When the Victim Wants to Report

Provide Support

Meeting with the batterer's chief or supervisor is intimidating to most victims. Many victims of police-perpetrated domestic violence report being met with skepticism or hostility when they complained to the department. We can provide important support to her by relaying sound information about how to approach the department and what type of response to expect. Our role depends on the level of participation the victim wants us to have when she meets with department supervisors, and any restrictions that the department places on our participation. Generally, an advocate who accompanies a woman is a witness, not a participant in the proceedings. As such, we are there to provide silent support, to review the event afterwards and to provide a reality check about what occurred. We can assist her in making notes of what was said and promised. You must discuss the role she wants you to play before the meeting. For example, does she want you to ask questions about certain things, such as department policy or disciplinary action? If she doesn't want to report that her abuser held a gun to her head because she is afraid he will lose his job, you must not disclose that information.

Never volunteer information that a victim does not want the department to know.

Clarify Goals

She may believe the department is the only authority the batterer will listen to. She probably does not want to damage his career, and may want to save the relationship. She may want someone to talk to him and make him stop his threatening and abusive behavior. She might be hoping that the department can get him into counseling. She may fear that she won't receive police protection when she needs it, and wants to put the chief on notice. She may be seeking justice for herself or believe that the community shouldn't be exposed to an abusive officer. She may be outraged that the abuser continues to enjoy the status and privileges of an officer while he flagrantly breaks the law.

Our role is to help her clarify why she wants to involve the department and help her assess whether her goals are realistic.

We can help find the words to describe her abuse accurately, in detail, and in her own words. We can discuss her concerns about the department's response, her batterer's reaction, and the impact on her safety, financial security, and support from the wider police family.

Use Her Knowledge

What she knows about the department can help you both anticipate how her complaint is likely to be received. Actively involve her as you explore whether "informally" meeting with a supervisor is better than formally filing a complaint. Be clear that she may want to talk to someone in the department confidentially, but policy may require any officer or employee to report knowledge of domestic abuse. They may take her complaint seriously and react more aggressively than she anticipated. Alternatively, a supervisor or investigator may refuse to take her complaint, or insinuate that she is exaggerating or lying. They may patronize her and pretend to take her complaint seriously, but take little further action. She should be prepared for any of these responses.

Issues to Consider when Filing a Complaint

Loss of Credibility

Involving the department is a serious step. The abuser will perceive it as a threat to his job. He may develop a strategy to protect himself. He knows that the credibility of victims and witnesses is the most important element of a complaint. When the victim is the sole witness, it will be easy for him to create doubt by characterizing it as a "he said, she said" situation. He will campaign to discredit her in the department, in her family, and in the community. The batterer's status as an officer will influence others in the community — especially prosecutors and judges — who may have power over the victim's life. She will be particularly vulnerable to his attempts to discredit her if she has any history of substance abuse, mental health issues or suicide attempts.

Department's Response

Departments hold to different degrees of professional conduct. Some departments have strict rules of conduct, both on- and off-duty. Others do not. You can help a victim identify which actions violate the law, violate departmental policy, misuse police power or equipment, or tarnish the department's public image rather than behaviors the department can dismiss as personal.

In many jurisdictions, the commanding officer's response is limited by the union contract. Officers have a right to due process, and the officer will have every opportunity to defend himself. The administration and the victim may have very different ideas of what constitutes adequate discipline. She might feel that a five-day suspension is exceedingly light punishment, while in the department it's considered harsh discipline.

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Legal Action

Threatening to sue should be considered a last resort undertaken only with guidance from an attorney with experience working with domestic violence survivors.

Victims need to know that lawsuits against law enforcement agencies are very difficult, lengthy and expensive. What can seem to be a solid case of failure to protect or denial of civil rights can be difficult to prove and exhaust her financial and emotional resources. Filing a lawsuit can also put her in danger of retaliation by the department. The department may feel they are being backed into a corner and respond by shutting down further communication. A better strategy may be to make it clear that she doesn't want to put herself or anyone else through the expense or embarrassment of a lawsuit. She is simply asking the department to protect her and to enforce the law. She might also consult with organizations or attorneys familiar with designing strategy for civil actions against police agencies.

Media Exposure

Once she opens her life to media attention, there is no going back.

Some women may think media exposure will make them safer by holding the department publicly accountable. Others may be persuaded by reporters that they can "help the cause" by telling their stories. Media attention can be very perilous ground. What gets into the story may be only the most sensational or bizarre aspects of her experience. Victims are not necessarily safer if they are in the public eye, particularly in cases involving police, public officials, or other high-profile abusers. If she decides to use the media to tell her story, talk through the possible risks and benefits, never underestimate the danger, and have a safety plan in place. The abuser may decide to silence her through threats, intimidation, or violence to her or to others. He may also work harder to discredit her and turn any initial public sympathy against her. Media attention can also be humiliating, stigmatizing, and frightening for her children.

High Lethality Risk

Never underestimate the danger of domestic violence homicide and/or suicide in officer-involved domestic abuse. Known risk factors include the batterer's previous suicide threats, access to firearms, and suspicion that the victim is planning to leave. Two of the most significant predictors of murder and/or suicide among law enforcement officers are problems on the job and problems in the intimate relationship.

An internal investigation, and if warranted a criminal investigation, is extremely threatening to an officer. The threat of being investigated and found guilty (administratively or criminally) may be enough to escalate the abuser to the point of homicide and/or suicide. A victim's safety — and even that of all who help her — greatly depend on the integrity of fellow officers, supervisors, chiefs, and prosecutors. The department, advocates, attorneys, and any other professionals involved must review the process, implications and safety concerns associated with an internal investigation. Removing an officer's weapon may increase the risk of suicide because of its association with loss of career and identity as an officer. An abusive officer may decide that he has nothing more to lose when facing dismissal.

Things to consider:

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An advocate is the one person who is there solely for the victim.

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