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Police mishandled ‘red flag’ of domestic violence in Gabby Petito confrontation, experts say

Before Gabby Petito's body was found, she was pulled over with Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12 in Utah. A clinical psychologist analyzed the footage for The Post. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Police this week released more footage from a dispute between 22-year-old Gabby Petito and her now-missing fiance, Brian Laundrie, putting domestic violence in the spotlight and bringing criticism to the officers who handled the couple’s fight.

With police being the primary responders to intimate-partner violence incidents, experts have questioned whether they are able to handle these situations correctly — especially given the complexity of domestic violence. For some, the new video shows that community-led measures are necessary. Others said police need better training.

While Petito and Laundrie, 23, were on their months-long, cross-country road trip, police stopped the pair Aug. 12 in Moab, Utah, after callers reported a fight between two people. The new footage shows Moab Officer Eric Pratt asking Petito whether she had been hit by Laundrie, as two people had said she was.

The body-cam video was recorded more than five weeks before Petito’s remains were found Sept. 19 in a Wyoming campground. A medical examiner called her death a homicide. Laundrie has vanished, and police are searching for him. He has not been charged in her death.

In the footage, a distraught Petito says her fiance injured her, but she takes the blame for the incident, telling police she hit him first. The officer then asks her where Laundrie hit her, and he encourages her to be honest.

“Well he, like, grabbed me with his nail, and I guess that’s why it looks … definitely I was cut right here,” Petito says while pointing to her cheek. “Because I can feel it. When I touch it, it burns.”

The Moab Police Department has been under scrutiny since the first body-cam footage was released in mid-September. Department officials did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment Friday and Saturday.

After watching the video, Ruth M. Glenn, the president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), said officers did not seem to have been “educated or trained or have had information about the dynamics of domestic violence.”

“If they had, they would have recognized the most prominent red flag, which was her distress and her taking the blame for the actions that were happening and reversing what she had said quite frequently,” Glenn told The Post. “Trained law enforcement probably would have assessed that deeper and more differently to understand what was really going on.”

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Someone called 911 to report a domestic dispute after reportedly seeing that “the gentleman was slapping the girl.” Another person told police that a man appeared to have taken a woman’s phone and locked the woman out of a white van, and that the woman hit the man as she fought to get back inside the vehicle.

With those statements — coupled with Petito taking responsibility and her fiance admitting that she had hit him out of frustration — police discussed how to proceed. Pratt told Laundrie, “One of the things that the state legislature doesn’t give us discretion on is charges when it comes to a domestic assault.”

Because Laundrie had visible injuries, including scratches on his face and arm, officers determined that Petito was the perpetrator. Police acknowledged, however, that the “sweet girl” who probably “weighs 110 pounds wet” possibly would not be a threat to Laundrie.

Throughout the video, authorities talk to Petito and Laundrie separately. The couple exhibit a stark difference in their reactions — while Petito is distraught and sobbing, Laundrie is jovial and collected.

The contrast in their behavior may have led authorities to determine that Laundrie was the dispute’s victim, said Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. Although the code was designed to protect the most vulnerable, misconceptions surrounding victimhood can do the opposite — even for people who “on paper are the perfect victim,” whom police would take seriously.

“Young, White and pretty only gets you so far, and it just shows you just how perfect a perfect victim has to be,” Goodmark said. “You’re supposed to be passive, weak and cowering in the corner. And if you fail to present in the way that police want you to present, then you’re not a good enough victim and they don’t need to do anything to protect you.”

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Petito’s distress evoked empathy from Pratt, one of the officers responding to the call in Moab.

“I have a daughter almost your age, and I’m looking at you not so much like a suspect, but also as kind of a victim in the sense that you’re dealing with some struggles emotionally, immensely at your age,” he tells Petito in the video. “Probably, they’ll work themselves out as you get older. There’s a lot of angst at your age. … And hopefully it works itself out in the future.”

At that point, police were deciding whether to charge Petito with domestic violence — Utah law says the “primary duty of law enforcement officers responding to a domestic violence call is to protect the victim.”

