Law enforcement officers beat their wives or girlfriends at nearly double the rate of the rest of the population, and trying to control that is not only difficult for the victims but potentially deadly, experts say.
The trouble lies in the very nature of police work.
One of the hallmarks of a good cop is to radiate authority and control, and in the wrong hands, those characteristics can be misused, domestic violence counselors say.
When that misuse happens, it’s hard to report it because the victim has to go up against a man – and it is almost always a man – and his agency, both seen by society as paragons of protection.
Ross Mirkarimi, the San Francisco sheriff charged Friday with three misdemeanor counts connected with accusations that he abused his wife, is new to the badge. But he graduated from the city police academy in 1996 and spent nine years as an armed investigator for the district attorney’s office.
Between 2004 and November, when he was elected sheriff, Mirkarimi was best known as a city supervisor. He has maintained his innocence and promised to fight the charges.
Even advocates for battered women are reluctant to dive into domestic violence cases involving police for fear of alienating the agencies they rely upon for help in other abuse cases. Several local advocates declined to be interviewed for this article because of that concern, although more than a dozen publicly called Thursday for Mirkarimi to step aside temporarily while the case against him is resolved.
“The biggest problem for a woman reporting that she’s been abused by her police officer husband or boyfriend is that nobody believes you,” said Diane Wetendorf of Chicago, who wrote a nationally used victim handbook, “Police Domestic Violence.”
“If you do speak up, the police are very good at turning the accusations around,” Wetendorf said. “The women get terrified, too, so the crime is very under-reported. There is a legitimate fear of retaliation.”
Perhaps the most notorious case of domestic violence involving a law enforcement officer happened in 2003, when the police chief of Tacoma, Wash., shot his wife to death in front of their two children after she complained to officers that he had abused her. He then killed himself.
In November, San Jose police Officer Chris Shimek strangled his wife and then killed himself. Last month, a former police officer in Cambridge, Mass., shot three of his family members and himself to death.
“A lot of women abused by police who call battered women’s shelters say, ‘We’re not going to report it because it won’t be taken seriously and we’re afraid,’ ” said Kim Gandy, vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Virginia.
Several studies, according to Gandy and Wetendorf, indicate that women suffer domestic abuse in at least 40 percent of police officer families. For American women overall, the figure is 25 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There are a lot of good cops who go into the work for the right reasons, to help people,” Wetendorf said. “But then you have these others who are more interested in the authority, in the badge and the gun.”
She said officers who abuse their wives or partners often are perverting the “continuum of force” used in policing.
“They start out with command presence and voice to gain and maintain control, and if that doesn’t work, they go up the scale with an increasing amount of force until they get compliance,” Wetendorf said. “Unfortunately, these guys use the same technique with their wives and girlfriends. And some of them go from 0 to 60 right away.”
‘Code of silence’
Aside from the fear of violent retaliation, women abused by police can also have trepidation about costing their husbands their jobs and jeopardizing their own economic future, Wetendorf said. Often, they also encounter skepticism from the same law enforcement system they are complaining to.
“A big part of police culture is the code of silence,” she said. “The prosecutors depend on police for their cases, the police depend on each other – it’s a very insulated system.”
Michael Runner, director of legal programs for Futures Without Violence in San Francisco, said statements made so far by Mirkarimi indicate that perhaps even he, as sheriff, has a limited understanding of domestic violence.
“He characterized this incident as ‘a family matter,’ when it is actually not only that,” said Runner, who trains judges on how to handle domestic violence cases. “And the fact that he joked about it at his swearing-in ceremony suggests that he’s not necessarily aware of how serious an issue it is.”
San Francisco police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza said his department is as intolerant of domestic violence as anyone in the city.
High-profile cases of deputies or officers in San Francisco accused of abusing their spouses or girlfriends are rare. The last one came in 2008 when Officer James Tacchini, son of a deputy chief, was accused of pushing his girlfriend. The girlfriend later denied the incident happened, and Tacchini was not charged.
“When you are sworn to protect and serve, you are held to a higher standard than the general public,” Esparza said. “If you are accused of domestic violence, you not only get your case in court, but you get an internal affairs investigation.
“Whether it involves an officer from our agency or another agency, we take these accusations very seriously,” Esparza said. “You cannot change the way you do your job just because it’s another officer.”