On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, crushing him to death in plain sight of a handful of witnesses. One of these witnesses was a 17-year-old girl who caught the scene on camera in startling resolution. Her steady-handed footage is disturbing and difficult to watch — even from a distance, you can tell that Chauvin is disconnected from what he’s doing, physically present but mentally somewhere else as he took the life of a man whose crime appeared to be nothing greater than the color of his skin.
When Jane, a pseudonymous 46-year-old corporate travel agent, heard the news, she was horrified, but not surprised. Her ex-husband of 10 years, an Ohio police officer and firearms instructor named Doug (also a pseudonym), used to do something similar to her all the time. He put his own spin on things, of course, preferring to sink his knee into her shoulder or chest while wrapping his hands around her neck, but the general technique was the same: asphyxiate and immobilize until he was certain she was subdued.
It didn’t take much to set him off. One night in 2007, just a few months after their wedding, the blond, bubbly mother of two took $10 from the shared cash jar they kept in their bedroom to buy cough syrup with. In response, he choked her on the ground, crushed her phone to keep her from calling for help and hit her in the head with a decorative Christmas sign with a Santa Claus figure on it. As blood ran down her face, she grabbed her younger daughter and ran to her car — locking the door before he could rip it open — and drove herself to the police station where she begged his colleagues for help. The next day, she woke up in the hospital with six staples in her head.
What he did to her was blatant battery and he spent a few hours in prison for it, but the judge, a friend of Doug’s father, did him a solid and knocked it down to disorderly conduct (which automatically removed the order of protection a more serious charge would have brought). He didn’t need a felony on his record, she remembers the judge saying in court. He was a cop. His job was already hard enough. Court records from December 2007 show that Doug was logged as simply having “caused annoyance to [Jane] by making unreasonable noise.” For this, records show he was instructed to pay her $9.
On almost every night of their decade-long marriage, Doug cleaned his guns, disassembling and scrubbing their metallic guts on the wood of their kitchen table. Sometimes, as she limped by to make herself something to eat, he’d remind her that no one would believe her if she talked. No matter how many times she punched 9-1-1 into her phone, no matter how many reports she filed and no matter how much evidence she brought with her to court, they would always, always take his side. “I’m a cop,” she remembers him telling her. “I’ll get away with it every time.”
In 2018, Alex Villanueva, the sheriff of Los Angeles County and the “Donald Trump of law enforcement,” made a chillingly simple statement that sums up how right he was. In justifying his decision to rehire a deputy who lost his job twice for stalking and abusing his ex-girlfriend, Villanueva told a reporter that it was “a private relationship between two consenting adults that went bad.” He couldn’t have spelled it out more clearly. Like most police departments in the country, the LAPD wouldn’t concern itself with the private lives of its officers. What they chose to do off the clock, Villanueva suggested, was none of his business.
The thing is, how a cop treats their partner is the very definition of police business. What goes on at home is intimately related to how an officer acts on the job, and the factors that lead to domestic abuse — coercion, intimidation, authoritarianism, a sense of entitlement to violence — are often the exact same ones at the root of excessive force and police brutality. As an analysis of Chicago cops from the Citizens Police Data Project shows, officers accused of domestic violence between 2000 and 2016 received twice as many complaints for using excessive force as their colleagues who were not. Philip Stinson, a former officer who studies misconduct and teaches criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, reached a similar conclusion: More than one-fifth of officers arrested for domestic violence had also been the subject of a federal lawsuit for violating people’s civil rights (and those are just the ones who get charged).
Those findings are significant as is, but they become even more so when you consider how common domestic violence in police homes actually is. As the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) notes in a much-cited information sheet, “Two studies have found that at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10 percent of families in the general population. A third study of older, more experienced officers found a rate of 24 percent, indicating that domestic violence is two to four times more common among police families than American families in general.”
