Are Utah victims being left behind by a 50-year-old understanding of domestic violence?

Are Utah victims being left behind by a 50-year-old understanding of domestic violence?
(Utah Department of Public Safety; Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The fictional Carla and Jake are characters in a training video for Utah police cadets, used to help explain the longtime concept of a “cycle of violence” between intimate partners in abusive relationships.

By Eric S. Peterson and K. Sophie Will

The following story was funded by The Alicia Patterson Foundation and The Fund for Investigative Journalism and was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Carla feels like she’s “on a roller coaster” with her boyfriend, Jake. He’s dragged her back to her seat during a fight in a restaurant and hit her in front of her son. But he apologizes; he recently bought her flowers after he broke her phone. Then their relationship “is good for a while, until the next argument.”

Jake and Carla are characters in a training video for Utah police cadets, used to help explain the longtime concept of a “cycle of violence” between intimate partners in abusive relationships. These couples rotate through an act of violence, the video explains, then a “honeymoon” phase when the abuser swears it will never happen again and they reconcile, followed by escalating tension until the next explosion.

This model was developed by psychologist Lenore Walker in the 1970s — in a time when the nation’s first domestic violence shelters were opening and in a legal landscape that had traditionally not seen assault and rape within marriage as crimes. Walker’s work helped explain why women stay in abusive relationships, influencing policy, law and attitudes as Americans began to shift away from dismissing domestic violence as rare or as a private family issue.

But today, prominent domestic violence researcher Evan Stark says he’s frustrated by the staying power of this nearly 50-year-old, three-step description — arguing its use in training doesn’t give police a full picture of what victims face and doesn’t teach officers to recognize patterns of behavior that can escalate to killing.

Stark is most well known for developing the model of “coercive control,” which holds that the most common and insidious form of domestic violence is ongoing domination of one partner over another. That may include intermittent violence — but it’s more often exerted through threats, psychological manipulation, surveillance, limiting access to money and other forms of control.

The abuse in these cases is so constant, he said, that he’s called it a “liberty crime.”

But if police training is focused on the traditional concept of a cycle of abuse, Stark said, officers “get the idea they should be looking for violence. [If] there’s no violence, there’s no abuse.”

Police training expert Mark Wynn said Walker’s initial model served a purpose, but most agencies have “evolved from that,” and now focus on what abusers are doing — rather than why victims are staying.

That’s better for both victims and officers, said Wynn, a consultant and former Nashville police lieutenant who co-wrote the national Police Officer Standards and Training curriculum on the intervention and investigation of domestic and sexual violence.

The most dangerous calls for police include times when abusers realize they’re losing control of their partner, Wynn said, and may violently attack anyone — usually police — who gets in their way. “Any effective police training,” he said, “should explore how they manipulate the victim and how they manipulate the police response.”

There’s no honeymoon

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project met the fictional Jake and Carla as part of its ongoing investigation into domestic violence in the state.

The Utah Department of Public Safety provided reporters with access to the online training and quiz that all police cadets have to complete in its Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) program; they also receive in-class instruction. Reporters then consulted local and national domestic violence researchers and law enforcement experts to assess the digital curriculum.

Stark is an influential sociologist, forensic social worker and author who has been working in the field of domestic violence for over 40 years. He said he worries that centering Walker’s model of domestic violence can warp how officers perceive victims.

In Walker’s research, for example, she applied the existing concept of “learned helplessness” to domestic violence — theorizing that women who are repeatedly abused can become convinced they can’t escape, and will stop trying. “Police like that because they think it explains why some victims will protect the man who’s hit them and won’t cooperate, because she’s learned helplessness,” Stark said.

He worries that the concept gives officers an excuse to dismiss and invalidate victims — by writing off their hesitancy to report crimes as the result of them being duped in a “honeymoon” phase or because they are in “denial.”

“When in fact,” he said, “her ambivalence about reporting is the fact that the abuse is terroristic, and he has control over everything, including the means she needs in order to make decisions about her life, namely her money, her car, her access to the internet — all of the things without which she can’t be a free person.”

(Utah Department of Public Safety) A screengrab from a training video used by Police Officers and Standards Training introduces a fictional couple, Carla and Jake, to explain how Utah law enforcement responds to intimate partner violence.

Walker was proposing new ways to think about domestic violence; the little scholarship that existed then “was overtly hostile, suggesting that women provoked their own abuse,” according to the National Library of Medicine.

But today, Walker’s early description “almost sounds like victims are suffering some mental illness,” Wynn said, “when in fact it’s more like a battered women’s experience.”

Coercive control is like a hostage crisis hidden in plain sight, within a home and a relationship that may seem normal to outsiders, Stark said, but is a prison to the one living under it. If officers are just looking for peaks and valleys in a cycle of violence, Stark said, they are missing the bigger dynamic.

“In reality,” he said, the danger comes from “the death by a thousand cuts; it’s the accumulated weight of intimidation, ongoing.”

”Typically in denial”

Future Utah police officers learn about domestic violence in nine different courses, according to a spokesperson for POST.

The academy’s “hybrid” training approach introduces cadets to a particular topic in an online course, then provides them with in-class instruction and scenario training. While POST didn’t provide documentation about its live teaching, it shared access to its introductory digital training on domestic violence, which runs roughly 90 minutes.

