Jewfem Blog

Fatal FAIL: The police saw Gabby Petito as a “mental health” problem instead of a victim of violence

Now that the FBI has finally issued an arrest warrant for Brian Laundrie following the murder of his fiancé Gabby Petito, we can say one thing for sure. The police officers who encountered the couple shortly before her disappearance screwed up.

This particular fail – in which there were distinct signs of violence and trauma but the Moab police sent the couple on their way – is notable for the way the officer on the scene described it. Despite witnesses who saw Laundrie hitting and slapping Petito, and despite the fact that he took away her phone and locked her out the van that they were living in, officer Daniel Robbins concluded that "I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis." Another officer concluded that the couple seemed to be "in love". Their response was to "separate the parties for the night" – even though Petito was already forcibly separated by being locked out of home – "so they could reset their mental states."

Although Laundrie is still only a "person of interest" and not the alleged murderer, the police should have been trained to recognize signs of abuse. Instead, they interpreted the violence as "love" and that Gabby Petito was having a mental health crisis. The police officers gave Laundrie a fist-bump, a free night in a hotel, and reassurances that he did nothing wrong. They gave Petito a label of someone with a mental health problem.

They also suspected that she was the aggressor and not the victim – because, after all, Laundrie was charming and calm, while she was teary and terrified. They saw all this, and instead of helping her, they walked away. They left Gabby Petito alone in the middle of the night, congratulating themselves for their humanity towards the perceived aggressor.

And now she's dead. The real victim is dead, and her abuser – possible murderer – is nowhere to be found.

Even the police realize what a huge fail this was. A fail towards women everywhere, especially the estimated 1 out of 4 women who are in an abusive relationship.

This is a very old story in new garb.

Police used to systematically ignore domestic violence. They called it a "private" issue. They said it was nobody's business. They would say it was just miscommunication among a couple "in love". They would say that the couple just needs to "call off". And in some cases the justice system supported this. In Israel, for example, for decades whenever abused women wanted to get a divorce, judges would often send back home for a period of months or years to work on "shalom bayit", or reconciliation. Judges, like police officers, often have seemingly no idea what domestic violence and abuse look like.

We have been led to believe that all this has changed. Over the past 20 years, police around the world have supposedly increased awareness and responsiveness to domestic violence. According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), some 84% of police officers have been trained in responding to domestic violence.

And yet, domestic violence is one of the few areas in which crime has actually been going up instead of down. Last year saw record numbers of women killed by their intimate partners around the world. Four women a day on average are killed by their intimate partners. Advocates are calling domestic violence a "shadow pandemic" or a "silent epidemic".

How can it be that despite all the growing awareness, training, and accountability, police are still failing women so badly?

There are several answers to this question.

One is the existence of "mandatory arrest laws", flawed laws around domestic violence which force police to decide on the spot who the aggressor is and who the victim is. Officers who are not sufficiently aware of the dynamics of domestic violence often miss the signs and make the wrong call, determining that the victim is the aggressor.

This clearly happened with the case of Gabby Petito, who took blame and responsibility for the entire incident, as so many victims do. Despite the fact that she was the one locked out of the van, without her phone, shaking, and crying, while Laundrie sat calmly and contentedly inside the van with no fears or traumas, and despite the fact that she was significantly smaller physically than he was, and despite the fact that witnesses called the police to report on his violence towards her, the police decided that she was the perpetrator and not him. It is possible that without the law that insists on police labeling one as the perpetrator, they would not have felt the pressure to arrest her, which they were considering. But the fact is that as a result of this law, police frequently arrest victims instead of their perpetrators -- sending victims to jail while their abusers are labeled as victims. The cruelty and outrageousness of this practice towards women who have been attacked by their intimate partners adds layers of suffering and struggle. No wonder so many women choose not to report domestic violence, and so many stay in abusive relationships, as if they have nobody to go to. Certainly the police cannot be guaranteed to know right from wrong.

The problematic law is only one layer of the problem here. A second layer of this dynamic is the lack of understanding among even trained police officers about what abuse looks like. Professional counselors and advocates have spotted many clear red flags that the police ignored. Locking her out of the van and taking her phone are classic acts of control. Laundrie's controlled charm is another classic characteristic of a narcissistic abuser. It seems so easy for male police officers to identify with the guy because, appearing so 'normal', he could be one of them. In fact, abusers often are. The presence of wife-beaters among police officers is proportionally much higher than in the population at large. Abusive men are often articulate, charismatic, and friendly. It is how they are able to emotionally manipulate their victims, it is why victims can be so confused about their realities, and it is why bystanders so often support abusers. It is so often easier to like the charming abuser than the traumatized and shaky victim.