Proponents of the “not all cops are bad” theory love to point out that the famed 40 percent statistic was gleaned from decades-old data — and therefore doesn’t count — but it’s also the best and only measure of at-home police violence that we have. As Alex Roslin, a journalist and author of Police Wife: The Secret Epidemic of Police Domestic Violence explains, there’s been almost no empirical research conducted on the issue since the 1990s, and record-keeping on criminal conduct among cops is far too shoddy — perhaps intentionally — to illustrate the real extent of the issue. “You’d think academics and police departments would be curious about a problem with such massive implications for all of society,” he says, “But they’ve just done nothing.”
Theories abound as to why, but Leigh Goodmark, the director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, cuts through them like a knife. As she told the New Yorker in 2018, there’s radio silence in the research world because few people want to admit that “those policing the crime and those committing it are often the same person.”
That “person” also tends to have a particular personality type that lends itself to violence both at home and on the job. “Policing tends to attract people who have these authoritarian personalities,” Goodmark continues. “They tend to be more narrow-minded. They tend to use violence. They tend to be suspicious. They tend to be unwilling to tolerate someone’s failure to submit. That’s going to play out on the streets, with people who are perceived as not respecting their authority, and with their partners at home.”
An even bigger piece of the domestic violence and police brutality puzzle might be cops’ relationship to masculinity. In addition to more rigid, black-and-white thinking and an authoritarian need for control, Goodmark says police officers also tend to subscribe to a particular form of “militarized masculinity” that glorifies the use of violence to assert authority. “That entitlement comes not only because the state invests them with that mentality, but because of their perceptions of what it is to be a ‘man,’” she says. “They’re taught that whenever they feel challenged in some way — or whenever they feel like someone isn’t respecting their authority — that it’s okay to use force to subdue them.”
A phenomenon called “work-family” or “authoritarian spillover” outlines the consequences of that mentality for victims of domestic abuse. A term that describes the malignant ways in which an officer’s job training can manifest at home, it does a lot to both predict and explain their unusually high rate of domestic violence. “There’s psychological conditioning that comes with being a police officer,” explains Cyndi Doyle, a police wife and therapist who addresses relationship issues in law enforcement families through her Dallas-based practice, Code4Couples. “They’re trained to react, not to respond. It’s their job to take control. They’re taught that’s what will keep them alive.”
They’re also trained to prioritize their own safety over others’. “Police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance,” writes Seth W. Stoughton, a former cop and current researcher for the Atlantic. This mentality is so ingrained, he says, that it’s often called the “first rule of law enforcement.” That’s why cops are given such latitude to use force when they feel it’s needed — they’re, quite literally, trained to put themselves first.
To stoke this belief, Stoughton reports that cops are often shown “painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation.” Then, they’re told that the “primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it’s the officer’s lack of vigilance.” That kind of programming puts the onus on them to quickly parse right from wrong — it’s their job, they’re taught, to always be on. After all, as they’re often trained to believe, cops are in danger. Hands-on exercises have them react to a variety of situations in which the suspect attacks them with a gun or knife first, and they learn to finesse their split-second reaction times to eliminate the threat. And if their reaction to that threat is a mistake? Well, cops have a saying for that: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”
It’s this kind of training, says Goodmark, that makes them “dangerous to pretty much everyone around them.” We already know how this plays out on the job — the split-second execution of Breonna Taylor is the perfect despicable example — but as Doyle explains, that mentality doesn’t always stop when a cop punches the clock at the end of a shift. Often, it follows them home.
Sometimes, spillover manifests in the form of basic tactics police use to gain physical or psychological control of their family members, who they treat as criminal suspects. According to Nanette Chezum, a survivor of officer-involved domestic violence and a nationally recognized expert on the topic, yelling, intimidating body language, gaslighting and a refusal to talk before they act are common. Jim — the pseudonymous rural Colorado cop she spent seven “horrible” months with in 2015 — would also use his body language and voice to “keep [her] in line.” “Just like police are trained to do when they arrive on a scene, he’d intimidate me by making his body appear bigger and lowering his voice to signal that he was in control,” she tells me.
When he felt that wasn’t enough, he’d throw in a little extra. On more than one occasion, he’d beat his fists on a table, steering wheel or any surface he could find to indicate that if she didn’t comply, whatever he was pounding on could easily become her. “It really scared me,” she says. “That was one of his ways of controlling me and of keeping me quiet — through the psychological fear of what would happen if I didn’t do what he said.”
