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Police reforms could shed light on poor handling of domestic violence claims — like mine | GUEST COMMENTARY

This police camera video provided by The Moab Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021.
This police camera video provided by The Moab Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021. (AP)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it is also the month that the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 went into effect, opening previously concealed records on internal investigations into allegations against the police. The new law includes a mandate that all Maryland jurisdictions use body-worn cameras (BWC) by July 2025.

While the awareness that brought about police reform legislation came from the brutal killings and maltreatment of Black people, such reforms have the potential to open a window into the ways that police handle domestic violence situations as well. These crises can be inherently dangerous, and some require police involvement. They can also be dangerously mishandled.

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I have both the camera footage and the written report from an intimate-partner violence call that I made to a police department in the state some years ago, and the two are like a pair of glaringly mismatched socks: the written police report a shabby gray (really nothing to see here, ignore the holes), and the body worn camera footage a garish red with “No Accountability” embroidered around the top.

The officer in charge gave incorrect, blank or invented answers to 29 questions on the written report. These included the entire “Lethality Assessment,” meant to gauge the amount of danger I was in, and if appropriate, connect me by phone at the scene to a counselor — someone with DV training who could help me process the abuse and plan.

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I would have qualified for the call, had they followed protocol. Instead, they can be seen on the video telling the abuser: “You can go to a judge and get an emergency mental health petition on her … we will come take her and she’ll get checked out, and they won’t let her go until they come to some resolution … The hospital takes care of it.” I had been calm and cooperative throughout.

I heard this incomprehensible suggestion to the accused abuser to try to have his target forcibly institutionalized. It made me more terrified of the police than I was of my partner, and I did not seek assistance with the abuse again. Later, I filed an internal investigations complaint, which was deemed to be justified. Although I have put in a request for information, I do not expect to find that any action was taken regarding the officers in my case. So I’d like, to speak to police and society directly:

  • Modify your definition of success. Sometimes, success in a DV situation may be something other than an arrest or conviction. It can include actively connecting a victim to expert help and taking part in a gradual process of change in someone’s life. Every contact that the victim has with a caring person who tells them the abuse is wrong and undeserved will have a positive influence.
  • Each message to a perpetrator that their behavior is criminal and will be taken seriously furthers a culture of abuse-intolerance in our society. The buddy-buddy treatment of abusers is harmful to everyone in the long term.
  • The victim usually has a lot of factors to juggle — financial, family, safety, housing; more than you can know or judge.
  • Although a DV situation is complicated, you do not have to be a social worker to handle it well. Listen, ask questions and follow up. Have a staple of phrases to use that will mean much more to the victim than you can know, phrases such as “your safety matters,” and “you don’t deserve to be abused.”
  • The victim is likely to either be very dazed, still in great fear or emotionally agitated, and may be the person least able to communicate effectively or plan.
  • Almost all Maryland jurisdictions have access to the Lethality Assessment in DV situations to identify those victims most at risk for domestic violence homicide and provide them with immediate support. It is there to help you save lives, and it could have helped me. If it had been used by the police who responded to a “domestic dispute” between Gabby Petito and her fiance just weeks before her strangulation, it might have helped her. Like any tool it is only useful if it is used.
  • Remember that “crazy” is the base slur and societal dog-whistle used by abusers against their target. Look out for this dynamic.
  • Abusers come from every background and walk of life.

I used to point out to my partner that he believed passionately in the First Amendment right to free speech for everyone but me. He could count on police to buy into society’s tired biases against “battered women” as hopeless, hysterical, mindless victims. Under that mindset the truth and real public service become unattainable.

Body worn camera footage, police reports and their internal investigations records were never meant to be scrutinized in a rational light by any of the groups of people the mainstream considers disposable. But none of us have ever been the stereotypes they so deeply believed were true.

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Constance Phelps (phelpsconstance.commentary@gmail.com) is a social worker and member of the Maryland Domestic Violence Fatality Review State Implementation Team, overseen by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. The views expressed are her own.

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