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‘Police Wife’: the secret epidemic of police domestic violence

Domestic violence takes place in up to a staggering 40% of law enforcement families, but most departments ignore the problem

PolicingHuman Rights

Domestic violence takes place in up to a staggering 40 percent of law enforcement families, but police departments mostly ignore the problem or let it slide, write ex-police wife Susanna Hope and award-winning investigative journalist Alex Roslin in their new book Police Wife: The Secret Epidemic of Police Domestic Violence. The following excerpt is adapted from their book, available here.

When we think of domestic violence, we usually think of the police as the ones breaking it up, not committing it. Watch a TV show or movie about police—the most depicted profession in entertainment—and you’ll often see stories about abusive men, but the police are the heroes.

But what happens when the camera is gone and a real-life police officer goes home to his wife and kids? This is where the Hollywood version ends and a darker story emerges.

In the vast majority of cases, cops who hurt a family member do so in utter secrecy, while their victims live in desperate isolation with very little hope of help.

A staggering amount of domestic violence rages behind the walls of cops’ homes, while most police departments do little about it, research shows:

  • An astonishing 40 percent of cops acknowledged in one US survey that they were violent with their spouse or children in the previous six months. A second survey had remarkably similar results—40 percent of officers admitted there was violence in their relationship in the previous year. The abuse rate for cops is up to 15 times higher than among the public. Younger officers, narcotics cops, those on the night shift and cops who were divorced or separated reported even higher rates of violence at home—up to 66 percent. Eight percent of cops reported “severe” violence—strangulation, beating up their spouse, using a knife or gun.
  • Police discipline is surprisingly weak. In the US, one study found that only six percent of police departments normally terminated an officer after a sustained domestic violence complaint. The most common discipline was counselling. In the Puerto Rico Police Department, 86 percent of cops remained on active duty even after two or more arrests for domestic violence.
  • As bad as things are in the US, by comparison Canada and other countries are in the Stone Age in taking action or acknowledging the problem. In the Montreal and Halifax police departments, less than one percent of male officers who commit domestic violence may face a criminal charge, according to calculations based on discipline records. The situation is even worse at the RCMP—even after Jocelyn Hotte’s shooting rampage. The RCMP disciplines Mounties more harshly if they steal or make a false statement than if they attack an intimate partner. A male Mountie who assaults his wife or girlfriend may have as little as a one-in-6,500 chance of ever facing a judge for his crime.

My co-author Susanna Hope (a pseudonym for security and privacy reasons), who tells her extraordinary story in our book, lived such a life for over 20 years. I met her while doing an investigative story in 2000 on police family violence for the Canadian current-affairs magazine Saturday Night (now defunct). I started looking into the topic after a friend told me a curious story. She attended a support group for abused women in Montreal. Many of the women in the group were partners of bikers, but she was surprised to learn that just as many were spouses of cops. Intrigued, I called around to women’s shelters, experts on domestic violence, counsellors, police departments, ex-cops, criminologists. It took only a few conversations to see my friend had stumbled on a massive problem.

My inquiries took an unusual turn when I learned of a group of eight policewomen in Toronto who had themselves been abused in relationships with fellow cops. Even they faced enormous obstacles in trying to get recognition, help and justice. When they notified their department about the abuse, the women said the investigations were bungled. They were ostracized and faced career blowback for complaining. “The common theme is that all of our careers are affected, while most of the men didn’t suffer any career repercussions. Some got promoted,” one of the women officers told me.

Just what kind of a horror show had I come across? I wondered. If even a cop couldn’t get a fair hearing from her own department, what hope did a civilian woman have? It seemed incredible that a crime wave of such magnitude and far-reaching social ramifications could be so unknown to the public and yet at the same time an open secret in a mostly indifferent law enforcement community. It was surely one of the most surreal crime epidemics ever—at once disavowed, generalized and virtually unchecked.

Aptly summing up the bizarre disconnect, retired Lieutenant Detective Mark Wynn of the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department in Tennessee told PBS in a 2013 story on the issue: “What’s amazing to me is we’re having this conversation at all. I mean, could you imagine us sitting here talking about this and saying, how do you feel about officers using crack before they go to work, or how do you feel about the officer who every once in a while just robs a bank, or every once in a while decides to go in and steal a car from a dealership? We wouldn’t have this conversation. Why is it that we’ve taken violence against women and separated that from other crimes?”

