Corruption within police forces is a well-known foe that rears its head in a dozen different ways. Police corruption is often discussed in terms of monetary abuses, from kickbacks to shakedowns to opportunistic theft. Yet these crimes are far from the only form of police misconduct. For example,there have been numerous incidents in which police officers demand sex from prostitutes in exchange for allowing them to continue working–a form of corruption that falls under the general category of “sextortion,” which I wrote about in an earlier post. Less discussed is the corruption that makes it hard to fight sky-high rates of officer involved domestic violence (OIDV).
OIDV is a serious problem, in the United States and (presumably) elsewhere. In the U.S., two studies, one with 728 police officers and one with 425 officers, found that 40% of officers self-reported that in the previous six months they had “lost control and behaved violently towards their spouse.” The comparable rate in the general population is roughly one-fourth as high. The reasons for these high OIDV rates are complex and not fully understood. Some advocates believe that aspects of police training give officers who are violent at home the knowledge and capability to target and intensify their abuse. Others make the case that the amount of violence police are exposed to as part of their job spills over to the home. But irrespective of the causes of OIDV, corruption within the police department makes fighting OIDV significantly more difficult.
Corruption can infect every aspect of police investigations into OIDV. Police officers have been known to interpret OIDV homicides as suicides, even against the weight of the evidence. The batterers under investigation have sometimes had access to the confidential investigative reports, and the officers (or their colleagues) often have professional access to the secret locations of all local domestic violence shelters. Even domestic violence advocates routinely need the police to protect non-OIDV victims, and so hesitate before accusing officers.
Many of the tools internal affairs developed to fight police corruption do not intuitively lend themselves to fighting the sorts of corruption that interfere with effective responses to OIDV. But there are several things we could do to address this problem:
- First, local governments should create separate domestic violence shelters for victims of OIDV. In general, the locations of domestic violence shelters are closely guarded secrets. Shelters take their secrecy so seriously that some periodically shift locations. Because of the dangers these shelters face from batterers, police are informed of all of their locations. While this may be necessary, it leaves the victims of OIDV nowhere to turn, as corrupt officers (the batterers themselves or their friends in the department) can abuse their special access to this information.But it doesn’t have to stay that way. As a first step to combatting OIDV, every major city should open up a special domestic violence shelter reserved for victims of OIDV. This shelter’s location would be secret even from the police. In lieu of police protection, perhaps female security guards could live on premises to serve the function that police serve at other shelters. These OIDV shelters would not only provide a safe place for victims of OIDV violence to flee, but they would also provide them access to a trained staff that is less dependent on the police department and therefore more willing to help OIDV victims. The very existence of this type of shelter, especially if many women flock to it, could also shine an embarrassing spotlight on some cities and police departments, and perhaps provoke some serious soul-searching over what’s behind this in the first place. Of course, opening this type of shelter would be more difficult in smaller population centers. But there are solutions to that problem too.
- Second, special investigators and prosecutors are needed in cases of police misconduct because typical prosecutors, who work closely with police on other cases, may not have the required distance and objectivity in these matters. Similarly, many people fighting domestic violence rely on help from police officers to investigate domestic violence calls, to make arrests, to enforce orders of protection, and to keep an eye out on the shelters. They are therefore put in an impossible position when police are themselves the batterers. Advocates may therefore be conflicted about helping a victim of OIDV. As one example of a potential reform along these lines, domestic violence consultant Mark Wynn suggests that small police departments enter into memoranda of understanding with each other to investigate OIDV so that officers are not investigating the people they work with every day. This would serve a similar function to the specialized internal affairs units set up in larger departments.
- Third, governments could implement more extensive background checks when a candidate applies to the police academy, focusing on red flags related to domestic violence. Such an approach, though potentially quite controversial, could be modeled on the screening techniques that are already used to address more conventional forms of police corruption or other misconduct. For example, when former Chicago mayor Richard Daley convened a Commission on Police Integrity to fight corruption in the police force, it recommended, among many other things, that all candidates to the police academy be required to have at least a year of employment experience so that investigators would have “a source of employers, supervisors and co-workers to contact as part of their background checks for new recruits.” In the OIDV context,investigators could interview every ex-spouse and every long-term ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend of new recruits to ask about a history of domestic violence. While this proposal might seem radical, ex-spouses are already interviewed for certain types of security clearances.
These reforms, though no panacea, would be a good way to start fighting the police corruption that prevents effective action on domestic violence perpetrated by the very people who should be protecting us.