This week, the Tennessean reports that the Nashville Metro Police Department has quite the record of letting police officers charged with domestic violence off with few consequences, with the vast majority getting to keep their jobs on the force.
At least 10 Metro Police officers have been arrested on domestic violence charges in the last five years. Eight of those were allowed to keep their jobs after their arrests, and the remaining two cases are pending. Discipline for improper conduct stemming from those arrests has ranged from a two- to an eight-day suspension. In one of the latest cases, Officer Jeffrey Sells resigned before he could be disciplined for a 2009 arrest.
But experts on police accountability say departments should have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to their own being arrested on domestic violence charges. And the fact that one officer was arrested twice on domestic violence charges suggests the department’s disciplinary policies may not be adequate.
“Unless the case is completely dismissed for lack of credible evidence, I think an officer should be dismissed,” said Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a nationally recognized scholar on police accountability. “This is a violent crime. It involves the kind of incident officers routinely have to deal with.” […]
Mayor Karl Dean said the department has a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence if the officer is convicted.”
If a Metro police officer is found guilty of domestic violence, that person no longer holds a job with the Metro Police Department,” Dean said. “It’s that straightforward.”
But as the article goes on to note, this isn’t Police Department policy — it’s federal law, as domestic violence perpetrators can’t possess firearms. So they aren’t so much taking domestic violence within their ranks seriously as ensuring that they don’t directly and openly violate laws that might get them in trouble with the Feds.
Though Nashville is far from the only place where police officers who commit domestic violence get to keep their jobs, the smokescreen of requiring a criminal conviction before dismissal is possible is particularly absurd and disingenuous in context. If anyone should know just how few domestic violence cases result in conviction, and how many victims back out of pressing charges as a result of intimidation and fear, it really should be law enforcement. After all, they deal with these realities everyday. Often, they’re the cause of them. So they know perfectly well just how insulting it is to suggest that the only real perpetrators of domestic violence are those who are convicted through a court of law. And as they know just how likely domestic violence perpetrators are to be repeat offenders, they should know how incredibly dangerous it is, too.
Police departments have internal systems of investigation for officer misconduct. Seeing the statistics cited by Judith Spitzer at Women’s Radio indicating that police rates of domestic violence are two to four times the national average, there’s no reason why these systems can’t be used to determine accountability in charges of intimate partner abuse. As the Tennessean reports, even the International Association of Chiefs of Police agrees. If there were real will to remove violent officers from the force — and if domestic violence, which is not coincidentally usually violence against women, were seen as real violence, and if violence were either viewed as or actually incompatible with police work — there are mechanisms through which this could be easily accomplished.
But at the same time as it seems obvious that police officers who engage in domestic violence should not have access to state tools of violence and be responding to other domestic violence reports, some rather convincingly argue that firing officers guilty of domestic violence just puts their victims at greater risk:
Brockman says law enforcers’ work is central to their sense of identity. “So it’s not just losing a job. If they are charged with domestic violence and it sticks, their career is over. The victim knows that and it puts them in incredible danger,” she said.
At the same time, victims often fear that if they report the violence, their batterer’s job could be taken away, losing the source of the family’s financial support.
A greater potential for lethality exists in police-perpetrated domestic violence, says Brockman. With the constant presence of weapons in police family homes, the batterer has access to a service weapon, baton, handcuffs and other tools of abuse. Trained in methods of physical control, he can use arm locks or choke holds to subdue with no marks or bruises.
Which means that the two most obvious solutions are both incredibly dangerous. To leave violent officers on the force, subjecting the public to potential brutality, and victims to re-victimization? Or to remove them from the force, potentially placing those who were actually victimized by their violence at greater risk of abuse? Which vulnerable women, exactly, do we feel most comfortable subjecting to state-supported violence?
I don’t personally see a non-oppressive means of choosing. Of the two options above, neither strikes me as living up to the principles of my feminism, seems to genuinely put the needs of women first, or, far less importantly, would let me get to sleep at night.
So I don’t have a short-term answer. Doing nothing is unacceptable. Taking the most initially obvious course to give the illusion of improvement without considering the consequences is also unconscionable.
But this is why I think we need to take a deeper look at the system that has created this impossible situation. To recognize precisely that state-supported violence is what we’re talking about, is the problem. To ask ourselves why, when we see it as wrong for police officers to be using their official state tools of violence against their partners, we think it’s somehow acceptable for them to have these tools at their disposal to use against anyone. To ask why it is that police officers are so much more likely to commit domestic abuse, and how it is that the system of law enforcement promotes and enables interpersonal violence. To ask why it is that we trust that system with responding to gender-based violence in the first place.
When those tasked with being the primary responders to domestic violence are actually among the most likely to commit it, the system is broken. When those trusted with ensuring public safety are able to make the members of their own households unsafe without consequences, thanks to support from the system that is supposed to be keeping us safe, said system is broken. Women and children are primarily the ones being let down. Too many of us have placed our trust in a system out to harm us (as BFP always says best in many contexts, and always inspires me to think about more deeply). Too many of us have trusted a system to address violence without considering the ways it’s actually perpetuating much of that violence itself.
I don’t see any easy answers here, but I see a lot more reasons to look at and (continue to) develop tough ones, which aren’t going to just keep repeating and upholding that which we’re trying to eradicate. State systems of control are promoting violence. They’re making most of us, the least privileged of us, including women, less safe. They are a big part of what those of us who care about anti-violence work and gender justice need to work against.