Gabby Petito, the Police and the Public

As police search the Florida swamps for Brian Laundrie, we all have time to reflect on what went wrong and where a turn could have been taken on that road trip that would not have lead to its fatal destination.

Now, people look back on that Utah police video stop, where officers spoke to Laundrie and Petito and say the cops should have known she was a victim of domestic violence, because she showed all of the signs. Yes, I noticed that she was nervous, tearful, hysterical, but I suspected drug use and that she might be under the influence. I must confess that when she said, “Yeah. He told me I need to calm down, but I‘m perfectly calm,” I actually laughed, because she was obviously anything but perfectly calm. From that video alone, I did not get the sense that she was afraid. But in fairness to myself, I did not have all of the information that the police did. Otherwise, I might have come to different conclusions. Whether I did or not, I certainly would have asked different questions to eliminate any doubt, if not for myself, then for the police record.

These Utah officers were responding to a 911 call, a call in which a disinterested third party said that he had seen Laundrie slapping Petito. Maybe Petito was distraught when they caught up with her, but now that we’ve heard the 911 tape, the caller was anything but. He was calm, precise and thorough. He not only could tell them the plate number for the car he saw Laundrie and Petito in, but he took a picture of the plate. He described the black ladder on the side of the van.

The #metoo movement has told us to “believe women”. It’s explained that many times sexual harassers and rapists are allowed to commit the same crimes for years, not because they never got caught, but because the people who reported them were never believed. They were discounted, ignored, minimized. This clearly happened with Petito.

I’m not blaming the police officers for not seeing fear in Petito’s demeanor. I blame them for not looking under the surface of her words to make sure it wasn’t there. They know that victims of abuse lie because they’re scared or because they’re psychologically dependent upon and broken by their abuser and, irrationally, want to protect them, in order to protect themselves. If police don’t learn this basic fact about domestic violence dysfunction on the job, they can intuit it by looking at any crime show that has aired over the last 35 years, starting with Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed. Even the general public has learned how abused women suffer in silence for years and lie about that suffering until they can’t any longer. Surely, the police should approach any domestic violence dispute expecting that both parties are likely to lie.

Police don’t have to be as good at reading body language as the self-made experts on social media are, but they need to approach their jobs with objectivity and skepticism, so that they can uncover what the people they detain are trying to conceal. Don’t accept what Petito and Laundrie say when you have a third party witness with no incentive to lie. The 911 caller described Laundrie and Petito. He said, ““the gentleman was slapping the girl,” and “They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off.” This report does not jibe with what Laundrie and Petito said.

Laundrie said he pushed Petito away after she attacked him, but the 911 caller didn’t see Petito assault him. He didn’t see Laundrie just defending himself and pushing Petito away. He saw Laundrie as the aggressor. Even if Petito attacked Laundrie first, if he hit her to do more than just fend her off, then he was lying to police when he recounted what happened.

We know society may not “believe women” but why didn’t they even believe this male caller who had no personal axe to grind. At the very least, why didn’t they cross-examine Laundrie and Petito, confront them with what the caller said and press to see if they were telling the truth, the way they would in an interrogation room? Where’s the police cynicism when you need it?

Look, if the abuse victim is not going to press charges, no domestic charge is going to stick, anyway. That may be why the police do nothing, even when they know abuse has taken place. I just don’t understand why they do nothing, before finding out whether abuse has taken place. They didn’t even bother to probe, even though there was a sobbing woman standing before them.

Worse, they commiserated with Laundrie. They laughed with him. They understood him.

He’s a man dealing with a crazy woman. They gave him a knowing look. They’ve been there themselves. I’m surprised that they didn’t say it must have been Gabby’s time of the month. They bonded with Laundrie like he was “bro” and she was “psycho”. I just don’t think this attitude should be displayed on the job. No matter what they’re thinking inside, on the outside they shouldn’t take sides.

They did one thing right. They separated Petito from Laundrie when speaking to her, a gesture which could encourage a victim to be more candid. But when their social behavior indicated that they shared a camaraderie with Laundrie, they undermined any trust she might have otherwise placed in them. When you’re questioned by people you think are unlikely to believe you, you’re more likely to give them a story they will believe. She told them she was stressed, had OCD and that she took it out on poor Laundrie. They accepted that explanation and, maybe, Gabby always knew they would.

They needed to start that police stop, not by believing Laundrie, or even Petito. Believe the 911 caller. Let both of them know you believe the uninvolved 911 caller and then sit back neutrally and gauge their reaction. Let their behavior tell the story, not their words.

Some say the police lacked adequate domestic violence training. I’m not sure that’s true. They may have had the training, but not the train of thought that should go with it. By accepting that Petito’s mental health was the problem, ignoring the reports of Laundrie’s emotional and physical abuse ,and putting him in a hotel (a relativity safe place with other guests and staff nearby), while instructing her to spend the night in her van, a location that could not have done much to resolve any insecurity she felt, they showed as much apathy as ignorance.

I’m not sure that our society doesn’t believe women. The 911 caller was not a woman. They didn’t believe him, yet they readily believd Petito when she blamed herself for the fracas. I think the bigger problem may be that we don’t believe that domestic violence is that big of a problem, even knowing how often it leads to murder.

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