The Super Predators
If domestic abuse is some of the underreported crimes, domestic abuse by police officers is virtually an invisible one. It’s frighteningly difficult to track or prevent—and it has escaped America’s most recent awakening to the many ways in which some police misuse their considerable powers. Only a few people within the United States understand what really happens when an officer is accused of harassing, stalking, or assaulting a partner. One one who knows more than most is a 62-year-old retired cop named Mark Wynn.
Wynn decided to be a police officer when he was about 5 years old because he wanted to put his stepfather in prison. Alvin Griffin was a violent alcoholic who terrorized Wynn’s mother, a waitress and supermarket butcher. Looking back, Wynn compares his childhood in Dallas to living inside against the law scene. “There was always blood in my house,” he said.
The cops sometimes showed up, usually after a neighbor called to complain about the screaming, but they didn’t do much. Wynn doesn’t remember them ever talking to him or his four siblings. He does remember clinging to his mother while a police officer threatened to arrest her if they’d to return back to the house again. “There was no one to assist us,” he said. “We were completely isolated.” Wynn has often spoken of the time he tried to kill his stepfather when he was 7—how he and his brother emptied out the Mad Dog wine on Griffin’s bedside dresser and replaced it with Black Flag bug spray. A number of hours later, Griffin downed the bottle because the boys waited in the living room. Griffin didn’t seem to notice anything wrong with the wine. But he didn’t die, either.
Years later, when Wynn was around 13 and all but one in every of his siblings had left home, he was watching television when he heard a loud crack that sounded like a gunshot. He found his mother splayed on the floor of their tiny kitchen, blood pooling around her face. Griffin had knocked her out with a punch to the head. Wynn watched as Griffin stepped over her, opened the fridge, pulled out a can of beer and drank it. That night, Griffin got locked up for public drunkenness and Wynn, his sister and his mother finally got out, driving to Tennessee with just a few belongings. Griffin never found them.
Mark Wynn together with his stepfather, Alvin Griffin, in 1961. COURTESY OF MARK WYNN
Wynn became a police officer in the late 1970s and after a couple of years, he wound up in Nashville. Then as now, domestic complaints tended to be certainly one of the most common calls fielded by police. And Wynn was disturbed to search out that he was expected to handle them in much the same way as the cops from his childhood had—treat it as a family matter, don’t get entangled. He remembers that officers would write cursory summaries on 3 by 5 inch “miscellaneous incident” cards rather than full reports. To fit what he regarded as essential details within the tiny space provided, Wynn would print “really, really small,” he said. “The officers I worked with used to get pissed off at me,” he added. They couldn’t understand why he bothered.
But Wynn had entered the force at a pivotal moment. In the late 1970s, women’s groups had turned domestic violence into a significant national cause, and abused women successfully sued police departments for failing to guard them. Over the next decade, states passed legislation empowering police to make arrests in domestic incidents and to enforce protective orders. Wynn eagerly embraced these changes and in the late 1980s, the Department of Justice asked him to train police chiefs on best practices. He went on to lead one of the country’s first specialized investigative units for family violence. By the passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which poured greater than $1 billion into shelters and law enforcement training, the U.S. was finally starting to treat domestic violence as a criminal offense. “It was like stepping out of the Dark Ages,” Wynn said.
And yet when officers themselves were the accused, cases tended to be handled within the old way. Wynn would hear stories around his station, like an assailant who received a quiet talk from a colleague instead of being arrested. “Officers thought they were taking care of their fellow officer,” said David Thomas, a former police officer and a consultant for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). “But what they were doing was colluding with a criminal.”
It’s nearly impossible to calculate the frequency of domestic crimes committed by police—not least because victims are sometimes reluctant to seek help from their abuser’s colleagues. Another complication is the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment, a federal law that prohibits anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse from owning a gun. The amendment is a valuable protection for many women. But a police officer who can’t use a gun can’t work—and so reporting him may risk the family’s livelihood as well because the abuser’s anger. Courts will be perilous to navigate, too, since police intimately understand their workings and sometimes have relationships with prosecutors and judges. Police are also a few of the one individuals who know the confidential locations of shelters. Diane Wetendorf, a domestic violence counselor who wrote a handbook for women whose abusers work in law enforcement, believes they’re among the most vulnerable victims within the country.
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In 1991, a researcher at Arizona State University testified to a congressional committee about a survey she’d conducted of greater than 700 police officers. Forty percent admitted that they had “behaved violently against their spouse and children” up to now six months (although the study didn’t define “violence.”) In a 1992 survey of 385 male officers, 28 percent admitted to acts of physical aggression against a spouse in the last year—including pushing, kicking, hitting, strangling and using a knife or gun. Both studies cautioned that the real numbers could possibly be even higher; there was startlingly little research since.
Even counting arrests of officers for domestic crimes is not any simple undertaking, because there aren’t any government statistics. Jonathan Blanks, a Cato Institute researcher who publishes a daily roundup of police misconduct, said that in the thousands of news reports he has compiled, domestic violence is “the most typical violent crime for which police officers are arrested.” And yet a lot of the arrested officers appear to maintain their jobs.
Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, uses an elaborate set of Google news alerts to identify arrests of law enforcement personnel after which attempts to trace the outcome through news reports and court records. Between 2005 and 2012, he found 1,143 cases wherein an officer was arrested for a crime of domestic violence. While he emphasized that his data is incomplete, he discovered convictions in only 30 percent of the cases. In 38 percent, officers either resigned or were fired and in 17 percent, he found no evidence of adverse consequences in any respect. Stinson noted that it wasn’t uncommon for police to be extended a “professional courtesy” in the form of a lesser charge that may help them avoid the Lautenberg Amendment. Officers could possibly be booked for disorderly conduct instead of domestic assault. In the event that they were charged with domestic violence, the prosecutor might allow them to plead to a special offense. Stinson has identified dozens of officers who are still working even after being convicted.
Through public records requests, we also obtained hundreds of internal domestic abuse complaints made about police officers between 2014 and 2016 in 8 of the ten largest cities within the country. Officers could be penalized internally whether or not criminal charges are filed—although the penalties may be minor and mono top wigs many complaints should not substantiated. An ABC 7 investigation this February found that nine of every 10 domestic violence allegations made against Chicago police officers by spouses or children resulted in no disciplinary action.
What’s striking in lots of the internal complaints, as well as incidents we present in news reports, is the degree of alleged violence and how often it appears to coincide with the misuse of police authority. An officer in New Jersey was indicted in January after he allegedly used his identification to enter the hotel room of a woman he was dating, fired a gun in her direction, assaulted her to get her to recant a statement, and attacked an officer who was working with investigators. He pleaded not guilty. So did a veteran Cleveland officer who was arrested the identical month for allegedly beating his girlfriend with his service gun, firing shots near her head, then sexually assaulting her at gunpoint. Last September, an officer in Indiana was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend for years—after previously alleging that she had abused him. (The case has not yet gone to trial.) And in 2013, a San Antonio police officer allegedly hit his wife with a gun and pointed it at his children. He ultimately pleaded no-contest to “making an obscene gesture.” Because he was not convicted of a domestic violence offense, he kept his officer’s license.
Despite the scarcity of knowledge, the IACP has acknowledged that domestic violence is likely “at least” as prevalent within police families as in the general population. Which is important: One third of women are estimated to experience sexual or physical violence or stalking by a partner during their lifetime. For this reason, for the reason that late 1990s, Wynn has focused on exposing the issue of abusive officers and persuading police departments to address it.
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