Vol. 78, No. 2Ask an expert

Man standing in front of a police vehicle.

Gentle pressure, applied relentlessly

Family violence: changing attitudes, better enforcement

Roughly a third of mass shootings are related to family violence, says Mark Wynn. Approximately 60 per cent of shooting victims are female. Credit: Courtesy Mark Wynn

Mark Wynn spent 21 years with the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department, where he worked as a lieutenant in the Domestic Violence Division and a member of the SWAT Team. He has since travelled the world as an instructor, lecturer and advocate on the subject of family violence. During his career, Wynn helped create legislation to protect women from stalking and violence, and pushed for greater understanding of the dynamics inherent to family violence. He spoke to Eric Stewart about his own experiences with abuse and shared information and techniques learned from a life working in the field.

Could you share the story of your own experience with family violence?

My stepfather was a crop-duster. He was this West Texas tough guy — six-foot-two, 220 pounds — and an abuser. We didn't know it until after my mother married him. This guy was brutal, he hospitalized my mother several times, beat her into miscarriages twice, broke bones, caused concussions, and he was a police fighter on top of everything else. Even though he would fight the police, he was never arrested for domestic violence because there was no such thing in the criminal code in those years, and there were no shelters, so we were pretty much on our own. My brother and I, when we were 12 and seven, tried to kill him by poisoning his drink with bug spray. Thank God he didn't die — he drank it all, but he was an alcoholic and it didn't hurt him.

As a kid, I told myself I was going to do something about domestic violence, and when I came of age I got into policing and haven't stopped since. There's a lot of survivors in policing. I meet cops all the time who walk up to me after training and tell me they know what I've been through — it's hard to find someone who hasn't been impacted by violence of the family.

Are there any common misconceptions about family violence?

I'd say that there's still a misunderstanding about the behaviour of the victim. You see the reluctance, what looks like acceptance of abuse, the tortured relationship that they live in — domestic abusers don't walk up to you, ask you out, and then hit you on the face — it's so much more complex. When an officer looks at a victim, they know the victim is in danger, but if you're in that kind of relationship, believing is not an event. It's a process. You, the officer, have to be part of that process.

Is there something you see that's common across family violence offenders?

There's a common characteristic that we see in offenders, and it's not about stress, race, money, drugs, alcohol — it's about a choice. And that choice is made, in about 80 per cent of cases, based on learned behaviour. There's been some interesting studies on brain development in children, showing that your brain develops differently when you're exposed to violence as a child, and not when you're five years old, when you're five months old. Those children who are exposed as infants have a higher propensity to commit violence as juveniles and adults. So I spend a lot of time connecting these things for officers, letting them see how violence creates more violence — and why it's so important that children aren't exposed to violence.

Why is family violence such a difficult crime to police?

I talk to officers all over the world, and it's always the same — we know we've got a problem, we're working with advocacy groups, we're trying to improve — it's always been a struggle with this kind of crime. You have these cases where the victim is living with the offender, and where there's so much reluctance to come forward because of all kinds of internal and external pressures — it's an incredibly tricky situation. Often, you have domestic violence co-occurring with sexual assault and other crimes. I think as societal attitudes change and we encourage victims to come forward, and as police attitudes and policies modernize, you'll see things improve.

How has policing family violence changed since you began your career?

I starting policing in 1977. Back then, I was trained that the police response to domestic violence was mediation, not arrests. That was the standard across the U.S. and other Western countries. We didn't quite understand what we were dealing with.

Domestic violence is a crime of power and control, and I think we're finally starting to look at it differently. In the U.S., we passed the Violence Against Women Act, which put money into research and training for law enforcement. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has spent the last 14 years travelling all over the States, training police executives on the history of domestic violence, helping them write policy about domestic violence, trafficking, sexual assault. There's new legislation in other countries, and attitudes are starting to change. It's been transformative.

Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have been able to have this conversation at all. I've been training cops since 1982, and I've heard every excuse, every reason — but I'm a firm believer that gentle pressure, applied relentlessly, will get you where you need to go.

Could you talk about the relationship between family violence and police killings?

During all those years that we weren't policing domestic violence correctly, domestic offenders were killing police. We never connected one to the other — but we understand now that when we take control away from the offender, they fight back with deadly force. The first officer to die in the line of duty in Nashville, where I started my career, died responding to a domestic violence call. If you're looking at the dynamic of domestic violence, you need to look yourself in the mirror as an officer because you could be at as much risk as the victim when you respond to these calls. These killings, they don't come from spontaneous outrage — it's calculated. Offenders kill cops. These are people who believe we've taken something away from them that they're entitled to, and some of these offenders will use deadly force to get it back.

Do you have any advice for officers dealing with these cases in the field?

A lot of these offenders use the same tactics on police that they use on the victim. It's often described as the power and control wheel. We know that the offender will isolate the victim from help — they'll isolate officers from the victim. They intimidate and coerce the victim, they'll intimidate and coerce the officer. They'll use the children against the victim and against the officer. They'll use male privilege on the victim and the officer — "That's my wife, I can do what I want." They'll kill the victim, and they'll kill the officer.

When you investigate these cases, watch what the suspect does to you — that's what they're doing to victims. Notice when they start on you in a defensive manner, that's a pretty good clue. How they respond to the officer should be documented in the report for when the case is prosecuted. Often, as officers, we focus on the he-said-she-said, and don't note down how the offender responds to us, which I think is important information.

I want officers to be safe. Every time they knock on someone's doorstep, they're risking their lives for someone they don't even know. I want them to have as much information as possible before they knock on the door. And I want officers, if they can, to walk around in the shoes of the victim for a minute, to understand and make sense of the victim's mindset. Empathy is one of your best tools.

This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

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