The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Violent at Home, Violent in the Streets

Part Two of our series on police violence.

In Part One I discussed multiple cases of police officers exhibiting the same sort of violence at home, which we witness too often from officers in the streets. But how prevalent is this sort of domestic violence and how does it interact with the mounting problem of criminal cops acting violently and getting away with it?

Fatherly magazine reported:

Though data on police domestic violence is notoriously difficult to gather and is skewed by a culture of silence and intimidation, suggest that police officers in the United States perpetrate acts of domestic violence at roughly 15 times the rate of the general population. Because officers protect their own, domestic victims of violent cops often don’t know where to go.

One problem with data is police cover for their own; they cover up domestic abuse by fellow officers the same way they cover up or justify public abuse. What this means is what data we find is but the tip of the iceberg. For every incident verified and recorded there are an unknown number of incidents where no charges are filed or no investigation is done because the attacker is a police officer.

One review of the Los Angeles Police Department found cover-ups and bias. The Los Angeles Times reported on the review in 1997:

A comprehensive review of the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of domestic violence allegations against its own officers has found that the department’s internal investigations often “lacked objectivity” and that accused batterers on the force were rarely arrested or prosecuted and often faced only light in-house discipline.

An officer who was violent in domestic incidents were described by the department as “calm and professional” according to his evaluations. Another officer, who was suspended for violence against his wife, was officially evaluated by the department as “problem free.” The Times wrote, “The study depicts an old-boys network in which officers who were found to have committed acts of domestic violence often did not have it held against them in evaluations or when they sought promotions.”

Bizarrely the Inspector General for the department seemed to claim the report proved there is no significant problem. “The fact is that there are about 32 cases of physical domestic violence a year out of an organization of 12,000 employees,” [Katherine Mader] said. “The department is hardly filled with batterers. I challenge any organization to investigate their own personnel, as LAPD does, and compare their statistics.” The assumption was reports that actually made it into the record were the only cases of abuse taking place.

But, as LA Magazine wrote at the time: “This doesn’t mean the LAPD doesn’t have a problem; it just means everybody’s looking the other way.”

The records of police officers actually arrested for the crime of domestic violence indicates police bias exists. Two-thirds of LAPD officers live outside Los Angeles with the rest inside the city. When a complaint was filed against a police officer for domestic violence inside city limits the responding officers only arrested their fellow officer 6% of the time. However, when the officer lived outside the city responding officers from the other jurisdictions found cause to arrest the abusing officer 16% of the time — almost three times as often. While it is remotely possible the more seriously violent officers self-sorted themselves residentially, it seems far more plausible this discrepancy was the result of fellow officers covering up for their own.

The end result of the Made study was they found of 227 cases of domestic violence filed only 91 were sustained. Of those only 4 officers were convicted and none of the officers were fired over their criminal violence, with just one asked to take three week off duty!

The only reason any of this came to light was because Bob Mullally was willing to sacrifice his career and go to jail to expose it. That’s what it takes to pierce the iron blue curtain. Mullally leaked 79 confidential reports about police domestic violence to KCBS-TV. Mullally had been hired to go through these files for a lawsuit filed against the police department but the courts had ordered the information to remain confidential. He confessed he didn’t expect to find much and had assumed “the police would be policing themselves.”

Instead what he found horrified him. “Kids were being beaten. Women were being beaten and raped. Their organs were ruptured. Bones were broken. It was hard cold-fisted brutality by police officers, and nothing was being done to protect their family members. And I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.” It was only because Mullally’s actions that the Mader investigation took place. LA Weekly said:

In 1997, after Levin’s televised report on the leaked files was aired, former L.A. Police Commission Inspector General Katherine Mader reviewed the handling of domestic-violence cases involving LAPD officers.

Mader looked at 227 cases investigated between 1990 and 1997. Her 1997 report found that in more than 75 percent of confirmed cases, the officer’s personnel file failed to mention or minimized the domestic abuse; 29 percent of investigated officers were later promoted; and 31 percent were accused of committing violence at home. Mader also found that 30 officers were repeat offenders.