“You know why the domestic assault code is there. It’s there to protect people,” Pratt says in the video, before police split up Petito and Laundrie for the night. “The reason why they don’t give us discretion on these things is because too many times women at risk want to go back to their abuser, they just wanted him to stop, they don’t want to have to be separated, they don’t want him to be charged, they don’t want him to go to jail, and then they end up getting worse and worse treatment and end up getting killed.”

The state is one of 22 with legislation that requires officers to arrest someone when responding to reports of domestic violence — a policy that was enacted in the 1980s, Goodmark said, after a push from women’s rights advocates demanding that police take domestic violence seriously. Before, typical procedures involved officers “separating the couple and taking the man for a walk around the block to cool off,” she said.

Although this move conferred urgency on the handling of domestic violence reports, it also led to officers having to make decisions in a split second, Goodmark said, often without knowing “the larger context of the relationship or even the larger context of the incident.”

“The result of that can be devastating, as Petito’s case shows,” she said.

Another aspect of the police response that has drawn criticism is the officers’ report, which attributes the incident to Petito “struggling with her mental health.”

“At no point in my investigation did Gabrielle stop crying, breathing heavily, or compose a sentence without needing to wipe away tears, wipe her nose, or rub her knees with her hands,” one officer wrote in the report.

Michael Alcazar, a retired New York Police Department detective, said police had misunderstood her behavior.

“I didn’t think she was having a mental breakdown; I just thought she was really upset,” Alcazar said. “She’s trying to basically justify why she was upset, and she was feeling pressured. So if I had responded to that job, I wouldn’t have thought that she had mental health problems. The signs were definitely not there.”

But police had already decided she was the aggressor and were “questioning her in a leading way” to fit that narrative and resolve the situation quickly, Alcazar said.

“I don’t understand why the decision was made not to make an arrest … but I don’t have all the facts that were available to those officers, and neither does anybody else that has watched that body-camera video,” former Moab police chief Jim Winder told KUTV.

With the footage surfacing, the Moab police department’s handling of the situation has been scrutinized. Meanwhile, some question police intervention in domestic disputes altogether.

“Anyone who thinks that having law enforcement intervention is preventing violence doesn’t need to look any further than the story to see how untrue that is,” said Goodmark, who wrote a book on the subject, “Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence.” “How we build community-based, non-law-enforcement responses has to be a central part of our strategy in addressing intimate partner violence.”

Goodmark said the focus on criminalizing domestic violence has led to greater incarceration rates without lowering the number of instances. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey’s 2010 summary report, more than 1 in 3 women and more than 1 in 4 men in the country have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Nearly half of all women and men have suffered psychological aggression, such as humiliating or controlling behaviors, a 2017 report from the federal agency shows.

“Intervention by law enforcement after an incident isn’t going to solve the problem of intimate partner violence,” she said. “Prevention, addressing the correlates of intimate partner violence and finding ways to help people change violent behavior, that’s where we should be focusing our attention.”

Alcazar, the former NYPD detective, noted that police play a pivotal role in responding to these incidents — especially because they are some of the most dangerous assignments officers respond to.

“A lot of times these incidents become very violent, and you need a police officer to take action to protect both parties and any other vulnerable individuals, like children,” Alcazar said.

Calls related to domestic violence are the largest category of calls received by police, accounting for between 15 percent and more than 50 percent of calls, according to a 2006 report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The study found that 40 percent of all fatal calls from 2010 to 2016 were related to domestic violence.

On Sept. 23, Moab announced that an outside agency would investigate its police department’s handling of Petito and Laundrie’s case.

“The Moab City Police Department has clear standards for officer conduct during a possible domestic dispute and our officers are trained to follow those standards and protocol,” the statement said. “At this time, the City of Moab is unaware of any breach of Police Department policy during this incident. However, the City will conduct a formal investigation and, based on the results, will take any next steps that may be appropriate.”

While Petito’s case has come to exemplify the media phenomenon of “missing White woman syndrome,” the NCADV’s Glenn said, her story is amplifying attention for other missing people, and for conversations surrounding domestic violence.

“Gabby, bless her heart,” Glenn said, “she will be a beacon for why we need to continue to talk about intimate partner violence, why we need to continue to address it and why we really need to take action.”

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