Special Reports

Local efforts make domestic violence by police a priority

As Crystal Brame lay dying at Harborview Medical Center last week, her father had a vision.

Sitting at his daughter's bedside, Lane Judson envisioned a tough new federal law, one that would force all police departments in the country to take family violence seriously and keep cops from abusing their wives.

Brame's death Saturday inspired at least two other visions of legislation to address the problem of domestic violence by police officers.

One came from a group of Tacoma attorneys and business owners calling themselves Women for Justice. Another came from Mayor Bill Baarsma's office.

The three efforts are loosely united now, all trying to stop domestic violence through local, state and possibly even national legislation - a "Crystal Clear Initiative."

But no one should expect a new law to work magic, said some legal experts and those who have worked extensively with abuse victims and police perpetrators.

Victims of police are so reluctant to come forward, and the power balance so lopsided, that the problem is beyond legislation, they say.

"I don't think it's a bad idea," said Diane Wetendorf, a nationally recognized authority on domestic violence in law enforcement. "But it sounds like an 'in-an-ideal world' kind of thing."

At this point, there is no clear consensus on what a new law would require.

One consistent view, though, is that allegations of domestic abuse by police officers would immediately be removed from normal processing and placed in the hands of an independent group.

Members of the group would have no ties to the local police and political power structure, theoretically allowing them to assess the situation objectively.

The thought is good, said Wetendorf, who estimates she has counseled 400 to 500 victims of domestic abuse. But she says reality is likely to get in the way.

"Police unions are usually very against anybody coming in from the outside," she said. "And most chiefs are not real receptive to it either."

The idea of a special system to deal with abusers inside the power structure is supported by some who counsel offenders.

Pierce County counselor Steve Pepping heads the Northwest Association of Domestic Violence Treatment Professionals. Counselors he has talked to would like to see a statewide office to help identify police officers who have domestic violence issues and get them into treatment.

"We definitely need some kind of office so that victims who are partners of police officers can feel safe in reporting, without the backlash we had here in Tacoma," said Pepping, chairman of the Pierce County Commission Against Domestic Violence.

Pepping said some suggest the Washington State Patrol or the state Criminal Justice Training Commission could run the office.

The office would monitor accused officers and ensure they comply with treatment, Pepping said, and would ensure officers accused of domestic violence receive treatment early, "instead of waiting until there's a huge crisis."

Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe suggested one model for a new law could be the mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect, in which teachers and counselors are required to report their suspicions to authorities.

"You could mandate certain kinds of investigations," said Roe, who served on a Domestic Violence Action Group convened by Gov. Gary Locke in 1999.

"In instances where a report is made involving an active law enforcement officer, the case would have to be referred to 'X.'"

The problem, Roe noted, is figuring out who 'X' should be. Most people trained in criminal investigation, she noted, have law enforcement connections.

Specialists in domestic violence issues point out that a "model policy" for police officer domestic violence already exists.

The policy, formulated in 1999 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, takes an "absolute intolerance" approach to family violence by police officers.

Under the policy, any officer found guilty of domestic violence, either by a court or administrative hearing, automatically has his police powers revoked.

The model policy stresses education and early intervention and tries to break down the good-old-boy nature of some departments with mandatory reporting.

Judson's vision is simpler than that. He has in mind legislation that would cut off federal funding to jurisdictions whose police departments don't have effective domestic abuse programs.

Judson says he appreciates that local politicians want to create a local law but believes that isn't enough. The Crystal Clear Act should be national, he said.

"If there's someone on your force, any law enforcement force, that's in an abuse situation, you're not going to get funds" from the federal government, he said.

Judson wouldn't talk about any abuse his daughter suffered at the hands of her husband and killer, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame. But he talked about the damage domestic violence can do.

"People just suffer," he said. "Abuse can come in so many different forms. It's physical, it's mental, and it's withholding things. Abusers can use kids against you to try to control you. We've got to do something about it."

Staff writers Lisa Kremer and Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693