Months after Gabby Petito was found dead after a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, an independent investigation of two officers who mishandled a domestic violence dispute between the couple while they were in Utah has ruled that the officers, Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins, should be placed on probation.
On, Aug. 12, Pratt and Robbins pulled over Petito and Laundrie in response to a reported “domestic problem,” and made a number of crucial mistakes, per the investigation.
The reports that police had received from callers who witnessed the couple fighting in front of a grocery store in Moab alleged “the gentleman was slapping the girl,” and another witness said Laundrie had taken Petito’s phone and locked her out of the van. In the now-famous police body camera footage of the confrontation between officers and Petito and Laundrie, by the end of the interaction, an officer fist-bumps Laundrie and tells him he did nothing wrong, before the couple is separated for the night. Laundrie is set up for a free stay at a hotel, and Petito, left in the van that the two have been traveling in, alone in an unfamiliar place amid an obvious mental health crisis.
According to the report written on the investigation, notably conducted by Price City, Utah police captain Brandon Ratcliffe, Pratt and Robbins were in error for not citing Petito for domestic violence, since she had admitted to the officers that she was the aggressor in the incident in question. The report conceded that she wasn’t the “long-term predominant aggressor in this relationship,” but that people who are found to be the aggressor in a domestic violence situation should be cited regardless of their intent to harm.
The report also said the officers had failed to take photos of Petito’s injuries, or contact the 9-1-1 caller who had reported seeing Laundrie slap Petito. The officers were also mistaken in reporting the incident as “disorderly conduct” instead of domestic violence, altogether. Further, the officers had erroneously concluded that “Brian was acting in self-defense,” while not investigating a complaint from Petito that Laundrie had grabbed her face and left a scratch on her cheek.
Many of the mistakes listed in the report aren’t new information — the Aug. 12 incident, which came less than a month before Petito was reported missing, has been widely discussed and dissected by domestic violence experts and advocates since Petito’s disappearance became a national story. Some have identified grabbing someone’s face, as Laundrie allegedly did to Petito, as a “red flag” for future strangulation, which was later revealed to be Petito’s cause of death.
What’s particularly dismaying about the report is how it makes light of actions and decision-making from the officers that ultimately wound up being fatal for Petito. On top of featuring lengthy, sympathetic interviews with the apologetic officers who mishandled the incident, Ratcliffe wrote, “If this case was handled flawlessly, would it have changed anything? Nobody knows.”
His words fly in direct contrast with testimony from experts and survivors who believe a proper intervention could have saved a young woman’s life, and see the body camera footage and actions by police as one of many examples of law enforcement being fundamentally ill-equipped to handle domestic violence disputes. “You cannot determine who a primary aggressor is based on one incident,” Rita Smith, former head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told The Cut last September. “It’s not what they see right in front of them. They’ve got to get some kind of a historical perspective of this interaction to know who really is in danger here.”
Yet, because of how law enforcement officers have been trained to understand victims and abusers in domestic violence situations and abusive relationships as a binary, when Petito admitted to hitting Laundrie, Pratt and Robbins jumped to conclusions without even attempting to further investigate power dynamics or complexities within the relationship.
Utah is one of nearly half of all states with mandatory arrest laws that require officers to make an arrest if they’re called to handle a domestic violence dispute. Victim advocates once called for this as a solution to police not taking domestic violence disputes seriously. But in the years since mandatory arrest laws were first adopted, experts say the policy has made it more likely for victims to be arrested and criminalized for self-defense, because of biases, or biased assessment of victim and abuser behaviors when police arrive on the scene. As we can see in the body camera footage from Aug. 12, where Petito is crying, hyperventilating, and admits to hitting Laundrie, Laundrie is visibly calm and at ease with the officers — one of whom, again, literally fist-bumps him.
Law enforcement and the broader criminal justice system have a long history of requiring victims to meet impossible, dangerous standards to be seen as victims at all. Despite Petito’s privilege as a young, middle-class white woman, at the time that she and Laundrie were pulled over, officers seem to have read her as hysterical, less credible than Laundrie, and as an imperfect victim unworthy of support because she’d admitted to hitting Laundrie.
Ultimately, a number of jarring statistics show Officers Pratt and Robbins weren’t the exception but the rule when it comes to law enforcement’s inability to handle domestic disputes. One 2020 survey found 24% of women who have called the police to report intimate partner violence or sexual assault say that they were consequently arrested, themselves, or threatened with arrest. One 2010 study found less than half of surveyed police officers said they were likely to believe a woman who said her husband had raped her, despite how marital rape is illegal in all 50 states. Several studies have found at least 40% of police officers are domestic abusers, themselves.
Sure, “nobody knows” what would have happened if officers had actually investigated the domestic dispute that was brought to their attention or offered some miniscule amount of support to the clearly distressed Gabby Petito in her last days alive. But we do know that Officers Pratt and Robbins severely mishandled her case, and mishandling of domestic violence disputes is both systemic and devastating across police departments.