The NFL has jump-started a national conversation on domestic violence, but there’s one group we’re overlooking: The people we trust to keep us safe.
In families of police officers, domestic violence is two-to-four times more likely than in the general population — from stalking and harassment to sexual assault and even homicide. As the National Center for Women and Policing notes, two studies have found that at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10% of families in the general population.
America’s police domestic abuse problem was on full display in Monday’s horrific murder of Valerie Morrow, who police say was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend, Stephen Rozniakowski, a Philadelphia-area police officer. Morrow, 40, had just been granted a protection from abuse order against Rozniakowski, who had been charged with 75 counts of stalking.
After Rozniakowski reportedly resigned from his job Monday, police say he kicked open the door to Morrow’s home, shot her to death and wounded her teenage daughter before being apprehended at the scene.
There is an epidemic of domestic violence by police officers: In the last two weeks, a Clevelandpolice officer was arrested for stalking and domestic violence, and officers in New Jersey and New York were charged in domestic violence cases.
A 2013 Bowling Green State University study, through news searches, tallied 324 cases of reported officer domestic violence. It is likely that this number is a gross underestimate, because as the National Center for Women and Policing has detailed, officers frequently cover for each other.
“A big part of police culture is the code of silence,” Diane Wetendorf, author of Police Domestic Violence: Handbook for Victims, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The prosecutors depend on police for their cases, the police depend on each other — it’s a very insulated system,”
Why aren’t we talking about this more? A September analysis on officer domestic violence by theAtlantic explains how cases come to be underreported. It’s not just that women are more intimidated to report domestic violence because their attackers are officers and worry that nobody will believe them; it’s that officers adjudicate the entire process on an informal level.
“Cops ‘typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report, investigation, or even check of the victim’s safety,'” the Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf writes, quoting a study from the National Center for Women and Policing. “‘Even officers who are found guilty of domestic violence are unlikely to be fired, arrested or referred for prosecution.'”
From underreporting by victims and colleagues to informal investigations, this means that available statistics only hint at the pervasive violence perpetrated by the people who are paid to protect and serve us. If evidence from a 2007 change in reporting arrests of Florida officers is any indication, reported cases of officer domestic violence would double.
Unfortunately there is no solution to this solution in sight, because this epidemic is systemic. Underreporting is a symptom of the fact that officers are rarely criminalized or even fired from their jobs even though, like Rozniakowski, their criminal history is well-documented.
In fact, as the Atlantic and and other sources observe, not only are these officers not fired, many of them receive promotions. This evidence suggests that not only is domestic violence by police officers ignored by the criminal justice system, it is condoned and, at times, even rewarded.
But available statistics prove one thing: The criminal justice system needs to readjust its focus. Instead of policing the general public, it needs to turn inward to police itself first, before it can claim to “protect and serve” in the truest sense of justice.