What to Do When Your Abuser Is in Law Enforcement

NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was accused of violent abuse by four women—and reportedly told one, "I am the law." This isn't an isolated attitude: According to research, at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence.

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May 8 2018, 6:13pm

Less than two months ago, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was tasked with investigating how sexual abuse and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein were handled in the past. At the time, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement, “It is critical not only that these cases are given the utmost attention but also that there is public confidence in the handling of these cases.”

Last night, however, confidence in Schneiderman crumbled when a disturbing report from the New Yorker revealed the state attorney general has an alleged history of hitting and strangling women during romantic encounters without their consent. Three hours after the story came out, Schneiderman, who allegedly told one of his victims, “I am the law,” resigned. This morning, officials announced state solicitor general Barbara Underwood will step in as his temporary replacement.

One of the women who came forward to share her story was Michelle Manning Barish, who offered a particularly horrifying description of the first time Schneiderman, whom she dated for off and on for two years, became violent with her: “All of a sudden, he just slapped me, open-handed and with great force, across the face, landing the blow directly onto my ear,” she told the New Yorker. She also said he “used his body weight” to hold her down and “choke” her. “In every fibre, I felt I was being beaten by a man,” she said.

Three other women corroborated Manning Barish’s depiction of Schneiderman’s violent behavior. (The former attorney general has denied assaulting anyone.) Two said they were “smacked” so hard that marks were left on their bodies. Tanya Selvaratnam, one of his former partners, said that in addition to hitting and choking her in bed, he also spat at her and called her his “‘brown slave.’” All four also described being belittled, forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol, and criticized on their appearance.

At the end of the piece, discussing the potential backlash that she and the other accusers would face, Selvaratnam tragically mused, “What do you do if your abuser is the top law-enforcement official in the state?”

It’s a question that a writer for The Atlantic pondered, to some degree, nearly four years ago, as he explored the little research there is on rates of domestic abuse between members of law enforcement and their partners. “Several studies have found that the romantic partners of police officers suffer domestic abuse at rates significantly higher than the general population,” Conor Friedersdorf wrote. “And while all partner abuse is unacceptable, it is especially problematic when domestic abusers are literally the people that battered and abused women are supposed to call for help.” According to research compiled by the National Center for Women and Policing, at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence.

Cindy Southworth is the executive vice president of National Network to End Domestic Violence. She tells Broadly that intimate partner violence is all about one person misusing their power to control the everyday actions of another person. “It’s not about violence. It’s not about anger. It’s not about disliking the person. It’s about keeping control,” she says. “When you add a powerful day job into the mix, it just adds layers of power and barriers for victims to get help.”

Though having an abusive partner in law enforcement—regardless of how high-ranking they are—makes leaving that relationship harder, Southworth says one of the first steps is making sure that reaching out for help is done confidentially. “Don’t use a phone, computer, or tablet that’s got spyware on it to reach out and talk to a victim advocate,” she says. “Borrow a friend’s phone and call a hotline, and tell them, ‘I have a very powerful partner, and I need help brainstorming how do I even consider exiting this relationship.’ It’s doubly important. The highest risk of homicide is when a victim tries to leave the abusive partner. Breaking up is really tricky.”

“The more powerful the person is, the more likely they are to get away with the abuse—the more likely they are to be protected."

Julie Owens, a survivor and domestic violence expert and consultant, agrees. She tells Broadly that talking to a domestic violence advocate and other survivors can help a victim understand her options, including filing for a restraining order and deciding if she even wants to involve law enforcement. “The more powerful the person is, the more likely they are to get away with the abuse—the more likely they are to be protected,” she says. “It’s really unfortunately up to the victim to do everything they can to create their own safety because the system will not make them safe. They need to work with a domestic violence advocate and perhaps even go to a shelter.”

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“It’s not fair for a victim to ever have to do that,” Owens continues. “The abuser should be locked up, but the reality is it just usually doesn’t happen and [if it does] it usually doesn’t happen for very long.”

Southworth adds that when the abusive partner is extremely powerful or well-known, sometimes there’s actually more safety in coming forward. “If you’re worried about law enforcement not responding well because of the relationship or because [for example] it’s the police chief, sometimes actually coming forward to the media is the safest answer.”