Weeks before Gabby Petito, a #vanlife influencer on a cross-country road trip, was reported missing, and before her remains were discovered in a national forest in Wyoming, the 22-year-old found herself crying uncontrollably in the back of a police car. On August 12, she and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, had fought in front of a grocery store in Moab, Utah. A concerned bystander called 911 to report a domestic dispute after witnessing Laundrie strike Petito. According to the caller, “the gentleman was slapping the girl.” Another witness said it appeared Laundrie had taken her phone and locked her out of the van. He told police that he saw Petito hitting Laundrie as she fought to get back inside the van — her home at the time.
But when police pulled over the couple in the now-infamous white van to investigate further, they came to a very different conclusion about what had transpired. After separating and talking with both parties — one of whom was hyperventilating, and one of whom was calm and jovial — they made the determination that it was Petito who was the abuser and Laundrie the victim. Laundrie got a fist-bump from a police officer and was told he did nothing wrong before being driven to a hotel for a free night’s stay. Petito was left with the van and made to spend a night alone in an unfamiliar place while experiencing an apparent mental-health crisis.
The hour-plus body-camera footage of the incident, released by the Moab City Police Department, offers some insight into why the officers came to the determination they did and provides a striking lesson about how the legal mechanisms ostensibly put in place to protect domestic-violence victims over the past few decades can be used against them. Above all, it shows why police are not really the best people to be intervening in domestic-violence incidents in the first place.
Utah is one of 22 states with legislation that requires officers to arrest someone when responding to reports of domestic violence, as long as certain conditions are met. Mandatory arrest laws, as they’re called, first appeared in the 1980s, and were pushed by women’s rights advocates as a way to force law enforcement to take domestic violence seriously. “Absolutely nothing was being done when DV calls came in,” says Rita Smith, former head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who has been working on this issue for more than 40 years. “They’d show up at the call, walk the guy around the block, cool them off, and walk away as soon as they could. It didn’t matter what they saw or what they heard.”
But mandating that officers make an arrest meant that law enforcement was also tasked with determining which person was causing harm, a fraught responsibility complicated by conflicting stories and biases around victim behavior. “You cannot determine who a primary aggressor is based on one incident,” Smith says. “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.” As a result of mandatory arrest laws, she says, arrests of domestic violence survivors went up, as did dual arrests. When police cannot determine who the primary aggressor is, they may simply arrest both people. “That was not a good outcome and was not our intention as advocates,” she says.
The challenges of asking police to quickly determine which party is causing harm is evident in the video footage of Petito and Laundrie. When officers arrive on the scene, Petito is teary, unstable, apologizing, and blaming herself for the conflict. She explains that she was upset because Laundrie locked her outside the van and says he pushed her and grabbed her face. But she admits that she got physical too; she says she slapped him and hit his arm to get his attention when the police were driving behind them. Her fiancé, on the other hand, comes off as the more reliable narrator. In a friendly, relaxed tone, he tells police that he was only trying to get her to calm down. That’s why he took the keys — so that she’d take a walk and get some air. She scratched him while she was trying to get the keys back, he says. He only pushed her to get her off of him.
Faced with this evidence, the police officers discuss what they must do. As one cop explains to 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 is the one with visible injuries — the scratches — the officer concludes that he is the victim. Petito, then, is the aggressor.
The officers decide to separate the couple for the night. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the footage, one of the cops asks a domestic-violence advocate over the phone if it would be possible for Petito to spend the night at the shelter, even though she is the suspect in the incident. The answer is no.
“What the body-cam footage really reinforces is this binary that exists when we’re talking about intimate-partner violence,” says Leigh Goodmark, law professor and director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland. “There can only be an aggressor and a victim. And once you’ve been labeled the aggressor, police and prosecutors have no capacity to see that you have been victimized, either on that occasion or on any previous occasion.”
Ultimately, police declined to charge Petito with domestic battery, determining that she did not intend to cause physical harm. Still, the spectre of jail time and potential prosecution hung over the entire incident. “It shows just how perfect of a victim you have to be for anyone to take you seriously. Because young and pretty and white didn’t do it for her here, because there were injuries on him, because she was kind of a mess when they came,” Goodmark says. “If there’s anybody the system does, in theory, work for, it’s white women. And when you see that the system doesn’t even work for an attractive white woman, you really have to question whether it’s going to work for anybody at all.”
The officers were operating under a criminal-justice framework, analyzing the scene in terms of who needed to be arrested and charged, she added. But that’s not the only way to handle domestic-violence calls. “Imagine a [situation] where the people who get called out don’t have the power to put anybody in jail, but do have training and expertise in de-escalating conflict, accompanied by an expert in intimate partner violence,“ she says. “One can imagine services that are not defined necessarily by victim and offender, but by people who need help.”
We still don’t know what happened to Petito. Laundrie, who is currently missing, is considered a person of interest in the homicide investigation. But we do know that in a moment of acute crisis, Petito was treated as someone who deserved punishment, instead of support. What if she’d had access to mental-health services, or if she had been able to stay in a shelter that night? What if someone, anyone, had taken the time to fully understand why it was that she was so terribly upset? What if she had been treated as worthy of care?
And she is not an anomaly. Many domestic-violence survivors face something similar once police enter the scene, viewed by the criminal-justice system as abusers for actions taken in self-defense. Four women a day are killed by their intimate partners, and countless others experience subtler forms of abuse. When domestic-violence victims are arrested, research has found that they become less likely to seek assistance from the legal system. In effect, they become even more alienated from the system supposedly set up to help them.
Near the end of the footage, Petito is seen standing on the edge of the road, nervous, her face red from crying. She has been ordered to spend the night alone, in an unknown place, thousands of miles from her friends and her family, and is about to get back into the van. She asks an officer how far she will have to drive to get Laundrie in the morning, as she is not used to driving the van by herself. She appears, at least to me, to be scared.