In other spillover cases, phone tracking, excessive interrogation, bugging a victim’s home or car and tailing — also known as stalking — are common. But when those don’t elicit the desired response, brute force is often used. “Police officers are trained in physical contact; how to take down a perpetrator,” says Chezum. “They’re trained in how to dismantle people physically, not just only with a gun or with a weapon, but how to physically restrain people. They know the places to touch, to restrain, to camouflage bruises, or to make sure bruises aren’t left.” The particular chokehold Doug exacted on Jane was one of these police-sanctioned tactics (what Chauvin did to Floyd was not).
But, just like on the street, some officers don’t stop at force. Something makes them snap, and they want ultimate control — the kind they have over someone’s life. In February, a Georgia cop named Michael Seth Perrault shot his wife in the head and reported it as a suicide. A year before, Hilario Hernandez, a veteran sergeant with 33 years at the Houston Police Department, put a bullet in his wife Belinda after a dinner party at their house for “flirting” with a family friend. A few months later, New Jersey officer Daniel Bannister was charged with first-degree murder after repeatedly abusing — then killing — his three-month old daughter, Hailey. Next, a South Carolina sheriff named R.A. “Andy” Strickland was charged with second-degree domestic violence after he punched a female household member repeatedly, took away her phone and damaged her car in an attempt to prevent her from seeking help or reporting the incident. About a thousand miles north in New York, NYPD cop Carlos Marin was busted for hitting and choking his wife in their Queens apartment.
As with Doug’s case, though, Marin’s charge was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor. That’s par for the course: In 2019, a California coalition of news organizations investigating domestic violence in police homes found that an additional 40 percent of officers managed to plead down their domestic violence charges to non-violent misdemeanors even after they “brutally harmed family members.” Predictably, most of them are still on the force.
And these are just the cases you hear about. Most victims’ stories never make the evening news because they’re never told in the first place. As the NCWP notes, “Most departments across the country typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report, investigation or even check of the victim’s safety.” Even Stinson, who’s created an entire database of criminal cops, says accessing records of complaints and reports against them is next to impossible (which is why he uses arrest and court records, which are much easier to access). “They’re not keeping track of this stuff,” he says. “Most of the time if you ask a department for records for one of their officers, they’ll tell you to take a hike.”
Moreover, if a report is made and followed up on, it usually goes nowhere. Most cops get off with little more than a slap on the wrist — if that — and many are never acknowledged as having hurt someone at all. “In 2018, 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 30 lost vacation days,” writes Rachel Aviv for the New Yorker. “In nearly a third of cases, the officers already had a domestic-violence incident — and, in one case, eight — in their records. In the Puerto Rico Police Department, 98 police officers were arrested for domestic violence between 2007 and 2010; three of them had shot and killed their wives. Only eight were fired.”
In fact, as Roslin points out, domestic violence committed by cops is often punished less severely than crimes like marijuana use, lying or theft. Three-quarters of the time, sustained allegations of abuse don’t even show up on an officer’s performance evaluation. It’s no wonder then that officers who commit domestic violence against their romantic partners are less likely to be convicted than when they assault anyone else. That’s why Goodmark gets so frustrated when people use the argument that defunding the police would leave domestic violence victims without protectors. “Why would you want people who are committing domestic violence at a greater rate than people in the general population to be your first responders?” she asks. “That’s why using domestic violence as a justification not to move away from policing as we know it is so deeply problematic and wrong.”
There’s a well-known phenomenon in the police world called the “blue code” or the “blue wall of silence.” A tacit agreement between cops not to narc on each other’s crimes and misconduct, it exists to insulate them from the same laws they claim to enforce, allowing them to act with impunity under the guise of society’s protectors. If questioned about a colleague’s corruption, brutality or abuse at home, it’s code to claim ignorance. If a cop does speak up or step in, they’re often ostracized or threatened by other officers. In some cases, they’re even fired when they try to do the right thing.
It’s because of this code — and the culture of silence it creates — that issues like domestic violence and police brutality are swept under the rug in departments looking to uphold the status quo. But, just like spillover, silence doesn’t stay within precinct walls. Often, it follows them home where it becomes contagious, seeping into the attitudes and behaviors of the people they live with.