Along with Jake and Carla, depicted in the style of a graphic novel set to music, the videos include a narrator who discusses the concepts and laws around domestic violence, with links to sections of the Utah code. Real victims and survivors of domestic violence also tell their own stories in clips from interviews.

The video narrator generalizes about the mindsets of victims: “Through each stage the victim is typically in denial of the cycle, and will blame themselves or deny the severity of the abuse.”

Wynn has spent decades training law enforcement on domestic violence responses, after serving for more than 20 years in the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department. He’s testified before Congress and consulted with the Department of Justice. And he says most agencies today are emphasizing more recent research, like the “power and control” wheel developed by Ellen Pence and others who were working with abused women in Minnesota.

The wheel explains the many ways offenders control victims and works on a continuum of ongoing behaviors, more in line with the “coercive control” mode.

While the experts said they worry about a divided focus, Utah’s training videos do reference the power and control wheel.

In a statement, POST defended its training for taking several different approaches “to understand the victim/aggressor relationship” and to encourage further investigation on domestic calls.

“The training has specific learning objectives to break the myths of abuse and reject the victim-blaming mindset,” the statement reads. Other parts of the training explore further aspects of abuse, such as stalking and “psychological aggression,” POST pointed out.

A survivor’s critique

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Andrus, a University of Utah professor and domestic violence expert, at the U. on Jan. 26, 2024. Andrus lost use of her right eye when her now ex-husband held her hostage and shot her multiple times.

Jennifer Andrus is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Utah who studies narratives in domestic violence and the way police and society talk about victims. She also survived her ex-husband attempting to murder her in the Millcreek area in 2015, after, she said, he had never once been violent until she tried to leave.

Worried after he threatened her with machete, a charge later alleged, she obtained a temporary protective order. But as officers escorted her on a visit to her home before the shooting, she said, “police didn’t believe me that I was going to get hurt because I hadn’t called them before.”

The traditional cycle “makes it seem like all abuse is the same, but it can look dramatically different for every couple,” she said. “Mine went from yelling at me to shooting me in the head.”

The often-described “honeymoon” actually is an uncommon occurrence, Andrus said, according to the dozens of victims she has interviewed in her research.

“Most of them talk about either constant abuse or sporadic abuse,” she said, “but no honeymoon period in between.”

She watched the online training that POST cadets complete, and said she was impressed by the opportunity given to victims and survivors to talk about their experiences. Andrus also appreciated the video’s recommendation that officers adopt a trauma-informed approach. One section of the training, titled “Rethink,” discusses viewing domestic violence situations from psychological, economic, sexual abuse and other angles.

But she felt the video should more clearly instruct officers how to respond when they don’t see evidence for an arrest, she said, such as telling victims when they see behavior that is abusive and offering other support.

A true trauma-informed response like that might not lead to an arrest, she said, but it could help someone leave an abusive relationship and prevent a future crime, even save a life. “When you go to a victim’s house who just has a verbal [complaint] but she’s sitting in a corner crying, acknowledge that she was really abused,” Andrus said. “Go over there and talk to the person and say, ‘this was abuse, and I’m so sorry this happened.’”

POST said it provides cadets more training about trauma-informed interviewing and responses through in-class instruction, including lessons on “bias-free policing” and victim services. One class goes into depth about the immediate and long-term effects of traumatic stress, the POST statement said, and how an officer responding to a crisis can provide follow-up services.

Still, Andrus said she remains concerned about officers’ focus on immediate physical violence. In interviews with police and in ride-alongs with patrol units, she said, she has heard officers dismissing some victims as “frequent flyers.” Some would criticize those who called about heated verbal arguments.

“I said to one state police officer, ‘she’s calling you before she gets hit, because she doesn’t want to get hit, and you’re telling me she has to wait until she gets hit to call you? That’s bull—-,” Andrus said.

Changing the narrative

Justin Boardman, a former West Valley City detective who now works as a consultant for prosecutors and police departments across the country, said most police work fits neatly into responding to and investigating a single incident, be it a traffic accident or a burglary.

Sexual assaults and domestic violence are different — but police can sometimes maintain that tunnel vision, he said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police consultant Justin Boardman in Salt Lake City, Feb. 5, 2024. Boardman says police officers can develop “tunnel vision” that misses the full context of domestic violence.

“I’m just as guilty as most officers,” he said. “I’d say, ‘I don’t want to hear about what happened last week, I’m just here about what happened tonight.’ We lost context and we lose perspective.”

Communities — not just police — need to move beyond traditional or stereotypical narratives about what qualifies as abuse, Andrus added.

Her current research is about strategies for staying in or leaving abusive relationships. Most of the domestic violence victims she talks to, she said, believe an abuser has to give a partner a black eye or injuries that require going to a hospital before they are truly creating an abusive relationship.

That narrative traps victims, Andrus said, as abuse escalates to the point that they feel a police officer will care about what’s happening to them.

The transition to more nuanced training about domestic violence is a slow process, Wynn said, as bureaucratic inertia can set in with academies.

“Curricula are perishable; you have to revisit them because you may have more information today then we had 40 years ago,” he said. “But very often you start teaching a class and it doesn’t change until someone says something. … It’s happening now, but it’s going to take a while.”

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