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We must include domestic violence by police in police reforms

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Terrified of her husband — Deputy Paul Terry, a 14-year veteran of the Orange County (Fla.) police department and his access to firearms — Leigh Ann Terry tried to convince authorities she and her children were in danger. Over four years, the department received ten different calls to the Terry home. No criminal charges were ever filed.

In the month before Leigh Ann filed for divorce, the department received five calls from the Terry home. Four days before she filed for divorce, in one of the calls to the house, Deputy Terry managed to convince his fellow officers that he “feared for his and his children’s lives” after his wife allegedly scratched him. 

Several days later — despite Leigh Ann’s vehement denials and plea for help — the court believed Deputy Terry’s photo of the scratch over the polygraph she passed. Deputy Terry won a restraining order against his wife and temporary custody of his children. A week later, Deputy Terry shot himself and his two young children with his agency-issued pistol in a double murder-suicide.

We can’t truly reform police violence on the job without addressing police violence at home

Although all domestic violence is unacceptable, additional challenges arise when the abusers are in law enforcement. For one, who are survivors supposed to call for help?

You might be shocked to know how prevalent the issue is:

While the data is hard to come by, estimates are that between 20 percent and 40 percent of law enforcement families or significant others experience domestic violence. That is two to four times higher than the general population.

As is the case with police brutality, it’s rare for police officers who engage in domestic violence to be held legally accountable. Survivors must overcome the infamous “blue wall of silence” — an unwritten code among police officers to protect one another.

A 2019 review by media organizations in California of criminal convictions against former or current police officers found:

  • “Abusive officers routinely found ways around laws that could cost them their jobs.”
  • “Domestic abuse accusations against police rarely result in criminal charges, much less convictions.”
  • “Police departments let abusive officers keep working despite past abuse.”

Abusers act with impunity when there aren’t consequences

As we’ve tragically seen in yet more horrific police killings of unarmed African Americans, not even cameras or eyewitnesses are enough to deter police violence. In addition to institutionalized racism, it’s indicative of a police culture accustomed to an unacceptable lack of accountability.

Police have been protected for years on the job by the legal rule of “qualified immunity,” which often shields officers that engage in violent behavior from prosecution.

It’s why even amid nonstop media coverage, law enforcement agencies seemed determined to prove those protesting police brutality right by responding with more police violence.

But, at least, the many incidents of police violence against protesters were recorded. The same cannot be said for violent police behavior at home, where there isn’t even a uniform requirement for reporting officer-involved domestic violence.

Although a majority of police officers — including many we worked with throughout our careers as advocates are decent, honorable people; it’s extremely easy for the bad to spoil the bunch given the system’s inability to police itself.

Policymakers must not overlook officer-involved domestic violence in police reform 

Failure to heed the call of millions demanding police accountability and reform is unacceptable — as are half measures by lawmakers. In addition to addressing systemic racism, reimagining public safety needs to include meaningful accountability. Guaranteeing strict, independent oversight is especially critical in cases involving officer-involved domestic violence.

To ensure policymakers do not overlook officer-involved domestic violence in their police reform proposals, we call for:

  1. The inclusion of officer-involved domestic violence in a national database of police misconduct. Police violence in the home needs to be treated as an external public safety issue, not a private matter. Universal reporting requirements need to be mandatory so that third parties can collect and publish unbiased information.
  2. Create independent agencies to investigate domestic violence. Interviews should be conducted by highly trained forensic staff — independent of law enforcement — in trauma-informed settings. The ideal model already exists for abused children.
  3. Officers who commit domestic violence should not be allowed to keep their badges and gun. If an officer is violent toward their own family, they are not fit to serve our communities.

Voices such as Leigh Ann’s have been silenced and ignored for far too long by law enforcement and a broken system of accountability. Racial injustice, as well as police violence on the job and at home, must end — now!

Carol Wick is a former CEO of one of the nation’s largest domestic violence shelters and a leading advocate in the space for 30 years. Kit Gruelle is a survivor and a renowned advocate who trains law enforcement officers across the nation on how to handle domestic violence cases. She is the featured subject of “Private Violence,” an award-winning HBO documentary.

Tags police brutality protests police reform

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