Most disturbing of all was speaking with abused police spouses. They lived a nightmare so intense most of the ones I found weren’t willing to tell me their stories, even anonymously. Then I met Susanna Hope. I had called a hospital’s family violence program in search of answers about police domestic violence. I was put in touch with Susanna.

She lived in terror, too, both for herself and her two sons. She agreed to tell me her story because she wanted to help other women in the same situation, much as other people—her “angels” as she calls them—had helped her survive and get her family out to safety. She talked with me even though she experienced severe emotional trauma whenever she relived her experiences—as she still does today.

From Susanna and other sources, I learned of the dismal fate of abused police spouses. They face unimaginable barriers to finding help, safety and justice. They rarely complain to police, criminal charges are rarer still, and an abusive officer’s chances of losing his badge and gun are virtually nil. (This book focuses chiefly on male-on-female abuse because research shows women are the target of most intimate-partner violence, especially severe forms, and since the vast majority of cops are men. But regardless of who the victim is, abuse in a police home generally poses extra challenges, including for children, men, same-sex partners and people of colour.)

Domestic violence is bad enough for any woman to deal with. Shelters, many of them chronically underfunded, regularly turn away abused women because they’re full, while only about one in four incidents in the wider population ever get reported to police. Hundreds of US communities have adopted “nuisance property” laws that encourage police to pressure landlords to evict tenants who repeatedly call 911 over domestic abuse, further dissuading victims from seeking help.

But abuse at home is far worse for the wife or girlfriend of a cop. Who will she call—911? What if a coworker or friend of her husband responds? Police officers are trained in the use of physical force and know how to hurt someone without leaving a trace. They have guns and often bring them home. And if a cop’s wife runs, where will she hide? He usually knows where the women’s shelters are. Some shelter staff admit they are powerless to protect an abused police spouse. Her abuser may have training and tools to track her web use, phone calls and travels to find out if she is researching how to get help or, if she has fled, where she went.

The counsellors available to help other abuse victims are often clueless about how to help police spouses. “Victims of police officer batterers typically report that advocates do not appreciate how different their situation is because the abuser is in law enforcement,” writes Diane Wetendorf, a retired Chicago-area domestic violence counsellor who has helped hundreds of abused police spouses and is author of Police Domestic Violence: A Handbook for Victims. “It is disappointing and frustrating for a victim to have to educate the very people who she had hoped would be able to inform her.”

In the rare case where the woman works up the nerve to complain, the police department and justice system often victimize her again. She must take on the infamous blue wall of silence—the strict unwritten code of cops protecting each other in investigations. The police have a name for it—extending “professional courtesy.” In the words of Anthony Bouza, a one-time commander in the New York Police Department and former police chief of Minneapolis, “The Mafia never enforced its code of blood-sworn omerta with the ferocity, efficacy and enthusiasm the police bring to the Blue Code of Silence.”

Police departments often try to steer complaints into closed-door disciplinary hearings instead of the criminal proceedings that civilians would face. The internal hearings usually result in no more than a token slap on the wrist for the officer. Despite the high number of abusive officers, charges are laid in only a tiny number of cases—often, it seems, only those too extreme to ignore. In court, the officer has major advantages, too. He is usually at ease with courtroom procedures and testifying on the stand. He may have worked in the past with the prosecutor or judge. Officers called to testify are notorious for covering for each other. In police lingo, it’s called “testilying.”

Convictions are highly unusual. In the rare exceptions, it is almost unheard of for a convicted police officer to be sentenced to jail time, except in cases of extreme violence. He isn’t even likely to lose his job. I was surprised to learn that virtually no US or Canadian police departments have a policy of automatically firing officers with a criminal conviction for domestic abuse. And both countries have huge loopholes in their gun-control laws that let cops hang on to firearms even when convicted of domestic violence crimes. (As one of many examples of how Canadians have fallen behind on the issue, Canada is about 20 years behind the US in keeping guns out of abusers’ hands despite Canada’s reputation for stricter gun laws and a June 2015 overhaul of its firearms legislation.)

