don’t try to take over or argue with her decisions. Remember that the abused person knows better than you what will be safe for her and her children.
Also be patient. If she doesn’t want to talk or denies the abuse, don’t get frustrated or angry. Tell her you’re available whenever she needs. Don’t encourage her to confront the abuser or confront the abuser yourself. Be careful not to say or do anything that could make him upset with her.
It may be helpful to gather a list of agencies, information and professionals experienced in working on domestic violence to share with her when she is ready. Try to locate professionals who know about police spousal abuse. You can offer to help her make a safety plan and offer to accompany her to get help.
Also consider your own safety. Be aware that the abuser may target you if he discovers your role. Consider ways to protect yourself. You can ask an experienced advocate for advice.
If she has a panic attack or flashback (i.e. reliving an incident), gently remind her where she is. Ask her to sit, remind her to take deep breaths, and in the case of a flashback tell her it’s not happening even though it feels real. Get to know her triggers. Explain that flashbacks can help the survivor work through what happened. Don’t push her to talk. A hug, holding a hand or pat on the back may be welcome for some survivors; for others, not. Ask first.
Also keep in mind that certain abused spouses may face special challenges, including female officers, same-sex intimate partners of a cop and intimate partners of racialized officers.
Finally, keep in mind that survivors of long-term abuse may be so despondent they feel paralyzed and unable to help themselves. The partner of a police officer often experiences these feelings even more strongly because of her abuser’s powerful position.
QUESTION: I’m not a police spouse. Why should I care about this?
The damage from officer-involved domestic violence goes far beyond police families. Abusive officers may be less likely to act appropriately when responding to domestic violence calls in other people’s homes. Domestic violence is the number-one reason for 911 calls to police in many communities. Many of today’s mass shootings also have domestic violence at their root.
Officers who abuse at home also tend to be more likely to engage in misconduct on the job, such as using excessive force. And when law enforcement agencies fail to protect a police spouse from an abusive officer husband, taxpayers have often been stuck with multi-million-dollar legal bills to settle suits filed by the spouse’s estate or family.
Domestic violence in police families is rooted in the tremendous power we bestow on officers, the impunity they enjoy and derogatory male officer attitudes to women. Many of these same issues are at the core of today’s debates about policing in our society, including the police shootings of African Americans and police sexual harassment of female drivers at traffic stops.
These same issues are also connected to broader social issues, such as growing inequality in our society and the militarization of police. Police officers are often the ones who must deal with the consequences of inequality, such as homelessness and unemployment. As the job burden on police officers grows, their families and health often pay the price.
QUESTION: Why do you single out police officers? People in other jobs are also abusive. Are you anti-police? Police officers already face enough attacks while risking their lives to keep us all safe.
Abuse certainly occurs in every profession. But the rate of abuse among police officers—up to 15 times higher than the among the public—is so staggeringly great that it deserves special attention. Police families are clearly paying an extraordinary price for the work of law enforcement. We need to figure out why and what can be done to help them.
It’s important to remember that police officers are public servants. When they abuse at home, while other officers cover for them, they’re also abusing the tremendous powers and confidence that society gives them. How can we trust them to enforce the law if they violate it in their own home?
QUESTION: Why do you focus on male officers? Women officers are abusive too.
Female officers can certainly also be abusive, and I talk about that in my Police Wife book. But I focus mostly on male officers because they’re the ones who make up the vast majority of police personnel. For example, in the U.S., 88 percent of police officers are men. That said, the advice and resources in the book apply as well to men who are being abused and women in same-sex relationships.
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