The Problem with Domestic Abuse and Law Enforcement

The Problem with Domestic Abuse and Law Enforcement

The news of Gabby Petito is that law enforcement missed an opportunity to rescue a victim of domestic abuse. Anti-abuse advocates point out the tell-tale signs that Petito was a victim of domestic violence. Her fiancé (and now a “person of interest”) Brian Laundries is missing. During a traffic stop of the couple, police failed to properly identify who the real victim was. However, this is where I part ways with anti-abuse advocates.

Domestic Abuse and Law Enforcement

The battle cry now is that police need to do away with the “outdated” practice of figuring out “who hit first.” Julie Owens, a violence against women consultant stated this in a Facebook post. She also says the officers should have “sought information about the couple’s relationship history and [try] to determine if there was any pattern of power and control or coercive control in the relationship.”

Being an anti-abuse libertarian (and anarchist), I am continually holding tension between the injustice of abuse and that of the state. So while I believe Petito is a victim of domestic violence, even let down by the officers in contact with her, this problem would not be solved by training police to identify domestic abuse.

Let me explain:

Law enforcement in America has been reactive to law breakers. In other words, police don’t exist to prevent crime. The SCOTUS has ruled repeatedly the role of the police is not proactive; they’re not there to protect you. Being proactive against crime and reactive to crime are two entirely different things.

This is where confusion sets in

As children we learn that police are trustworthy because they protect us from bad people. We hear politicians talk about how the law is meant to protect our well being. We have come to believe that judges protect the innocent. But none of these things are true and indeed they cannot be true.

For police to protect us from bad people, officers must be everywhere. If we consider crimes can happen even in the bedroom, guess where police have to be. For laws to protect our well-being, they can never harm – even inadvertently. Yet we’re now witnessing the harm of economic lockdowns in the name of public health. For judges to protect the innocent, they must execute their jobs flawlessly.

The judicial system is designed to respond to crime, and it doesn’t even do a good job.

Owens says the police who interacted with Petito and Laundries got it “exactly backwards… ultimately, we should be able to expect that those who are sworn to protect the public will, at the very least, DO NO HARM.” (emphasis Owens’)

While I agree the police got this one wrong, they didn’t get it “exactly backwards.” They got it wrong because they did their job. The role of law enforcement is legal violence; this isn’t hyperbole. Even in a libertarian legal order, enforcers of dispute resolutions would use some measure of justifiable force.

Ostensibly, this is what our monopoly-state law enforcement do as well. In other words, the business of law enforcement is the use of force. Perhaps one could wax eloquent about how police shouldn’t be “in business,” but the reality is, they are. This is inescapable. Owens believes the officers should’ve taken a history of the relationship, assessed the “predominant” aggressor and “determine if there was any pattern of coercive control.”

What? Really?!

We recognize that Petito was distraught. We can see her defensiveness of Brian is a trauma response. We know victims of  abuse are often unaware of the reality of the situation. We know the trauma bond is strong and outsiders cannot break it … and Owens and other anti-abuse advocates want to leverage the business of legal violence to discover what often takes trained psychotherapists months or years to discover?

All the police could have done was use force against Petito to get her to speak about her relationship. Or, to accurately reflect on what’s happened to her? Or, have a sudden moment of clarity and throw this person she loves under the bus? In what reality do victims of abuse respond like that, especially when force is used against them?

Setting aside for the moment that cops are already threatening figures, and they cant get their own domestic violence house in order, (40% of police wives report domestic violence), anti-abuse advocates want to hand over power & control of the situation, rather than empower victims to take power and control themselves?!

Related Article: Libertarian Christians Can Bridge a Gap for Abuse Victims

It makes sense that physical violence falls under the umbrella of civil governance.  It does not make sense that emotional/psychological abuse should. I know this is disheartening to some readers. After all, many states have laws against emotional/psychological abuse. And I believe that emotional/psychological abuse to be the most evil.

But just because a politician scribbled words on paper, and 51% of his colleagues agreed with the scribbles, doesn’t make the law enforceable. It doesn’t mean the law is capable of protecting you. It doesn’t mean a judge will rightly interpret your individual circumstance. Law enforcement cannot prevent crime w/o turning society into a draconian minority report – this is worse for abuse victims!

At some point anti-abuse advocates must acknowledge the profound necessity of self-defense. And I’m not even speaking about weaponized self-defense (although it may include that.) Self-defense in this case is at least education. Teaching people to recognize both the trauma and coercive tendencies in ourselves!  Pointing it out in others doesn’t solve the problem and expanding the role of law enforcement is (to borrow Owens words) exactly backwards.

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Kerry Baldwin
B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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