Domestic violence deaths are preventable. We asked experts how to stop them.
In late October, authorities announced that human remains in a Florida nature preserve had been identified as Brian Laundrie, the only known person of interest in the murder of Gabby Petito. In the wake of the discovery, and the lingering questions that remain about how Laundrie died, public interest has shifted toward holding other people accountable.
The focus has ranged from Laundrie’s parents, who may have known his whereabouts, to local Utah law enforcement, who spoke to the couple in August over a domestic violence incident but took no action to protect Petito. Instead, the police explicitly identified Laundrie, not Petito, as the potential victim. Petito went missing just days later; her body was eventually recovered on September 21 after an intense, month-long search.
The nature of this case has given a public stage to law enforcement’s often shortsighted and faulty approach to handling cases involving intimate partner violence. “Law enforcement [doesn’t] take domestic violence seriously,” criminal behavior analyst Laura Richards told me. Richards is an authority on the study of “coercive control” in abusive relationships and the creator of a risk-assessment model widely used in the UK that aims to protect victims of domestic violence. “Cases like Gabby’s are not rare,” she said.
The public’s awareness of many factors that lead to homicide in cases like these has grown. There’s also been an expanded understanding of the victimology associated with the Petito case, like coercive control, in which one partner carries out a strategic pattern of manipulation and emotional abuse against the other.
But while Gabby Petito’s murder might have spotlighted all of these issues, her case is sadly far from unique. The trajectory of stories like hers — in which a background of domestic or intimate partner violence leads to the victimized partner going missing — has played out countless times across America. All too frequently when women like Petito go missing, law enforcement officials approach the situation with a lack of urgency due to a belief that the victim could simply have left of their own volition. In some cases, the surviving partner and prime suspect dies by suicide, leaving few answers and no hope for justice.
If anything positive comes from the Petito case, it might be this: an opportunity — for both law enforcement and the larger culture — to learn how to approach intimate partner violence with care and compassion. I asked criminologists and law enforcement experts for specific takeaways from the case, and what officials can do to change the story for victims like Petito.
The stages of violence in Gabby Petito’s story are far too commonly seen, but there are clear lessons
The annals of true crime are full of stories of women who abruptly went missing, leaving police unsure how to pursue justice. While Petito’s body was recovered, in large part due to the massive amount of public attention on the search for her, many domestic violence victims aren’t found. There’s the case of Susan Powell, for example, who vanished in 2009. As with Brian Laundrie, authorities in that case considered Powell’s partner the primary person of interest in her disappearance, but never brought charges against him. In 2012, after the case had languished in unsolved territory for years, her husband Josh Powell killed their two children and himself. Susan Powell is still missing.
Such grim conclusions to cases like these might seem like outliers, but experts say they’re the natural result of a justice system that does not appropriately handle domestic violence. Each painful part of the process is a chance for law enforcement to misstep, and problems are endemic. That’s not because of a lack of resources: The US has a huge number of services and a broad range of support for domestic violence victims, as well as a high degree of training for law enforcement in how to respond to cases involving intimate partner violence and coercive control. Law enforcement training can be comprehensive, covering everything from how to identify the aggressive party in a domestic violence dispute to dealing with stalking or enforcing a restraining order.
But too often, even the best-intentioned police officers can rely on stereotypes and harmful assumptions when making on-the-spot assessments about a case. That seems to be what happened when Utah police officers responded to an incident involving Petito and Laundrie, after Laundrie had allegedly been seen hitting Petito and attempting to lock her out of her van. (The city of Moab, where the stop occurred, said in late September that it had so far identified no breach of police department policy.)
More first responders should be trained to do risk assessment for the potential of harm and homicide
Every domestic violence event may double as an intervention point — a moment when authorities can step in and take action before a relationship escalates into more violence, to get help for the victim, to separate the couple, and/or get assistance and resources for the potentially violent partner.
“The research generally tells us that 74 percent of all women who are killed by their intimate partner had a history of abuse prior to that,” criminologist Jesenia Pizarro told me. Pizarro is conducting a six-state study to create an updated risk-assessment model for intimate partner homicides. “A lot of what is known about the risk for intimate partner homicide is based on research that occurred in the late 1990s,” she said.
