On Monday, Gabby Petito’s parents announced they’ve filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against Utah police for failing to protect Petito when they stopped her and then-boyfriend Brian Laundrie days before he killed her. The Laundrie family lawyer has since responded with a predictably upsetting statement, telling Fox News the officers “did not contribute to the death of Gabby Petito in any way,” and calling Petito “the aggressor” who “admitted on camera to hitting Brian first.”
Police body-cam footage of the incident in question—and all common sense, considering Petito is dead and Laundrie admitted to killing her—starkly refute this. A year ago, on Aug. 12, cops from the small desert town in Moab, Utah, responded to concerned callers who said they’d witnessed the couple fighting in front of a grocery store. At least one caller reportedly alleged that “the gentleman was slapping the girl,” and another witness said Laundrie had taken Petito’s phone and locked her out of their shared van, which served as their home during their road trip.
Nonetheless, body-cam footage shows officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins at one point fist-bumping Laundrie and telling him he did nothing wrong. The officers instead cited Petito for domestic violence, as she admitted to cops that she’d hit Laundrie and was crying and hyperventilating while Laundrie appeared visibly calm and at ease with the officers. Of course, all too often, domestic violence victims’ reactions to their abuse often lead to them being written off, and vilified by people who don’t understand trauma responses or are biased by their own misogyny.
Instead of investigating further or offering Petito any support, Pratt and Robbins determined the couple should simply be separated for the night. Laundrie was put up in a nearby hotel for free while Petito was left to spend the night alone in the van, isolated in an unfamiliar place, while visibly in the midst of a mental health crisis.
The intervention was a stunning and ultimately fatal failure. Within days, Petito’s family reported her missing. A month after the incident, on Sept. 19, Petito’s body was found near Grand Teton national park in Wyoming. Laundrie disappeared shortly after being named a person of interest in Petito’s case, and his body was found in October along with a notebook containing his written confession to killing Petito.
Petito’s mother, Nicole Schmidt, described watching the aforementioned police body-cam video as “very painful” at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “If the officers had been properly trained and followed the law, Gabby would still be alive today,” James McConkie, an attorney representing the family, said in a statement. At a press conference, McConkie noted there were “clear signs that were evident that morning that Gabby was a victim and that she was in serious need of immediate help.” He accused the Moab City Police Department of having “chronic problems with protecting” domestic violence victims and failing to train officers to support them. The officers’ mishandling of Petito’s case stemmed from “an institutional failure plain and simple.”
In January, an independent investigation of Pratt and Robbins determined they should be placed on probation and said the officers had made a number of crucial mistakes. Not only had they misidentified Petito as the abuser, but they’d failed to take photos of Petito’s injuries or even contact the 9-1-1 caller who had reported seeing Laundrie slap Petito. Pratt and Robbins wrote up the incident as “disorderly conduct” instead of domestic violence, erroneously concluded that “Brian was acting in self-defense,” and neglected to investigate Petito’s claim that Laundrie had grabbed her face and left a scratch on her cheek.
A 2015 survey found 24 percent of women who have called the police to report intimate partner violence or sexual assault say that they were consequently arrested or threatened with arrest themselves. In 2018, college student Lauren McCluskey was killed by a man she’d reported to the University of Utah’s police department over 20 times. Officers later allegedly shared nude photos of McCluskey amongst themselves that they’d obtained from her case. Cops in police departments in Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Kansas, and other states have also recently been exposed for abusing their power to stalk local women.
The Petito family’s lawyer is right that Petito’s death stems from “institutional failure”—certainly from the Moab City Police Department, but also from policing broadly, and its incompatibility with helping domestic violence victims.