This brings me to the third and perhaps the most infuriating dynamic that we saw in the way the police responded to Gabby Petito. It is the way the police used the term "mental health" to make their decision not to help her. Police, like so many others, are still judging women based exclusively on our ability to appear calm, relaxed, happy, pretty, put together, and perky. Anything else suggests that there is a problem with us, not with those around us, or the systems that are hurting us.

There are many examples of how the label "mental health" occludes the real issues and fails to protect women.

In the pandemic, for example, where women found themselves unfairly burdened with the expanding "double shift" at home and as a result dropped out of the workforce in very large numbers, there were many calls to help women work on our "mental health". While women clearly needed a break and help with the symptoms, what they needed more was support, and a change in the environmental factors that cause women to have mental health crises. The problems that women face are external. We needed workplaces, government policies, cultural practices, and partners that recognized the unfairness of the system and offered real changes. We didn't need drugs or spas as much as we need real help and change. But that hasn't happened.

Labels of "mental health" put the burden of change on us instead of on our surroundings. The message is that it is up to us to fix our problems, which are cast as existing within our bodies and minds, instead of in our companies, cultures, family structures, governmental policies, or socio-cultural environments.

There are often very real consequences to calls for "mental health" instead of calls to protect women or advance social changes.

Another powerful recent example of how calls for "mental health" can hurt women is the case of tennis champion Naomi Osaka. Osaka, the four-time grand-slam winner, was at the top of her game when she dropped out of the 2021 French Open. She did not want to drop out. What she wanted was to avoid the toxic, tormenting, and at times abusive post-game press conference. She explained on social media that the press conferences are not good for players, who can often be seen "breaking down after a loss in the press room." In a clear reprimand of the media, she wrote that journalists often "have no regard for athletes' mental health …I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me, [which feels like] kicking a person while they're down." She was at first fined $15,000 by the games organizers for taking that stance, but the organizers were not content with just a fine, and quickly turned to threats of disqualification or even suspension – all this while claiming that "The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams." And so, within a matter of days, Osaka pulled out. The games went on without her, one of the greatest tennis players in the world at the time. It seemed astonishing how quickly a woman of that caliber could go from revered to left on the side of the road, all because she refused to take part in a side-show of her profession that is toxic.

Responses to this episode were telling. The story resulted in significant media attention to the subject of "mental health", and many people offered seemingly sympathetic messages, including her colleague and competitor Serena Williams, who said she "feels for Naomi" and wants to "give her a hug", adding that Osaka does not have "thick skin" like she does. Young tennis star Coco Gauff wrote on Twitter, "stay strong ❤️ I admire your vulnerability." Tennis player Sloane Stephens said Osaka should be "applauded", and that "instead of basically traumatizing her and making fun of her situation, we should be more accepting." "The first thing to be considered is Ms. Osaka's health," Japan Tennis Association (JTA) Executive Director Toshihisa Tsuchihashi said, adding, "I wish her the earliest possible recovery." As if to say, the problem is all with Naomi Osaka, and not with the system around her.

These lovely-sounding sentiments from people who are theoretically on her side can easily be construed as supporting Osaka. But in fact, they support her withdrawal, not her protest. Many commentators, while congratulating her for what is often thought of as "self-care" or "mental-health", completely ignored what she was trying to say. She was objecting to the culture that inflicts damage on athletes, but these responses assert the problem is not with the culture but with her.

The seeming celebration of women's mental-health often comes with a price-tag. It could cost her a game, or a tournament, a job, or her career. Or, in Gabby Petito's case, where a police officer called for her to work on her "mental health" instead of protecting her from her abuser, the label most likely cost the young woman her life.

Women crying out for help are not going crazy. The desire for fairness, protection, safety, equality, and reasonable expectations do not reflect a problem with women's mental health. They reflect social issues that need change.

Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author, anthropologist, indie-publisher, and commentator on gender issues in society. Her most recent book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my life as a Jewish Woman, was published by Lioness Books in 2021, and can be purchased here. 

Master educator, lifelong learner: Dr. Chaya Gorse...
Thinking about the women of Afghanistan