What is known, Pizarro explains, is that “intimate partner homicide is usually preceded by a history of abuse and that there are intervention points. And if we can identify them, then we could put that into the hands of the authorities so that they can use that knowledge to save lives.” She also notes that an abusive partner with a firearm is overwhelmingly more likely to kill (over 500 percent more likely, one study found).
At minimum, training should involve teaching first responders to do a thorough risk assessment to determine who is the vulnerable partner and who is the predominant aggressor — the person at risk of escalating into violence.
According to a 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, about 42 percent of law enforcement agencies conduct risk assessments in domestic violence situations. Only 39 percent of agencies have a “specific strategy for responding to repeat domestic violence calls.” That number needs to be much higher across the country.
Agencies should also be able to identify intervention points that might allow them to help deescalate situations and prevent later violence from occurring. These might range from a routine home visit from an agency to a 911 call; hospital visits are also prime opportunities to identify domestic violence victims, but assessments in those settings are uncommon. A grounding in the theory of coercive control in relationships — to recognize abuse that may be emotional but not currently physical — can help police and other first responders see past the dominant narrative of a controlling partner.
“The best trainings on domestic violence for police officers train them to see any domestic violence call or domestic dispute as homicide prevention,” Molly Dragiewicz, a criminologist and co-author of the 2017 book Abusive Endings: Separation and Divorce Violence Against Women, told me.
In retrospect, the police stop in Utah was a crucial intervention point for Petito and Laundrie — an opportunity for risk assessment and intervention that the police missed.
“The crux here is that they got pulled over by the police and the police aligned themselves with the abuser,” said Dragiewicz. “One of the things that was really interesting about the police interaction in this case was that the police were very polite to her on the surface. But then they were also completely dismissive of what she had to say.”
That dismissal might not have been so easy for police if a victims’ advocate — a trained authorized individual who works to ensure fair treatment and connect victims with resources and help — had been on the scene with them, or at least in direct contact with both police and with Petito, at the time of the event. Many police jurisdictions around the US and the UK work to bring multiple agency representatives into the scene of a domestic violence call; the logistics vary around the country, but many states and cities either bring advocates onto the scene or conduct risk assessments with the victim by phone at the time of an incident.
Indeed, there were multiple agency representatives at the Utah police stop of Petito and Laundrie; one local park ranger was on the scene, though she did not have a body cam and the police rarely communicated with her. If one of those agency representatives had recognized signs of coercive control, the interview with Petito and Laundrie could have gone very differently.
Body cam footage could provide an opportunity for training
Often even from the beginning, victims of intimate partner violence feel that law enforcement will not be on their side and that turning to authorities for help in such situations will exacerbate the conflict and abuse they’re experiencing. Often, they are right. The body cam footage of the police incident involving Petito and Laundrie may be a textbook example of how police can misread a situation involving domestic violence and misidentify the victim.
While Dragiewicz says there are reasons to be cautious with surveillance footage — it’s “still a perspective within a frame and it doesn’t show what happened before or after,” as well as concerns about the nature and cost of surveillance — it’s an “underutilized resource for training and education.” What’s more, the Gabby Petito body cam footage shows a crucial moment in a story whose ending we know. “So that makes it a potentially very powerful teaching tool.”
The body cam footage vividly illustrates how controlling partners in a relationship can often direct and manipulate the narrative for first responders. “A lot of nasty stereotypes about domestic violence come directly from the abuser’s mindset and way of talking,” said Dragiewicz. “So this idea that she’s crazy, that it’s mutual, she started it, right? Those are super common — or that she’s overreacting and hysterical.” The Utah police who responded to the domestic violence incident seemed to view Petito as histrionic and explicitly identified her as the primary aggressor — and Laundrie as perhaps the victim.
“They threatened her with being incarcerated. Think about calling your parents when you’re 20-something years old and telling them, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, I’m in jail in another state. Can you bail me out?’ She would have been mortified,” Dragiewicz said. “And they let her sit there and think that’s what was happening for quite a long time. … It all sends a message to the victim that the officer’s aligning himself with your perpetrator.”
Such treatment could, at the very least, discourage someone who’s been experiencing intimate partner violence or coercive control from contacting authorities again. Dragiewicz pointed out that Petito seemed scared and likely would not have called the police for help in the future. It could also reinforce the controlling partner’s hold over them. “It’s easy to imagine how an abusive person would gloat about that and say, ‘Well, you saw what happened. They believe me.’”
