Prevalence of Intimate Parter Abuse Among Police: A review

Are cops a bunch of wife beaters who are above the law?

Intimate partner violence (IPV), or “domestic violence” is often added to the list of psychological pitfalls associated with a career in law enforcement.  Those in law enforcement, or those considering it as a career, may find themselves troubled by an internet search on this topic. Advocacy organizations such as The Purple Berets and the National Center for Women and Policing claim “research shows” police officers have a 40% rate of domestic violence, compared to 10% in the general population, or domestic violence is “2 to 4 times more common in police families.”(NCWP) Is this true? 
The psychosocial dynamics of intimate partner abuse are complex. We can choose from a smorgasbord of theories when looking for reasons why people (mostly men) batter. Researchers, policy makers and advocacy groups also debate the most effective ways to prevent domestic violence from occurring or stopping it once it has begun.  Leaving these issues aside, I’m going to address just one seemingly simple question: is the rate of domestic violence among police families higher than that of the general population? The key word here is “seemingly.”  I’ll explain why the answer to this question can be found only tentatively, and only after untangling it from two enemies of science: politics and emotion. 

My father, a man not known for profundities, taught me “Opinions are like assholes.” I took that to heart. Therefore, I have been looking at what the science says on this issue. The science on this topic is about as clear as mud. Here’s why. 
The first distorting factor we meet with when looking for the true rate of intimate partner abuse among police families is the passion surrounding this topic.  Julius Caesar wrote, “Men in general are quick to believe that which they wish to be true.” This sure seems to be the case for much of the literature on domestic violence within law enforcement, on both sides of the issue. 
The way around this obstacle is to avoid becoming personally invested in the outcome. If my raison d'être is ending violence against women I may be inclined to scour the internet looking for confirmation of “that which I wish to be true.”  I’m in the fortunate position of not needing to find anything when reviewing the literature on this topic. 
Clear as mud factor #2: Collecting data on a sensitive topic from folks as clannish and guarded as police officers.  A group, by the way, that has a low opinion of “wife beaters.”  When asked in a survey, police officers are unlikely to endorse acts of violence against their family members, especially after passage of the Lautenberg Amendment in 1996. 
This law prohibits anyone convicted of domestic violence - including misdemeanor convictions - of owning a firearm. Moreover, the law was retroactive. This produced a small ripple of panic in the law enforcement industry as administrators frantically scoured their personnel files for officers with prior misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. As it turns out, “Research on the effects of the Lautenberg Amendment consistently shows that the use of the law has been rather limited and police officers have often been able to circumvent the ban and retain their weapons.” (Lonsway, 2006) However, as cops know all too well, perception is reality. 
This brings us to the topic of survey research.  The only viable way of studying the prevalence of domestic violence within police families is through surveys. While they’re a legitimate research method, surveys are vulnerable to a number of attacks, primarily along the lines that they’re unable to establish cause-effect relationships and that they rely on self-reported responses, which can be problematic. Imagine, for example, asking airline pilots in a survey, how often they consume alcohol while at work. “I NEVER drink on the job.” Right.  

Before the Lautenberg Amendment, there were three well known studies in the area of IPV within police families, two of which we’ll look at.
 The first, by Neidig et. al., (1992) surveyed officers and their spouses. They were given a laundry list of types of violence (everything from “pushing” to using a gun and everything in between) and asked if they had experienced any of these. Approximately 40% of the respondents endorsed one or more types of violent incidents. A weakness here is the failure to discriminate between what type of violence couples experienced. We don’t know what percentage of them had a shoving incident versus one in which the husband choked or beat up the wife. Some in the world of domestic violence prevention believe it doesn’t really matter if you call your wife a “whore,” push her or give her two black eyes. It’s all domestic violence, so these distinctions are insignificant. That’s what I was trained to believe, and it’s what my clinical experience has shown. Others, like PoliceOne contributor Richard Davis, claim these distinctions are very important because “family conflict” is different from “battering behavior.” (Davis, 2004a)
The second  (Johnson, 1991) involved 728 officers and 479 spouses. “40 percent of the officers stated that in the last six months prior to the survey they had gotten out of control and behaved violently against their spouse and children.”  (p. 34) Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what “getting out of control and behaving violently” means. Richard Davis (2004b) slams this study on this front. He writes, “The Johnson study is a survey not a scientific empirical study.” Hmm. Not a compelling argument there. I think we can surmise the behavior Johnson found very likely fit within the realm of domestic violence. But again, it depends on whether or not you adopt the “family conflict” model of domestic violence. 

Gershon (2005), who by all accounts is a five star academic, surveyed 1,103 cops about, among other things, domestic violence. She writes, 
Altogether, 9% of all respondents (76/857) who had a spouse/partner, reported that they had committed physical spouse/partner abuse...that these were completely anonymous questionnaires, and... the responses were validated with a well defined domestic violence attitudes scale, we are confident of the accuracy of these percentages.
So, there’s a bit of a monkey wrench in the numbers with this, at 9%. Gershon notes that the Lautenberg Amendment may have contributed to her finding of comparatively low rates of IPV in this population. The idea here is that, if officers believe (READ: perception is reality) that making an admission of domestic violence will cost them a career, that officer will opt to keep the career.  

I think my dad (RIP) may be okay with the revised dictum, “Uninformed” opinions are like assholes.  I have the following informed opinion: Domestic violence is probably at least as common in police families as in the general population. Further, as has been noted repeatedly in the literature, when it does occur, in police families it poses unique challenges to the victim. 
Clearly, we need more (and better quality) research in this area. I say, “better quality” research but I have no good ideas about how to improve the quality of data outcomes here. That’s a job for the big brains. 
NCWP: From the National Center for Women and  
           Policing web site:   

Davis, R. (2004b). Domestic Violence: On the front lines. 
            This article appears no longer available online. I have 
             a hard copy of it, which I got from 
Davis, R. (2004a). Domestic violence and police officers as abusers and victim. Retrieved January 24, 
            2011 from  the PoliceOne web site: http://

Gershon, R. (1999). Police stress and domestic violence in police families in Baltimore, Maryland.
            National Institute of Justice, Data Resources Program. 
Johnson. LB. (1991). On the front lines: Police stress and 
            family well-being. Hearing before the Select 
            Committee on Children, Youth and Families 

House of Representatives: 102 Congress First Session 
            May 20 (pp. 32-48).

Washington D.C.: US Government Printing Office. 
Lonsway, K.A. (2006). Policies on police officer domestic 
            violence: Prevalence and specific provisions within 
             large police agencies. Police Quarterly

V.9(4) 397-422.

Neidig, P.H., Russell, H.E., & Seng, A.F. (1992). 
 Interspousal aggression in law enforcement families: 
            A preliminary investigation. Police Studies: The 
            International  Review of Police Development, 15(1), 

Nedig, P.H., Seng, A.F. & Russell, H.E. (1992). 
         Interspousal aggression in law enforcement personnel 
         attending the FOP biennial conference. National

FOP Journal Fall/Winter, pp. 25-28