This effect on domestic violence victims can be dire. As Chezum explains, abused partners and family members are often scared to speak up about what’s happening to them for fear of retribution. In many cases, it just makes abusers angrier and more aggressive. Victims also know full-well that their claims will be handled by their abuser’s cronies, who will likely not only fail to properly document and investigate them, but tip off their abusers that their partners are causing problems.
Jane knew this, but for the first few years of her marriage, she tried just the same. Desperate for protection against Doug — and concerned for the wellbeing of civilians he came into contact with — she routinely called the police to report the things he was doing to her or to tip them off that he was drunk on patrol. Every time, her pleas would get back to him. “That’s when it really got bad,” she says. “Physically, mentally, emotionally — the abuse just intensified. It was much more dangerous for me to speak up than it was to keep quiet.” Eventually, she stopped trying. After years of being ignored by police, rejected restraining orders and dealing with a law enforcement culture that did, as Doug warned her, “take his side,” she settled into a defeated silence, grimly aware that her screams were silent ones in the eyes of the “law.”
This is common in abusive cop households. “We become conditioned that if we don’t share this, then we don’t get a negative response,” says Doyle, explaining that most abuse victims tend to react this way, cop husband or not. “Think of operant conditioning: You chose a certain behavior to avoid the negative stimulus of him acting out. That breeds continued bad behavior. That breeds an escalation. That potentially breeds abuse.”
There’s also the threat of lost income to consider. Even when victims do speak up, and even when they are taken seriously, they still have to contend with the possibility of their partner losing their job, a reality that could threaten them and their families in an entirely different way. And so, for many victims like Jane, the floor of their homes are covered in what Doyle refers to as “eggshells,” each sharpened fragment keeping them as quiet and subservient as a suspect cuffed in the back of a police car.
Silence shows up in subtler ways too, especially in the unspoken roles and duties police partners are expected to perform as people attached to officers with “hard jobs.” “You’re expected to never complain because whatever they’re going through is so much harder than what you’re going through,” says Jane, remembering that even other police wives seemed uninterested in hearing anything other than “my husband’s a hero.” “If you say anything negative, you’re blacklisted.”
Chezum felt that, too. “In police culture, it’s very obvious that wives and girlfriends are there for support,” she says, explaining that even happy, healthy police relationships tend to strain under the long hours and high-stress duties required of police. “They put themselves second. They do what they’re told.”
Without uttering so much as a word, Jim made that clear to her right away. From the moment they started dating, she says he used his voice and body language to show that her purpose was to make him happy at any cost, puffing up his chest and speaking to her in deep, dead-eyed paternal growl to get his point across. If she didn’t, he made it known that there would be consequences.
Once, on a vacation to Moab in Utah, he forced her to mountain bike with him on an expert-level trail. When she had to stop after nearly falling off a massive boulder — she hated mountain biking and wasn’t prepared for the expert-level route he’d planned — he banished her to the still-locked car and made her wait for hours in the scorching 100-degree heat until he got back.
Crying always made it worse, so over time, she learned to turn herself to stone. Frozen, submissive and silent, she’d weather his tantrums until he exhausted himself, only reanimating when she was sure he was asleep or gone. She wanted to stand up for herself, but she didn’t have much of a choice. As many victims of domestic violence know, silence can be a means to survive.
Chezum knew the things Jim was doing to her wrong, but she wrote them off. He was a cop, after all. He had a “stressful” job. Not realizing until much later that people like surgeons, pilots and firefighters also have high-stress jobs but far lower rates of abuse, she excused his behavior as “normal cop stuff” and tried to keep him happy, hooked on the hope that a glimmer of his old, charming self might come back.
