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Domestic Violence in Policing

Written by Robert Roy Johnson

This past year in Chicago, a police officer involved in a domestic situation took the lives of both of his young children. He then committed suicide. In Detroit, a police detective shot and killed his police officer wife and then turned the gun on himself. These are two of many examples of the violent outcomes that all too often ensue when domestic strife occurs in a police officer’s personal relationships.

Caring leaders want to do everything possible to avert these tragedies. To that end, what are some of the conditions unique to police officers that increase the likelihood of a tragic conclusion in a domestic situation?

Police officers are comfortable with their weapons. They are trained to understand that their weapon is a possible, and sometimes necessary, solution to a dire situation. An officer who is emotionally disturbed by domestic turmoil may engage in the kind of convoluted logic that results in applying this solution to the domestic dilemma at hand.

Police officers often become cynical and pessimistic. Witnessing so much pain, suffering and evil can leave an officer jaded. In some cases, a sinister pessimism imbues the police officer’s psyche. Those afflicted may lose the capacity to see past something like a breakup to a future where their lives will return to normal.

A police officer’s circle of really close friends often consists solely of other police officers. Unfortunately, then, where most would turn to a friend to relieve an emotional burden, a police officer might be embarrassed to confide in a fellow officer. It is difficult for police officers, expected to be confident authority figures, to admit they have a problem. With no safety valve to release the pressure, the accumulated internalized pain erupts in the worse possible manner.

On the job, police officers regularly step into difficult circumstances and generally solve the problem in short order. Personal domestic strife, however, rarely lends itself to quick resolution. A police officer enmeshed in a protracted domestic situation, facing the dissolution of the relationship, may become exceedingly frustrated. Over time, this frustration may morph into rage.

Understanding these dynamics in an officer’s domestic troubles allows a supervisor to take action that will reduce the potential for tragedy. Captains should establish and maintain personal relationships with their officers—relationships that are based on mutual respect and trust. This increases the likelihood that officers who are aware of a colleague’s domestic problems will act in that colleague’s best interest by bringing it to the captain’s attention.

This also makes it more likely that the captain will note any uncharacteristic behavioral changes in an officer which might indicate emotional turmoil. Most importantly, when there is respect and trust, a troubled officer will more likely confide in the captain in a time of anguish.

Needless to say, if that officer takes the difficult step to share the pain, it is essential that the captain be prepared to listen. The supervisor should be empathetic and non-judgmental. What the officer needs most is a sympathetic ear. The captain serves at this point as the release valve for all of the pain, confusion and turmoil that the officer is experiencing. Providing an opportunity to vent may significantly reduce the potential for violence.

Be aware that advice may be sought, and you likely do not have the solution. However well meaning, your advice might not be appropriate for that particular situation. Consider courses of action, but recognize your limitations. The best advice is to encourage professional assistance. Many departments provide their own counseling services. However, if that is not an option, the captain should be prepared with referrals for appropriate family or personal counseling.

What matters the most is your caring attitude. If you maintain that personal relationship with your officers, such that they are comfortable confiding in you with their personal problems, you may have helped in preventing a tragedy.

Robert Roy Johnson is a 38-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, currently at the rank of captain. A management consultant and speaker, he is an adjunct professor in Public Safety Management at Calumet College of Saint Joseph. He can be reached at robroyj@comcast.net.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2010

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