The police-take on such incidents is officers who are violent at home are stressed due to their jobs and thus should be seen as victims. They don’t consider the possibility officers who are violent in private are more likely to be violent in public, or individuals prone to violence are attracted to a job allowing them to get away with it. Yet, this problem has gone on for decades. In the 1990s the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings and noted a study in Arizona of 553 officers and spouses found that 41% of male officers and 34% of female officers reported violence in their marital relationship. Only 16% of the general public would say the same thing, 37% of the wives of police officers reported violent incidents.

Dr. Boulin Johnson of Arizona State University questioned officers in the state and she reported “40 percent of the officers stated that in the last six months prior to the survey they had gotten out of control, and behaved violently against their spouse and children.” (p.34)

A couple decades pass and the problem still exists and the cover-ups continue. In 2019, The New Yorker reported:

This year, an independent panel found that the typical penalty for New York City police officers found guilty of domestic violence — some had punched, kicked, choked, or threatened their victims with guns — was thirty lost vacation days. In nearly a third of cases, the officers already had a domestic-violence incident — and, in one case, eight — in their records.

… Last summer, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, Alex Villanueva, articulated a common justification for not con­sidering domestic violence as a concern: in defending his decision to employ a deputy who had been accused of stalking and physically abusing his ex-girlfriend, he told a local reporter that it was “a private relationship between two consenting adults that went bad.” The violence was seen as unrelated to job performance, an activity that could be understood only within the context of a relationship.

But the factors that lead to abuse at home — coercion, authoritarianism, a sense of entitlement to violence — are also present in the work that police officers do on the streets. It should not be surprising that domestic abuse appears to predict excessive use of force — a link that scholars have suggested should alter the way that departments respond to both kinds of aggression.

Criminologist Philip Stinson, of Bowling Green State University, has amassed a large database of incidents involving police officers and violence. Stinson, a former police officer who received his Ph.D. in criminology in 2009, Stinson went into this field after witnessing officers getting away with criminal conduct that wouldn’t be tolerated in civilians. He told FiveThirtyEight:

I saw some crazy shit. It really changed my outlook on things. When people were arrested, they would take them into the booking room, and sometimes the sergeant would come in and just beat the shit out of the guy while he was handcuffed — shit like that.

I was floored with my experience up there. In the two years I was up there, I saw all kinds of shit I did not know happened.

They faked reports, and there was creative report writing, to fit the arrest they wanted to have. There was evidence that was tampered with and overly suggestive court identifications to nail people with shit. It was quite an eye-opener.

According to The New Yorker Stinson’s research confirmed something very important to consider: “one in five officers arrested for domestic violence nationwide had also been the subject of a federal lawsuit for violating people’s civil rights.” Of course, the number of officers domestically violent and publicly violent would be several times larger than the number who were actually taken to court. Many of the victims of police violence can never seek judicial compensation.

Conor Friedersdorf raised an important question about these cover-ups. “If there’s any job that domestic abuse should disqualify a person from holding, isn’t it the one job that gives you a lethal weapon, trains you to stalk people without their noticing, and relies on your judgment and discretion to protect the abused against domestic abusers?”

Police departments that would fire an officer for using pot once wouldn’t do anything when officers were violent toward their own families, let alone against the public. The New York Times rightly observed:

In many departments, an officer will automatically be fired for a positive marijuana test, but can stay on the job after abusing or battering a spouse.

Police officers can be particularly dangerous because of their access to guns and special training in fighting and controlling those who challenge them. Yet their victims often do not report abuse because they fear retaliation and they believe that their abuser’s colleagues, as well as prosecutors, will not take their complaints seriously.

The Times found that even with the most serious cases of domestic violence officers are rarely disciplined, even after being arrested. “The cases reported to the state are the most serious ones — usually resulting in arrests. Even so, nearly 30 percent of the officers accused of domestic violence were still working in the same agency a year later, compared with 1 percent of those who failed drug tests and 7 percent of those accused of theft.”

Friedersdorf noticed something quite important, “the factors that lead to abuse at home — coercion, authoritarianism, a sense of entitlement to violence — are also present in the work that police officers do on the streets.”

I argue police violence at home and police violence in the streets are closely related because many officers attracted to the profession have authoritarian personalities which are prone to violence naturally. Individuals who enjoy bossing others around are also likely to enjoy knocking them around as well.

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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.

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