The problem is, as Doyle explains, this is actually “normal cop stuff,” and it can be present in relationships even when no one’s being abused (just neglected, it seems). On her homepage, she offers a jarring glimpse of what that looks like in many law enforcement homes: “You knew that law enforcement and a relationship or marriage was going to be tough. You knew it would include shift work, missed holidays, missed connection, loneliness, going to gatherings alone or feeling like a single parent. You didn’t realize QUITE the impact it would have. Your officer doesn’t seem the same and at times seems aloof, sharp, and cynical. As a spouse, you find yourself wondering what it’s going to be like when they walk in the door or see them next. What happened to the person you fell in love with? You find yourself being on more eggshells and avoid conversation due to the potential reaction.”
This isn’t a dramatization, says Doyle. It’s the norm. You just don’t hear about it because part of a police wife’s role is to grin and bear it. They knew what they were getting themselves into when they fell in love with a cop, so why should they complain? “That’s the kind of mentality you’re up against when you try to talk about this stuff with people,” says Jane. “They don’t want to hear it. If you tell your story to 10 people, nine of them will go, ‘Oh, but there are good cops out there.’ They’re more concerned with defending these ‘good officers’ than they are hearing your story about what it’s like to live with a bad one.”
Conversations like these aren’t relegated to naive friends and family or ignorant social media commenters either. They’re also reflected by the people whose actual job it is to help battered women. Catherine, a 43-year-old medical assistant in Chicago, was given a list of police therapists and domestic abuse counselors for cops by Chicago’s Civilian Office for Police Accountability (COPA) after her ex-husband threw her into a laundry room door in front of her two-year-old twins. But not one of them called her back. COPA also offered her a domestic abuse advocate to accompany her in court, but she was denied that option as well — the only advocate available was already representing her ex’s past girlfriend. “That left me with no resources,” she says. “My experience was and always has been that police representatives handle police domestic matters, which is clearly part of the systemic failure.”
Interactions like these only fuel the silence. With few people interested in what they have to say — and even fewer willing to help — many police partners learn to say nothing at all. To cope, many of them join online groups like the National Police Wives Association (NPWA) or Reddit’s r/LEOWives where they can be amongst their peers and interact with people like them. On LEOWives, a small but fervent forum for the partners of cops, firefighters, EMTs and other miscellaneous “heroes,” users share everything from concerns over a lagging sex life to lists of gifts they’ve bought their spouse, encouraging each other with cop-specific relationship advice that’s hard to find elsewhere.
But even in these spaces, sensitive issues like domestic violence — or the current police brutality reckoning — are often snubbed in favor of rhetoric that supports the good wife role. The NPWA Facebook page makes this clear in an awkwardly punctuated post about what police partners should be doing at a time like this: keeping their feelings to themselves and standing by their men.
“Right now is not the time to debate with people!!!!” it reads. “Let me say it again!!! Right now is not the time to debate or try to defend emotions are too high!!! So today what do you do?? Support your Spouses and each other. This is a hard time for Departments and Officers. Their mental health and morale is at an all time low. Quite frankly so is ours. So rather than expending energy arguing with inconsequential people. Spend energy supporting your Spouse and or their Department!!!”
A more ominous warning follows: “We got word that a few groups and different spouses pages are encouraging letter-writing to departments and campaigns for one thing or another. Stay in your Lane……”
Likewise, in a LEOWives post from a woman wondering whether she should attend the same anti-police protest her cop husband was working, one wife, a frequent commenter, warns against going with her gut on the issue and instead “learning” from her husband. “While your husband may love and support you, I have the feeling that something inside will be hurt by this,” she writes, insinuating that the woman should put her personal politics aside in favor of her husband’s feelings. Another writes that while “systemic racism is absolutely real” and she supports the movement for police reform, she has decided not to protest in public because “LEO spouses don’t have the luxury of speaking out in this way.”
Silence, once again, is gently offered as the norm.
Ironically, silence itself seems to be one of the only acceptable conversation topics in groups like LEOWives. In a particularly telling post logged during the height of the protests, a redditor shares a poem she found on Facebook. Titled “To the Silent Police Spouse” and lifted from an unknown origin, it goes like this:
I know what you’re thinking…
“Here we go again.”
The actions of some has once again become the blame of them all.
You want to speak out. You have a voice, too. But let’s face it — no one will understand no matter WHAT you say.
And so, you sit in silence.
If you dare to make a peep, you will be ridiculed.