It all adds up to the police having a de facto licence to abuse their spouses and children. The families live in silent terror—cut off, effectively forsaken by society, fearing for their safety or their very lives. Insofar as the abusers are government employees whose actions are condoned by authorities and intimately connected to their service, the epidemic effectively amounts to state-sponsored domestic terrorism. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon that police families struggle with everywhere from Montreal to Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, the UK, Australia and South Africa.

Unsurprisingly, police departments are incredibly tight-lipped about the crime spree in their ranks. Some departments refuse to say how many cops they punish for abuse or don’t even know. Others, like the Vancouver Police Department, have claimed none of their cops are abusive. The Toronto Police Service simply ignored my freedom-of-information request for data, while the RCMP demanded a search fee of over $29,000 for discipline data.

Little wonder then that the torrent of abuse is virtually unknown to the public. But without realizing it, we all pay a steep price. Domestic violence is the single most common reason the public contacts the police in the US, accounting for up to 50 percent of all calls in some areas. Yet, a battered woman who calls 911 may have a two-in-five chance of an abuser coming to her door. Whose side do you suppose he’ll be more likely to take? Official investigations have found law enforcement departments that tolerate abuse in police homes also mishandle violence against women in other homes.

Abusive cops are also more prone to misconduct that has impacts beyond their own family—such as brutality against civilians and violence against fellow officers. We found that the abuse epidemic is connected to a host of other policing and social issues—mishandled investigations of missing First Nations women, police killings and carding of black people, sexual harassment of women cops and young female drivers, and even more broadly, issues such as growing social inequality.

We also found significant correlations between the number of police per capita and indicators like income inequality, discrimination against women in the labour force and unemployment among African Americans and First Nations people. Such connections were highlighted in October when allegations surfaced that police officers had sexually assaulted First Nations women in the northern Quebec mining city of Val d’Or. Despite the allegations, the officers remained on duty and were put on leave or transferred to administrative duty only after Radio-Canada aired an investigation.

But as Susanna Hope emphasizes, police officers themselves are victims, too. Even though our society calls cops heroes, we give them little support to cope with the pressure of police work and the tacit role that our society imposes on them of policing marginalized groups. A big part of the job is to wield power to control other people. As a result, policing attracts people who are good at controlling others or may have a craving for that kind of power—and then trains them to use their power better. Control is also the main driver of domestic violence. Is it a surprise then that so many cops are violent at home?

Through my reporting, Susanna’s story remained especially poignant for me. Her story is extraordinary and inspiring—on par with other astonishing examples of human survival in the most severe conditions. Her challenge wasn’t drifting far at sea or enduring a plane crash in remote mountains, but escaping with her children from the micro-terrorist state that was their home.

Once free, Susanna dedicated herself to helping other abused women and children, especially in the police world. I was moved by her strength, optimism, sense of humour, joy in her family and deep gratitude to those who helped her and her children survive. She, like the other ex-spouses I spoke with, are unsung heroes of the law enforcement community.

In our 15 years of discussing this subject and over 10 years of work together on this book, Susanna willed herself through intense emotional trauma that never stopped resurfacing when she remembered her past. This pain was the sacrifice she made to thank her “angels,” pass their gift on to others and honour those who have suffered or lost their lives. Susanna’s triumph and her dedication to this book are a tribute to human courage, the determination to survive and aid those in need, and the meaning of hope.

Through the years, I continually returned to a few basic questions that my inquiries raised:

  • How many ticking bombs like Jocelyn Hotte are there in uniform waiting to explode? What are police forces and governments doing about it?
  • What is behind the abuse epidemic? How much is domestic violence an inevitable job hazard for law enforcement families, like black lung disease for a coal miner? What are the impacts beyond police families?
  • How does society fuel police domestic violence by giving officers great, largely unchecked coercive power and then mostly ignoring the consequences? How is the abuse driven by a deeply unequal society that gives police a tacit mandate to keep marginalized groups in check? And what are the solutions?

These questions are relevant to everyone, not just cops and their families. The surprising answers lay bare some critical, yet uncomfortable truths that go far beyond the world of the police—touching us all and the way we live.


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