Stereotypes and Biases Hurt Gabby Petito’s Domestic Violence Case


Danny Olivares, Creative Director

When Gabby Petito and her fiancé were pulled over due to a domestic violence incident, the Moab, Utah police officers failed to do their job and potentially save her life, according to College of DuPage criminal justice professor Theodore Darden.
Darden, in an interview, said the initial confrontation between Petito and Brian Laundrie involved a series of mistakes by the officers who responded.
“I was disturbed at what I watched, and the reason why I was disturbed was because the officers had an opportunity to do their job and they didn’t,” Darden said. “It was clear that the state law required that an individual be arrested in the situation of a domestic violence incident.” With the information the officers had at the time, Petito, as the primary aggressor, should have been arrested according to the law. Darden says, “Regardless of what we know now at that time, they should have taken her into custody. And if they did that they probably, not saying with absolute certainty, but they probably would have saved her life because that would have set other things into motion.”
On Aug. 12, Gabby Petito and her fiancé were pulled over for disorderly conduct. As of Oct. 12, Gabby Petito’s death has been ruled a homicide by manual strangulation. While her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, has been named as a person of interest and is currently still missing, no official suspect has been named in her death. Her remains were found in Grand Trenton National Park on September 19, according to a Wyoming coroner, Petito died by strangulation at least three weeks before her body was found.
Darden also took issue with the way the officers handled talking with Laundrie.
“I don’t think they were as professional as they could have been in terms of asking more probing questions,” Darden said. “There’s one point where the officers and Laundrie were making light of her size.”
Darden believes the officers fell into stereotypes that allowed them to talk themselves out of arresting Petito given the information they had at the time. He believes there is a lot for other officers and criminal justice students to learn from the incident.

“Any time we have a tape we have an opportunity for a teaching moment,” he said. “If you watch carefully there’s a lot of clues that you should be aware of: Look how nervous he is. Look how distraught she is. She was acting more like a victim than a suspect, and he was acting more like a suspect than a victim. Her words she was describing as if she was the aggressor, but that’s not unusual for a victim of domestic violence to see themselves somehow as being a perpetrator.”
The stereotypes that men aren’t real victims of domestic abuse, and that women are weaker played heavily into the interaction the officers had with Petito and Laundrie, Darden said. And it also allowed Laundrie to help the officers talk themselves out of arresting anyone.
“We hope that we have police who are thoughtful enough, who are professional enough and trained enough, and understand how to handle these situations without letting their biases kick in or even their frustrations,” Darden said. He pointed to telltale signs of the misjudgment in the officers’ minds from the conversation he saw in the footage of the incident. “
“‘If he goes back that’s on him,’” Darden said, quoting the video. That sounds like frustration, and we should never hear those words coming out of any police officer’s mouth. Those words should never have been uttered.”