Cases involving missing persons of color and missing and murdered Indigenous women still need more attention
According to NAMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database, more than 650,000 people go missing in the US every year. The publicity surrounding the Gabby Petito case helped draw attention to “missing white woman syndrome” — that cases involving young middle- and upper-class white women often receive vastly more attention than similar cases involving people of color and other vulnerable individuals.
Cases like Petito’s garner the media spotlight, in contrast to the thousands of Black men and women or the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women who rarely receive media attention as individuals. The perception that minorities who go missing simply fall prey to misfortune often dominates the outcomes of such cases. In 2016, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation researched 34 cases of missing or killed Indigenous women in which law enforcement authorities believed no foul play had been involved, and found that, despite the authorities’ rulings, in nearly all of the cases a person of interest had been identified at one point; in 10 cases, the deceased had unexplained injuries.
Even when authorities are working to intervene, a positive result isn’t always easy to achieve. Take the case of Meta Valentine. Valentine, a Black North Carolina mom and church receptionist, had survived a previous violent assault by her sometime boyfriend that had resulted in a 15-year prison sentence; he served 10 years. In October 2014, three years after he was released, Valentine broke up with him. Twelve days later, surveillance video showed a man believed to be her boyfriend chasing her. Valentine was reportedly never seen again. Despite the established history of violence, the on-camera attack, and an immediate suspicion that Valentine’s ex-partner was the main suspect, police were unable to bring murder charges against him until 2018, leaving him ample time to disappear. Neither Valentine nor her suspected killer has been reported as located.
Valentine’s case is striking because of its near-invisibility in the media. Had a similar story played out involving a young missing white woman, it’s almost impossible to believe that it wouldn’t have been more widely known, or that authorities’ hands would have been tied for so long. And Valentine’s case is just one of countless similar cases with tragically similar narratives: A woman of color goes missing, the investigation goes nowhere, and the case is never resolved.
“I think on the one hand, it is disheartening that those disparities still exist,” said Dragiewicz. “But on the other hand, I think the fact that everybody was pointing it out this time is a good thing. That’s a development, a little bit of progress, that [people of color are] part of the general conversation, thanks to Black Lives Matter.”
Police need to treat reported instances of violence or reports of missing women with more urgency
All too frequently, even when victims do turn to authorities for help, the police response is inadequate. One more extreme example lies in the case of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey. Over a two-month period in 2018, campus police received more than 18 calls from McCluskey saying she was being stalked and threatened by her ex-boyfriend. Although authorities were actively working with McCluskey at various points during her attempts to seek help, they failed to uncover her stalker’s criminal background and told her there was little they could do about his manipulation. At one point, one official commented that the man he believed to be her ex “seems like a good guy.” McCluskey’s stalker killed her on campus and then killed himself at a nearby church.
McCluskey’s story shows what can happen even when authorities are informed and alert to situations involving intimate partner violence. But the lack of urgency seen in her case is far too common.
“I think it’s genuinely the problem that there isn’t enough urgency or priority that are afforded to women and girls,” Richards, the UK crime analyst, said. ”I’ve seen that consistently — and if you add in that they’re Black or they’re brown, even less so. I’ve worked in lots of different cases where women have gone missing and no one’s asked questions of the main person who may be responsible.” Richards also added that a sense of basic curiosity at the scene is crucial — that even police doing a basic smartphone Google search about the involved parties could give them crucial information and context.
One reason authorities often aren’t compelled to more urgency in such cases is the persistent belief that missing persons often leave of their own volition — even though today’s era of digital footprints, identity theft protection, and many other modern-day safeguards make it much more difficult to simply disappear without a trace. “In every case I’ve worked, I will say that women and girls don’t just disappear, they are disappeared,” Richards said.
Without a body, investigating such cases can be extremely difficult. Even with a body, the investigation can stall because of simple bias. Dragiewicz serves on the domestic violence homicide review board in Queensland, Australia, and sees firsthand how investigations are hindered. “One of the things that we really see contributing to the homicides are these really persistent stereotypes about the ‘ideal victim,’ and how those are used to prioritize the response — or actually, it’s more like deprioritizing the response.