If you dare to speak one way or another, you will be accused for saying something you literally did NOT say.
If you dare to defend your spouse and the others who represent the Good, you will be socially DEMOLISHED.
All because you want to protect your spouse, and your family, from any potential harm.
And so, you sit in silence.
Either way, you are a target — despite the fact your spouse is not one of them. Despite the fact most of his/her coworkers aren’t “one of them.”
The actions of some has once again become the blame of them all.
You are the one standing behind the one who holds the line, and for that you too are the enemy.
You want to use your voice, but you can’t.
Yet once more, you send off your spouse for another shift, and once more: Pray s/he comes home.
And so, you sit in silence.
Praying. Waiting. Crying. Not able to sleep.
To the Silent Police Spouse: I hear your Silence.
Since it’s been up, the poem has generated more interaction and praise than any post related to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter or the movement for police reform. And while a few wives — and some husbands — urged others not to glorify silence or see it as their only option, other wives clapped back, asserting that they could still effect change silently, through signing petitions and donating under the radar without calling attention to themselves. “This speaks so much truth,” says one. “Thank you for putting into words what I couldn’t,” says another. To date, it’s one of the group’s most up-voted posts of the year.
It’s not that partners of the police don’t try to speak up against brutality or for Black lives in these groups. They try to. It’s just that when they do, a hand covers their mouth from every side. If they stand by their man and denounce the protests, they’re branded as selfish, privileged and blind; probable racists too deep in denial to see the forest for the trees. If they show their support for Black Lives Matter or the movement to defund and reimagine police, they’re branded as marital traitors — or “trolls” — and promptly bounced. Even their close friends and family don’t want to hear what they have to say; as multiple redditors on LEOWives have pointed out, anyone with an anti-cop bone to pick takes it out on them, directing the venom that should be aimed at a broken system toward the partners of the people who make it tick.
Just like domestic abuse victims, then, many of them have reached the conclusion that it’s just better to keep quiet. That silence has consequences, though, and it’s not just for the partners of police. As the NCWP states on their site, “A police department that has domestic violence offenders among its ranks will not effectively serve and protect victims in the community.”
When police departments ignore victims and protect their abusers, they allow unhinged officers to interact with the public, playing a game of “serve and protect” that guarantees neither of those things but flaunts them both as a justification for force and brutality. In doing so, they miss a crucial opportunity to weed out officers who might do more harm than good. They run the risk of hiring cops whose misconduct could cost their department — and taxpayers — millions of dollars, and they perpetuate a broken system that prioritizes fear and oppression over justice and public safety. Worse, they do it all while arming their kin with a loaded Glock and a badge that tells them that if they can get away with it at home, they sure as hell can outside of it, too.
Police brutality is a complicated issue without a singular solution, but in connecting the dots between excessive force and domestic violence, a piece of the larger puzzle starts to fall into place. Were the voices of abused police partners heard — and were their allegations treated like the crimes they are — wouldn’t we be able to use their stories as early warning signs to identify officers who’d rather kneel on the neck of a man than help him to his feet?
Jane thinks so. So does Chezum. She even goes so far as to suggest that past reports of abuse and prior domestic violence charges that are negotiated down to misdemeanors be considered as part of the hiring process when new cops want to join the force (wannabe officers charged with felonies cannot be hired, in most cases). “The screening procedures we use to hire new officers aren’t enough,” she says. “If this wasn’t such a hush-hush topic, and if we could get our stories out into the open before they’re squashed by the ‘code,’ officers who are accused of these things would be scrutinized a lot more thoroughly.” Considering that most American officers only need a GED and 21 weeks of training before they start making arrests — and that they kill thousands of times more civilians every year then police in other countries like Germany, Norway and Finland, a more standardized, thorough investigation into officer’s past or present relationships might not be a bad idea.
Until then, though, Jane still remains hopeful. Long since divorced from Doug, she’s had a fresh start with a new, happy marriage and quiet family life that’s given her the strength she’s needed to speak out once more. “What’s happening right now in the culture with Black Lives Matter and police reform is something that’s needed to happen for a long, long time,” she says. “Finally, our voices are being heard.”