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Gabby Petito: Police Missed These Warning Signs of Domestic Abuse Before Her Death

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Gabby Petito’s body was recovered on Sunday, September 19, after her fiancé Brian Laundrie returned from their months-long, cross-country camping trip without her. Then Laundrie disappeared, himself. Now he’s a person of interest in her death.

Body camera footage from a domestic altercation between the two on August 12 in Utah contains lurid clues into her last days. In it we witness how police determined Petito to be at fault because there was a witness that she slapped him, even though he admitted to shoving her without anyone else present. Regardless of the power and strength imbalances, female-on-male assault and male-on-female assault are treated the same in the eyes of the law.

Sadly, the law combined with the police’s lack of training on the warning signs of domestic violence ultimately culminated in Petito’s death. Judging by the bodycam video, in my opinion, it isn’t hard to conclude that mental illness and the “women are too emotional” trope was key in undermining her credibility. This is familiar to me as a survivor of domestic abuse and someone who is female-passing. Too often, women with mental illness are gaslit by society and our abusers and are blamed even though we are the victims.

For 10 years between college and graduate school, I lived with my mother and physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive father. On my birthday one year, we had a fight after all the toilets stopped working, and I had to use one in an emergency. My father violated my boundaries, entered the bathroom while my pants were down, and tried with all his force to drag me off the toilet.

Were the police called for an incident that left his fingerprints as bruises on my arm? Hardly. My mom’s first suggestion was to phone my psychiatrist. The culmination of this altercation meant no consequences for my abuser but that my mental health was centered. Ultimately, my dad initiated a conversation with my psychiatrist about how I had needed to rely on her support too frequently.

Like Gabby Petito, since I have a mental health disability, I was seen as too emotional, lacking credibility and my condition was centered even though I was the victim. While my father doesn’t have the capacity to kill anyone, too many women are not so lucky. Thus, it is important for authorities to recognize the warning signs of domestic abuse and to make laws taking power and strength imbalances into account when making domestic violence determinations.

Domestic abuse symptoms can actually mimic mental illness. According to VeryWell Mind, they can cause agitation, anxiety, and constant apprehension in the victim. During the bodycam video, police described Petito as “hyperventilating a bit” because of her “anxiety.” She also exclaimed, “He really stresses me out!” and “I know he definitely gets frustrated with me a lot!” about her fiancé. Low self-esteem and seeming fearful are other signs that someone may be experiencing domestic abuse.

But we shouldn’t merely leave the burden on victims; society and the police need to pay attention to red flags in the abusers. When Brian Laundrie wouldn’t let Gabby Petito into their vehicle, the police should have recognized this as a sign of control, a classic symptom of manipulation in domestic abusers. When he admitted that he kept the car keys away from her, that’s a further sign of his heavy-handedness. Gaslighting her about her mental illness is also a red flag of dangerous domestic abuse.

It was actually the gaslighting that culminated in Gabby Petito slapping Brian Laundrie in the first place. “I was trying to get him to stop telling me to calm down,” she said to the police, explaining the reason she put her hands on him.

Ultimately, law enforcement had a chance to recognize that Petito was being abused and save her life, but the law and their lack of training in intimate partner violence handcuffed the police and culminated in her death. For the safety of women and people with mental illness, society needs to do better.

Image via YouTube

Originally published: September 23, 2021
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