To Serve and Protect

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burke-09-20-16 Marya Burke works in partner abuse intervention and cognitive behavioral therapy with survivors and other groups in our community.

Many are distressed by police violence and are personally affected by the ways in which it has been acted out in our community. We all know of examples of violence perpetrated by those who “serve.” This month, it seems timely to reflect on some examples that may be less familiar: law enforcement officers who perpetrate sexual and domestic violence.

In 2005, Urbana officer Kurt Hjort was accused of rape. He used his position as a police officer and the tools of his trade (police communication system, uniform, squad car, etc.) in this crime. Because the victim’s husband was a fellow officer, the State’s Attorney decided to assign a “neutral” prosecutor. Instead of seeking a prosecutor from the appellate court or a prosecutor in another county, a local attorney, James Dedman, was appointed special prosecutor. Despite a recommendation from the Illinois State Police, Dedman decided that a prosecution was not warranted. Officer Hjort was forced to resign, but can seek employment as a police officer elsewhere.

In 2008, 16­-year veteran of the University of Illinois Police Department Curtis Bolding was charged with felony domestic battery against his wife. His Fire Arms Identification  (FOID) card was suspended and he was placed on administrative leave. The State’s Attorney’s office ultimately reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. Bolding resigned and was given a 12­-month conditional discharge, but is eligible to serve elsewhere.

In 2015, that year’s Officer of the Year, Jerad Gale, pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Piatt County Court and was sentenced to six months with 48 months of probation and required to register as a sexual predator…. Gale was a serial offender, assaulting women in Champaign County as well. The State’s Attorney agreed to a guilty plea in Champaign County with the same sentence as in Piatt, to be served concurrently, meaning that there was no additional penalty for two sexual assaults.

This type of prosecuting and sentencing stands in sharp contrast with our State’s Attorney’s Office pattern of stiff sentences, often ranging from 35­ to 40 years, for civilian violent offenders. Many would argue that this is especially egregious because these are the individuals to whom we all look for protection. I work with perpetrators and survivors of this violence. In this field most, if not all, of my clients have had some contact with police officers. Survivors of domestic violence are encouraged to speak out and call the police when they are threatened. We are all told that the police are here to protect us. That said, most survivors with whom I have spoken report that they often feel disrespected and judged, and they do not feel safer when they call the police. Instead, they fear that calling the police in an effort to try and protect themselves and their children means risking losing their children to the Department of Children and Family Services, and revenge attacks from their partners that the police will fail to prevent. This fear has some basis in reality.

There is another reason why survivors might avoid calling the police: the police themselves might be perpetrators. The three cases I mentioned earlier occurred over a span of 10 years, and this may not seem to suggest a significant problem; however, these cases don’t reflect the actual frequency with which such violence occurs, and frequency is not necessarily the most important factor to consider.

Domestic violence is a destructive force at all levels of our society; from the individuals and families who are its direct targets to our communities and even our societal-level institutions. At all of these levels it undermines trust and inflicts permanent (though not insurmountable) damage. That said, incidence rates in the families of police officers are higher than among our general population.

Police Perpetrators

According to the Cato Institute, more than 9 percent of reports of police misconduct in 2010 involved sexual abuse, second only to excessive force. FBI statistics indicate that “sexual assault rates are significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.” Domestic violence is 2­4 times more common among police families than American families in general.

Police perpetrators can be more dangerous and difficult to discover for several reasons:

  • They have training, a badge, a gun and the weight of the police culture behind them.
  • They know not to hit, slap, kick, or choke. It is not necessary. They exercise their power by intimidating, isolating, and terrifying.
  • They learn a full range of information-gathering techniques: ­­interviewing, interrogating, and surveillance.
  • They are trained to be manipulative and deceptive.
  • They know which situations “justify” the use of force and how to defend their actions in court.


Victims are particularly vulnerable because the officer who is abusing them:

  • has a gun,
  • knows the location of battered women’s shelters, and
  • knows how to manipulate the system to avoid penalty and/or shift blame.

Victims often fear calling the police, because they know the case will be handled by officers who are colleagues and/or friends of their abuser and who may side with him and fail to properly investigate or document the crime.

Failure of Departmental Policies

There is a “clear and pervasive pattern” of departures from departmental policy. A 1994 nationwide survey of 123 police departments found:

  • Almost half (45%) had no specific policy for officer­-involved domestic violence.
  • Weak responses/discipline: the most common consequence of a sustained allegation was counseling.
  • Only 19% indicated that officers would be terminated after a second sustained allegation.
  • Even officers who are found guilty are unlikely to be fired, arrested, or referred for prosecution.

Sustained allegations were not mentioned in the officer’s performance evaluation over three-­fourths of the time. They keep their jobs, continue working domestic violence cases, get promoted, and often have their records expunged

The Brotherhood­ Barriers Built Into the Profession

Some suggest that people become police officers and firefighters because they seek power and status. Others say recruits join because they have a desire to help people, but over time, become cynical and corrupted. Both the police and firefighting cultures instill a sense of entitlement to power and authority.

Police training is designed to strip the individual’s identity and “make” a police officer. He expects and commands obedience and respect from the public. The police personality serves to insulate officers from the rest of society. It fosters an “us versus them” mentality. When anyone challenges them, the police defend their right to enforce control and authority. The Brotherhood must be reliable in life and death situations. Hence… the Code of Silence. Whether or not they personally condone his behavior, they may rationalize it: he was “stressed out,” “under a lot of pressure,” or “only human.”

Police Discretion

Officers have a great deal of leeway in choosing what laws to enforce, with whom to enforce them, and the manner in which they uphold the law. For most law enforcement agencies, domestic violence is one of the most common calls –and often the most common violence-­related call. One study of more than 800 Arizona street-­level officers and their supervisors found that many officers struggle to understand domestic violence victims’ actions and attitudes, sympathizing with their plight but questioning their behaviors and outlooks.

Frustration for officers comes from a variety of factors: the high number of repeat calls; the infrequency with which victims support prosecution or leave the abusive relationship; and the perceived lack of effective follow-­up by the system. Many conclude that intervening will at best protect the victim for one night.

Policy Responses

I propose that we provide cognitive/­behavioral therapy for all law enforcement officers. This type of therapy is uniquely suited to addressing domestic violence. ­­It is one of the few evidence­-based approaches in domestic violence to reduce recidivism. Furthermore, this therapy can provide invaluable insights into the complexity of domestic violence. All who participate are likely to gain something. Please take this as an invitation for further dialogue about safety and violence in our community and beyond.


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