It is time that we acknowledge this problem and recognize the fact that officers who batter can be highly skilled at abuse. Officers have professional training in tactics of manipulation, intimidation, coercion, and the use of physical force which makes them among the most dangerous abusers. Their knowledge of how the criminal justice system operates enables them to use that system to their advantage and to successfully avoid accountability for their actions.
We do not yet know whether Drew Peterson was responsible for the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, or for the disappearance of Stacy Cales Peterson. What we do know is that the family, friends and women with whom Drew Peterson was involved have described him as the quintessential abuser. They describe Drew Peterson as controlling, jealous, possessive, deceitful and unfaithful. They report that he kept Stacy under surveillance by following her and tracking her with GPS on her cell phone. Stacy had told family members that Drew had threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him. Drew has attempted to publicly destroy Stacy’s credibility by saying that she was unstable and under psychiatric care. He has publicly blamed Stacy for their marital problems, and accused her of cheating on him, abandoning her children, and running away with another man. He was also quick to trash her family by referencing her mother’s disappearance and her brother’s conviction as a sex offender.
Though none of this behavior is exclusive to batterers who are police officers, most civilian batterers are not able to enlist the help of the criminal justice system to carry out their threats or to avoid consequences for their behavior. Batterers within law enforcement can effectively tell their victims, “Call the police, it will be your word against mine – who do you think they are going to believe?”
There were eighteen domestic violence-related calls to the Bolingbrook Police Department before Kathleen Savio was found dead. Apparently those calls did not raise suspicions that Drew Peterson might be a dangerous man. Although the police never arrested Drew Peterson, they did arrest Kathleen for domestic battery on two occasions although she was never convicted. We do not know whether, or to what extent, Drew Peterson’s professional status influenced the investigation into Kathleen Savio’s death, or the coroner’s determination that the cause of death was accidental. One cannot help but wonder. If all this shakes the public’s trust in the police, imagine its impact on other victims of police officers.
Police who batter terrify their victims by telling them, “I could kill you and get away with it.” They claim to know how to commit the “perfect crime” and leave no evidence behind. Stacy reported that Drew had told her he had killed Kathleen Savio, thereby letting her know that he was indeed capable of murder – and of getting away with it.
The threats “I could kill you and make it look like an accident” and “No one will ever be able to prove that I did it” become more plausible to every police officer’s victim each time the death or disappearance of an officer’s wife is splashed over the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. Sadly, Drew Peterson has undoubtedly been able to instill paralyzing fear in more than his own victims. He may have silenced unknown numbers of women who fear ending up like Kathleen and Stacy. Police departments and advocates for victims around the country must resolve to restore the voices of these women and protect their lives.
When will we finally have the courage to demand better from our police departments? How long will we allow abusive officers to hide behind their badges?
Diane Wetendorf is an advocate, trainer and consultant specializing in police-perpetrated domestic violence. With over 20 years experience, she has counseled battered women and their family members; served as expert witness in both the United States and Canada; and provided technical assistance to police agencies, victim advocates, civil and criminal attorneys, and other professionals. She is currently a consultant to the Battered Women’s Justice Project. For more information on police-perpetrated domestic violence, visit www.abuseofpower.info.