The Misuse of Police Powers

Diane Wetendorf & Dottie L. Davis, ©2003, 2006 All rights reserved.
Victims of police officers say many advocates don't realize how difficult their situation is. They're disappointed and frustrated when they have to educate the very people they turned to for help. Learn how officers' professional skills and training spill over into their personal lives.

Topics addressed in this article:

Society grants members of law enforcement enormous power over citizens to enable the police to keep the peace and to preserve social order. They are granted a great deal of freedom to use their judgment regarding which laws to enforce, when and against whom. This wide range of options and authority can lead to the abuse of their power. Some police officers come to see themselves not as simply enforcers of the law, but as the law itself. Every abuser frequently reminds his victim that it is within his power to deprive her of her physical safety, security, privacy, freedom and life if and when he chooses. Most abusers, however, are not able to enlist the help of the criminal justice system to carry out their threats. Batterers within law enforcement are. Officers tell their victim, "Call the police. Who are they going to believe?" There is great systemic resistance against prosecuting an officer. If a victim decides to file a criminal complaint, she will have to present an extremely compelling story to the police and state's attorney to counter their reluctance to pursue the complaint. She will have to be able to convey that, in addition to common forms of abuse, the abuser exploited his professional status and power to control and to terrorize her. Advocates working with these victims must be knowledgeable not only about the general dynamics of domestic violence but also about police-perpetrated domestic violence tactics and the workings of the criminal justice system. Working with victims of officer-involved domestic violence has made us acutely aware that the standard remedies are often inadequate and may even leave the victim more vulnerable. We need to rethink our strategies on many different levels. Because this issue is so complex, we need to educate ourselves and other community providers before we can hope to adequately serve this special population.

Police Presence

Professional: Officers learn to project a "command presence." They practice and observe eye contact, stance, and non-verbal body language. They are schooled, "If you look good, you feel good. If you look confident, people will perceive you to be confident." Men and women change once they don the uniform and equipment of an officer.

Personal: An officer intimidates his victim by his mere presence in uniform while standing with his hand on his gun; gives her "the look" that he knows everything she does, where, when and with whom; sits in the house dry-firing his weapon or cleaning his multiple weapons before her.

Authoritarian Spill-over

Professional: When an officer gives directions or orders to a person they expect immediate compliance. Failure to comply with an officer's commands can be cause for the issuance of a citation or a physical arrest.

Personal: Some officers cannot separate their career life from their personal life. They "eat, live, die" police work. Their identity is defined by their uniform. Any conflicts in their personal life are seen as a challenge to their dominance, authority, power, or control over the other person and the situation. He views everything in a black and white perspective. It is either wrong or right. There are no gray areas, leaving no room for the victim to voice her opinion or position.


Professional: When the police identify a suspect, they begin surveillance to gain information and to attempt to catch the suspect in criminal behavior. Once the suspect realizes he is being watched, he will alter his behavior.

Personal: Allowing the victim to know that she is being monitored is an effective means of control. She will alter her behavior to avoid disapproval, isolation, or physical punishment. Stalking is a perverted form of surveillance. Stalking her physically, telephonically, or electronically robs the victim of her sense of privacy and control over her life. She alters her behavior based upon the possibility that he is watching. The abuser gains information about her schedule, activities, associates and movements. He is able to intrude upon he life whenever and wherever he pleases.


Professional: Police officers have access to numerous local, state and national databases containing confidential information, such as the National Crime Information Center, banking, telecommunications and credit bureaus.

Personal: Although officers are only permitted to access these files in official investigations, some officers use the databases for personal reasons: "running a plate for a date" is not uncommon. Previous police reports, orders of protection, even victim-witness security information can be accessed. He may access a victim's financial, phone or employment records. The officer-abuser can use this information in countless ways to harass or harm the victim, her family or her friends.


Professional: Verbal judo tactics ranging from persuasion to intimidation enable officers to manipulate and control the level of interaction with suspects to solicit cooperation and information.

Personal: He can intimidate the victim emotionally and physically, gradually increasing the threat of force. He can treat her as a suspect in her own home, interrogating her and the children about any suspicions he may have concerning finances, infidelity, or friendships.


Professional: Deception is vital in many policing situations. Police officers pretend to be prostitutes, traffickers, drug dealers, gang members and militants to facilitate the arrest of individuals involved in illegal activity. They hide their true identity and intentions through disguises, changing their physical appearance, style of speech, dress and even their personal associates in order to gain the trust of their targets.

Personal: He enjoys how easy it is for him to manipulate and deceive people. He can lie to the victim and then accuse her of being gullible for believing him. He has learned to be quick on his feet and can lie his way out of anything. Abusive officers also manipulate and abuse the trust of fellow officers, betraying not only their oath but also violating the spirit of the brotherhood.

Continuum of Force

Professional: Law enforcement officers are trained in the use of force continuum: to use only the amount of force necessary to control the situation and the suspect. Although the goal is to bring the resistive person into compliance without injury, most physical techniques will cause pain. The continuum begins with officer presence, verbal direction and soft empty-hand techniques. If resistance continues, the officer may escalate to hard empty-hand techniques, chemical agents and upwards toward lethal force.

Personal: The same techniques used while policing the streets can be used in an abusive officer's home. A continuum of abuse often involves verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual and physical violence. Physical abuse, however, is not always necessary to control the victim. Many abusers maintain control through intimidation and threats, or a reminder of the "last time." She knows what he is physically capable of, his expertise with a variety of techniques and weapons, and the availability of weapons within the home, vehicle, or workplace.

Power Within the Criminal Justice System

Professional: Police officers work within the emergency dispatch system, have contacts with social service providers, medical providers, victim advocates, prosecutors, court and corrections personnel — every conceivable member of the criminal justice and social services systems. Officers are trained on how to present themselves not only at the scene of an investigation, but also in the courtroom.

Personal: He has established a working relationship with dispatchers, victim advocates and officers from his agency and other jurisdictions, prosecuting and defense attorneys, judges and corrections personnel. In many cases, they have come to know each other on a first name basis, and rapport has been established. When he and responding officers appear in uniform to testify and swear to tell the truth, they all recount the crime scene and evidence to support the written report. With the assistance of the prosecuting attorney, they recall what was said by witnesses and the complainant at the crime scene, and the emotional states of these people. Photographs, damaged property, injuries, blood stains, food splatters and cowering children and animals will be explained through their testimony.

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