Cop domestic violence targeted

Legislature: Three bills pending would make Washington a national leader in helping to fight abusive police officers

January 16, 2004 

Washington could be a national leader in addressing domestic violence by cops, if lawmakers pass a bill spurred by the Brame killings, a parade of local officials and advocates told a legislative committee on Thursday in Olympia.

The bill is intended to prevent tragedies such as the one that occurred in April when Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, then himself. The legislation requires all local, county and state law enforcement agencies to have domestic violence policies and sets minimum standards for those policies, though it allows the agencies to go further.

"Sometimes good public policy comes about as a result of a crisis," said state Sen. Debbie Regala (D-Tacoma), the bill's primary sponsor.

Crystal Brame alleged in divorce papers filed in the months before the shootings that her husband had abused her for years.

But she didn't file any formal complaints to that effect. That's fairly common, say experts on police-involved domestic violence, because victims might feel that calling the cops won't do much good if the abuser is a cop. They might also fear reporting could cause the abuser to lose his or her job.

Federal law prohibits people found guilty of domestic violence from serving as law enforcement officers.

Yet, domestic abuse is far more common among police officers than in the general population, according to some studies, such as two published in the early 1990s that found at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence.

The bill would require law enforcement agencies by June 2005 to adopt minimum policy requirements for handling police-involved domestic violence, which will be developed by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. They include screening applicants for past involvement - or accusations of involvement - in domestic violence and sharing information on such incidents and accusations with other agencies, offering counseling and requiring officers to report when one of their own is implicated in a domestic abuse situation.

"It's something that we've needed for a long time," said Pat Frantz, president of Local 6 of the International Union of Police Associations, after the hearing.

Frantz's union, which represents Tacoma patrol officers, detectives and sergeants, was represented on an ad hoc panel of more than 70 law enforcement, civic and labor leaders, lawyers and domestic violence advocates who worked for months on the legislation.

The so-called Task Force on Officer-Involved Domestic Violence also had a hand in crafting a new domestic violence policy for the Tacoma Police Department, which Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma said would be adopted "within a few weeks."

Several members of the task force - including Baarsma, Task Force co-chairwoman and attorney Debra Hannula and Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor - testified glowingly about the bill at Thursday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which didn't draw any opponents.

Some committee members expressed concerns that officers' careers could be damaged if they seek help for domestic problems or are accused of domestic abuse - even if they're exonerated.

"Once someone has made an accusation, that mark is there," said Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn). "That will be remembered."

But committee chairman Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane Valley) said he planned to advance the bill out of his committee "ASAP" and Regala predicted there will be strong support in the Senate. Her co-sponsor list includes 20 of the 49 members of the Senate, including McCaslin and members of the Republican leadership who control the Senate.

There are two other bills pending that would establish mandatory police domestic violence policies, including an identical House version of Regala's bill, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Lantz (D-Gig Harbor).

If any of the bills pass, several people who track the issue said it would make Washington the first state with a statewide policy for police-involved domestic violence. It's likely other states would follow suit, said Mark Wynn, a former Nashville police officer who is a nationally consulted domestic violence expert.

"I'm talking to police all over the country, and they're all talking about it now," Wynn said. "The entire country is going to say, 'They had a problem, they're fixing it, let's do that too.'"

And Frantz said that there's an effort afoot in Washington, D.C., to enact a federal policy on the issue.

Kenneth P. Vogel: 360-754-6093
Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658

What the bill would do

Among other things, the bill would require that police agencies:

• Do pre-hire screenings to determine if applicants have been accused of committing domestic violence or child abuse or neglect.

• Immediately investigate allegations of domestic violence, possibly leading to relieving officers of their firearms or suspending their powers of arrest.

• Enact procedures to handle claims that one officer is the victim of domestic violence by another officer.

• Tell the alleged victim how the investigation is going.

Officers would be required to report:

• When they respond to a domestic violence call involving another officer, either from their own agency or another.

• If they have been investigated for allegations of child abuse or neglect, or if they are the subject of a restraining order.

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