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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

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Washington, DC 20530

October 2020 | Volume 13 | Issue 10

A Tacoma, Washington, police chief shot his wife in the head before killing himself. A Utah police officer killed his wife, two children, and mother-in-law before killing himself. An Indianapolis, Indiana, police officer killed his estranged wife—also a police officer—before killing himself.

While most people think of law enforcement officers responding to domestic violence in a professional capacity, officers also commit domestic violence in their own homes and relationships. Although there are no precise estimates of the incidence of domestic violence committed by officers, it is reasonable to assume that the incidence in law enforcement families is no different from that in the general population. Officer-committed domestic violence may be a difficult topic to discuss in law enforcement circles, but officers and agencies have an obligation to their communities; to their colleagues; and, most importantly, to officers’ families to face this problem head-on with a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach that enlists the cooperation of each member of the law enforcement community.

In 2003, with support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) developed a model policy for domestic violence committed by police officers. The model policy includes components on prevention and training, early warning and intervention, incident response protocols, victim safety and protection, and post-incident administrative and criminal decisions.

Winner's BadgeAccording to the IACP, a law enforcement agency should implement a zero-tolerance policy toward officer-committed domestic violence, which begins with screening and investigating prospective officers pre-hire, post-conditional offer, and post-hire. At each phase of the hiring process, certification agencies and law enforcement agencies should investigate candidates for a history of domestic violence, including asking candidates about their past behavior and using a psychological assessment that screens for indicators of abuse.

Upon hiring, a law enforcement agency should reach out to officers’ significant others and families to introduce the agency’s zero tolerance policy on domestic violence, provide a point of contact within the agency, and offer referrals for support services. Departments should provide non-punitive options for assistance in response to observed warning signs or at the request of an officer, intimate partner, or family member. This should include, at a minimum, a confidential procedure for requesting counseling referrals. While couples counseling is discouraged as a response to domestic violence, law enforcement agencies should offer referrals for individual supportive services to officers and their family members when appropriate or requested.

The model policy also advises that officers should be trained in the agency’s zero-tolerance policy through all phases of their career. Agencies should partner with local victim service organizations to develop the curriculum for such training, and topics should include understanding domestic violence, departmental protocol, warning signs of domestic violence by law enforcement officers, victim safety, and domestic violence laws. Any report or admission of domestic violence committed by an officer should be investigated both criminally and administratively. The model policy outlines the best practices for communications, patrol, on-scene supervisory response, and follow-up when a report has been made that an officer has engaged in domestic violence.

Whether you are in a supervisory or training role, a new officer, or a civilian employee, all law enforcement personnel have a role to play in responding to officer-committed domestic violence. You can start by knowing some warning signs of domestic violence. These include aggressiveness, such as excessive or increased use of force on the job, stalking or inappropriate surveillance activities, unusually high incidences of physical altercations and verbal disputes, inappropriate treatment of animals, and on- or off-duty injuries. Other warning signs include domestic violence-related issues, such as monitoring and controlling any family member through such means as excessive phone calling, stalking an intimate partner or family member, and discrediting or disparaging an intimate partner. Deteriorating work performance, such as tardiness, excessive absences, and alcohol or drug abuse, can also be warning signs.

The model policy outlines the responsibilities of each person in a law enforcement agency to respond effectively and responsibly:

  • Supervisory responsibilities: Supervisors who note a pattern of problematic behavior should address those behaviors through a review or other contact with the officer, forward written reports of the behaviors to the chief through the chain of command, prepare and submit to the chief a written request for a psychological exam, and request when warranted that the chief order an officer to seek assistance from a certified program for batterers.
  • Accused officer responsibilities: Officers are encouraged to take personal responsibility in seeking confidential referrals and assistance from the department to prevent a problem from escalating to the level of criminal conduct against an intimate partner. Officers who learn that they are the subject of a criminal investigation or a protective order proceeding should immediately report this to their supervisors and give their supervisors copies of court notices and orders. Officers should also cooperate with internal investigations.
  • Bystander officer responsibilities: Officers who have not engaged in domestic violence but are aware of domestic violence committed by other officers should report this to their supervisor. Those officers should cooperate with investigations and refrain from any behavior that could be interpreted as interfering with an investigation or intimidating witnesses.

It may be difficult for police officers at any stage of their career to respond to domestic violence committed by fellow officers. They may want to protect fellow officers from the consequences of their actions, including damage to their law enforcement careers. They may also want to intervene informally or to counsel an offending officer off the record in a misguided effort to prevent a more serious incident.

Remember, domestic violence is a crime, and an officer’s first obligation is to enforce the law; protect the community; and, most importantly, help keep victims safe.

If you don’t know what your agency’s policy is on officer-committed domestic violence, ask your supervisor. Responding effectively to domestic violence is the responsibility of every member of the law enforcement community.

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