Do 40 Percent of Police Families Really Experience Domestic Abuse?

New data from Seattle, Washington, suggests that up to 40 percent of police officers there will quit their jobs if local officials follow through on a vaccine mandate for public employees. This news sparked a lot of online commentary about another statistic involving 40 percent of police: an oft-repeated statistic that 40 percent of police families experience domestic abuse.

It’s an extraordinarily concerning stat but, like most social media factoids, is rarely paired with a source. So is it true?

In 2014, libertarian-leaning journalist Conor Friedersdorf cited the statistic in his article for the Atlantic, writing “As the National Center for Women and Policing noted in a heavily footnoted information sheet, ‘Two studies have found that at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10 percent of families in the general population.‘”

Joshua Klugman is an associate professor of sociology and psychology at Temple University. He took the time to dig into these two surveys, and what he found is illuminating …and concerning.

Those two studies were published in 1991 and 1992. The first was from a professor in the Department of Family Studies at Arizona State University, who surveyed 728 officers and 479 police spouses in a sample drawn from 1983. The survey was anonymous, so all we know is that the participants were taken from “two East Coast police departments (moderate to large in size).” And that survey found that: “Approximately, 40 percent [of the officers] said that in the last six months prior to the survey they had behaved violently towards their spouse or children.”

It’s worth noting that the survey deliberately did not define “violently,” so this survey should be understood to mean 40 percent of the officers who participated interpreted an action they had taken towards their spouse or children as being violent. Critics of surveys like this say that this leads to under-reporting of abuse, since many abusers don’t consider their actions to be violent.

The other survey was from 385 male officers, 40 female officers, and 115 female spouses in an unnamed Southwestern state. This survey asked participants to read a “Modified Conflict Tactics Scale” and list how many times they had engaged in the behaviors listed on it, which range from acts of “minor violence,” (“thrown something at your spouse,” “pushed, grabbed or shoved your spouse”) to “severe violence” (“choked or strangled your spouse,” “threatened your spouse with a knife or gun”).

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This study found that around 28 percent of male police officers reported inflicting mild or severe violence on their spouses and 33 percent reported receiving mild or severe violence from their spouses. That’s a lower rate than the previous study found, although still about three times higher than rate of domestic abuse in households among the public at large.

There’s still a good deal we don’t know. “Self-reported” abuse isn’t the most trustworthy metric for determining genuinely abusive behavior, and a lot of questions remain about just how representative these samples are of police at large. However, it’s entirely possible that this methodology would lead to an underestimation of domestic violence among American police.

There’s also the fact that these surveys are coming from data collected over three decades ago. It’s possible that things have changed but there have been no major attempts to collect new data and, of course, no major push at reforming police departments, so we just don’t know. More research would need to be done to determine the real depth and causes of the issue but, based on available data, it does seem like domestic abuse is unusually common among police families.

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