How and when do you decide to tell the department about your abuser? What do you want the chief to know? What do you hope to accomplish? What could actually happen as a result of your report? What are the department's values and standards of behavior? Do they believe victims just want to make trouble and take an officer's job? Or do they recognize that victims have valuable information that could alert them to potential liability?
The chief is responsible for his department's community image. He has to answer to the public. The chief has ultimate authority and responsibility for the conduct of his officers. When an officer's behavior starts getting out of line, the chief usually attempts to deal with it in-house. But when the officer's activities embarrass higher-ups, risk criminal prosecutions, or become public knowledge, he then becomes a political — and legal — liability. The chief has to show that he is taking the situation seriously.
Many chiefs prefer to look the other way to avoid the fact that they have an abuser in the ranks. It's difficult for you to know which of your abuser's behaviors will be considered serious enough to warrant the chief's attention.
Where will the department draw the line between the abusive officer's personal and professional behavior?
The chief may consider non-physical types of abuse — verbal abuse, sexual affairs, financial irresponsibility — as strictly personal or marital problems. He may say he can't interfere in an officer's private life unless it affects his job performance. Many, perhaps most, chiefs don't understand the dynamics of domestic violence. They don't recognize that nonphysical abusive behaviors are warning signs of escalation to physical violence.
Once you go to the department, the matter may be out of your hands. You may want to talk to the chief confidentially, but this may be impossible because the department becomes liable as soon as you speak to someone at command level.
Liability depends on what the department knows, when the department was informed, and what the department did about it.
Don't be surprised if everyone in the department learns that you came in to "complain." Police and fire stations are notorious for their gossip grapevines. A wife or girlfriend making a complaint to the department is newsworthy.
The chief will have to acknowledge your complaint in some way. Many do this by calling the abuser in and talking with him. Specifics may not be addressed, but the chief will inform the officer that the matter has come to his attention. He will be put on notice to watch his behavior.
You may want the chief to make him get help. The chief has to have some basis other than your allegations to order the officer into counseling or treatment. If you can prove the need for intervention, the chief may order him to get a psychological evaluation.
Departments are liable for official misconduct by their officers. Most supervisors will listen when you report that your abuser is misusing his police powers, police equipment, or department time to harass, stalk, threaten, or abuse you.
Ask yourself if what your abuser is doing is different because of his power and status as a police officer.
For example, does your abuser...
Departments take different approaches to officer-involved domestic violence. Some have in-house victim/witness liaisons specifically for victims of police officers. The liaison can meet with you just as she would meet with any other victim. She can provide information about your rights and options. She may have influence within the department and be familiar with departmental policies, rules and protocols. Without special training about officer-involved cases, however, her general knowledge may be insufficient to provide sound information.
You also might not trust a liaison working in your abuser's department. She has limited ability to disagree, monitor, confront, or defy the department when your needs and wishes conflict with departmental policies. As an employee of the department, the liaison can be ordered to proceed with an action that she believes may compromise your confidentiality or safety. In addition, her files may be accessible to others in the department, presenting the risk of the batterer or others obtaining information about safety plans or strategies.
If you have evidence of your abuse through professional misconduct, the chief may order an internal investigation. He may strip the officer of police powers and suspend him, or place him on restricted duty pending the outcome of the investigation. This could make you safer or it could endanger you, depending on the circumstances.
If your allegations are credible and serious enough, the department could decide to pursue criminal charges against the officer. The state's attorney will probably prosecute if the department wants them to. At this point, you have to decide whether or not you are willing to cooperate with the internal and/or criminal investigations.
It is your right to decide whether or not you want to cooperate... unless you also work for the department.
Remember that though others may assist you, ultimately you are the only one who can make decisions regarding your own safety. Discussing your plans with a domestic violence counselor or an attorney may help you to determine if going to the chief is a good strategy.
You might think that by going to the media you'll safer because the public will know about your abuse and the department's response to you. Reporters might tempt you by saying they can help you by telling your story.
Media attention can be very perilous ground. Once you open your life to media attention, there is no going back. What gets into the story may be only the most sensational or bizarre aspects of your experience.
The batterer may feel forced to silence you through threats, intimidation, or violence. He may also work harder to discredit you and turn any initial public sympathy against you. Media attention can also be humiliating, stigmatizing, and frightening for children.