“So if you have a potentially missing person who is known to use illegal drugs, or if they’re known to be alcoholic, or if they’ve ever been in trouble with the police, or if they’re poor or middle-class, or if they’re not white, or if they’re an immigrant, or if they’re not straight, like there’s so many categories that are marginalized, and if you fit any of those categories, you don’t fit into our stereotype of an ideal victim.”
Even in a case where the victim does fit a stereotype, what seem like red flags may only be obvious in retrospect. “It’s not uncommon to have a missing person case involving a female,” Richards said, “and for there to be a delay and the police to ask the wrong questions.” She pointed out that in the Petito case, for example, authorities would likely have been unaware that a history of intimate partner violence existed, and that, along with the couple’s young ages and their travel-heavy lifestyle, meant authorities might not have initially viewed Petito’s disappearance as suspicious.
The link between domestic violence and suicide needs to be more widely understood and considered during police investigations
A lack of urgency over a missing woman often coincides with an inability or unwillingness on the part of authorities to retain the person of interest — which then may lead to the ending that accompanies some of these cases: a partner or person of interest dying by suicide. Laundrie’s death, Richards told me, had all the hallmarks of a death by suicide even before authorities concluded that was his most likely cause of death. Many people who may be aggressors in a partner dynamic involving domestic violence or coercive control have “felt less than” their partners. “Often [with] these individuals, there’s a control-related issue,” she said.
According to Petito’s best friend Rose Davis, Richards notes, “Brian was always saying, ‘I know you’re going to leave me.’ You have this insecurity. And that’s what normally these crimes are about. It’s a power and control dynamic. It’s actually about insecurity and their will to want to control that person, to stay with them or to disappear them. The notion ‘if I can’t have you, no one will’ on separation and finality is the motive.”
Because controlling partners will often use the threat of suicide to manipulate their partners, Richards’s risk-assessment model includes a question about whether the partner has been experiencing suicidal ideation. Authorities in the US also have such tools to help them identify whether suicide is a potential risk. This is a highly important concern, in part because suicidal partners far too often take other lives with them, for example in acts of family annihilation or mass shootings that have been linked to domestic violence. Authorities who’ve been properly trained to recognize the signs of controlling or violent relationships should ideally know when to treat suicide as a probable outcome in a case, and have the resources to respond accordingly.
“For me, these cases are preventable,” Richards told me. “And I’ve been saying that for 25 years, that the risk markers are all there. The warning signs — it’s just, for me, it’s very easy [to see]. And I say it’s easy for me because I’ve done the work and I’ve created toolkits for lots of people, so they ask the right questions. And that’s all you need to do is ask the right questions and know what the answers mean.”
These cases are opportunities for change
So are there specific changes law enforcement could implement that might allow authorities to ask the right questions in cases like Petito’s? Yes and no. “It’s hard to base change on just one case,” Pizarro told me. She cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach to criminology in the wake of the Gabby Petito case.
“We want to look at patterns across different cases and predict the characteristics of victims,” she said. “The context may vary.”
Still, there are some key considerations we can draw from the Petito case — and they boil down to more training, more empathy, and more awareness of what’s at stake. “There’s a lot of resistance still to this day to responding to domestic violence calls,” Dragiewicz observed. “A lot of police think that ‘this really shouldn’t be my job.’”
Richards described what often happens to experienced police officers as “battle fatigue” — sometimes officials have seen so much that cases can lose their individuality and sense of urgency. “It’s normally the really basic things that just aren’t done” in an investigation, she said. “They get an empathy deficit and compassion deficit and it’s women who pay the price, unfortunately.”
Richards had no illusions about the power dynamics involved in these conversations, either. “There’s always good people” in the police force, she said, “but also, the power that the badge and the gun hold attracts more than your fair share of bad apples.”
While it’s true that no amount of training can fully counteract police corruption or systemic misogyny or racism, it’s also true that change is happening. It’s difficult to mandate specific levels of training because every state is different, as Pizarro cautioned. But she also highlighted that many law enforcement officials want to improve. “What we have found, particularly with our partners in our six states,” Pizarro said, “is that they take this issue very seriously and they are partnering with us because they want to learn how they can do a better job.”
“The bigger picture is that we should want to prevent these murders and to keep women and children safe,” Richards echoed. “There’s nothing more noble than that.”