Special Reports

Victims come first

Editor's note: For the purposes of this article, abusers are referred to as male and victims as female. There are incidents of women abusing men, and those cases are growing in number, but by far the majority of cases still are men who abuse women.

CHICAGO - If Tacoma wants to do a better job of dealing with cops who commit domestic violence, the place to look for answers lies 2,000 miles east of Puget Sound. In this city of 2.9 million, the police department has created what is widely acknowledged as the nation's model for dealing with abusive cops and - perhaps more important - their victims.

The proof is in the number of victims willing to step forward and ask for help. In Chicago, the annual average ratio of abuse reports is 1 report for every 54 officers on the 13,500-person force.

In Tacoma, within the 380-officer department Chief David Brame ran before he shot his wife and killed himself, the annual ratio is 1 complaint for every 532 cops.

That doesn't mean cops are less violent in Tacoma. Instead, it may mean that as many as 90 percent of the women abused by cops in Tacoma are too afraid to report the crime - women like Crystal Brame.

"You're only seeing the tip of the iceberg" in Tacoma if reporting rates are that low, said Jan Russell, a victims' advocate in the Chicago program. "You don't really know what's going on (or) how serious the problem is until it's safe for the victims to come forward."

The Chicago program, developed by its police department a decade ago, is acclaimed as the only program in the nation that seems to have convinced spouses and girlfriends that they can safely report abuse, and get the abusive cop dealt with or dismissed.

If Tacoma's victims reported abuse at the same rate as Chicago's, it would mean as many as 60 women in the past 10 years would have gotten help and protection from an abusive police officer husband or boyfriend.

"Who do you tell?" asked a Tacoma woman now separated from the abusive cop she married. "Why would I call 911 for a Tacoma police officer to come and assist me? ... If they don't keep it totally confidential, he's going to find out."

While Tacoma failed to deal with the warning signs evident in divorce papers filed by Crystal Brame, this month in Chicago a deputy chief, Richard Guerrero, was stripped of his gun and badge and removed from his position due to allegations he had harassed or stalked his estranged wife. Guerrero has been reassigned to a desk job while the department investigates his actions and decides whether he should be disciplined or fired.

How the program began

Chicago police began searching for a better solution to to the issue of cops who abuse their families 15 years ago, when the department suffered its own Brame-like tragedies. In one year, three Chicago officers killed their spouses and then committed suicide. Two were particularly grim - one happened in a Walgreen's full of people; another in front of the couple's two children.

The department's first approach was to get tougher. Chicago commanders vowed that the next time a Chicago cop was found guilty of domestic violence he would be fired.

That approach failed, and tragically so.

The next officer accused of abuse faced a final hearing to determine whether he would be fired. He pleaded with his wife to recant, but she refused.

"A couple of days before the hearing he abducted her, took her downstate, killed her, dumped her body," said Russell, the Chicago victims' advocate. The husband "came to the police board hearing as if nothing had happened."

Investigators quickly learned the truth.

"That really was a shock to the department, that they're trying to do the right thing here and the woman ends up dead," said Russell. "The reality is that woman might be alive today if the department hadn't sought to fire him.

"That's when the department decided that they didn't know enough about domestic violence, that the dynamics are different when you're dealing with people who are officers."

The most important thing Chicago learned, and the element that sets it apart from virtually all others, was that the department's first priority must be victim safety - not perpetrator punishment.

"Our thing here is entirely victim-focused," Russell said. "We're not looking at whether he's a good cop or not, whether people love him. We're looking at victim safety."

Of course, it's impossible to know if a Chicago-style system could have saved Crystal Brame. But imagine for a moment that her husband was chief in Chicago. Here's what would have happened:

In Chicago, independent civilian investigators would have been on the case at least four days before the shooting, when her allegations first were publicized on a local Web site and noticed in City Hall and at the police department. (The inquiry actually might have begun even earlier, when rumors of violence in their marriage began circulating in the department because of allegations in their divorce.)

While investigators examined the allegations, another police unit would have determined whether to order David Brame to undergo psychiatric and physical examinations and possible treatment.

None of that would have been made public unless the civilian investigators decided Brame should be stripped of his badge and gun.

And the day investigators began looking at David Brame, Crystal would have learned about the department's procedures and her legal rights from her own advocate - an expert in domestic violence, cops and the law. Everything she told the advocate would have been kept secret from police unless she gave written permission for the information to be shared.

Police abuse in Tacoma

The Chicago Police Department's team of civilian investigators gets more than 250 complaints per year.

When told that only five Tacoma officers out of 380 had been investigated for domestic violence in the last seven years, Chicago's experts were aghast.

"That's absurd," Russell said.

"That is low. That's clear," said Leslie Landis, head of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's office on domestic violence.

Even Chicago's police union president, who believes the police department's system encourages frivolous complaints, was momentarily stunned. "You're kidding," said Mark Donahue.

Russell and others in Chicago said such a ratio doubtless means many Tacoma women aren't complaining because they're afraid, or because they think there's no point.

Indeed, after Brame shot his wife and himself, more than a half-dozen women called The News Tribune to say they'd been abused by cops, but no official action was taken. Still more victims of cops called local women's groups and domestic violence hot lines.

How the Chicago model works

Chicago's system is two-pronged.

One element is housed outside the department in a location kept secret even from police. It's where Jan Russell and another victims' advocate meet with victims, explain their rights and counsel them through the entire process.

The other element - investigations - resides in the department's regular Office of Professional standards. There, a team of six civilian investigators is assigned exclusively to examine domestic violence complaints against officers.

The victims' advocate office, in a west side Chicago neighborhood, is the heart of what makes Chicago's system unique - the confidential victims' advocates. Though the police department pays their salaries, they share no information about their clients with the department.

Why the secrecy about their location as well? "That's to prevent squad cars from driving past here trying to figure out who's going in and out," Russell said.

In more complex cases, her office may refer victims to other domestic violence programs for specialty services.

The toughest choice for the victim is to decide whether to report her abuser and how to do it.

One complicating factor is a 1996 federal law, the Lautenberg amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 (named for the U.S. senator who proposed the law), which made it illegal for convicted domestic abusers to carry guns.

Cops must be able to carry a gun - no gun, no badge. For that reason, Russell said, many victims of domestic abuse by cops often don't want to come forward, or even ask for help, because they think their husband or boyfriend will be fired.

Russell also said that in many cases, the most effective approach may be not to file a domestic violence complaint, but to just let an officer know that he or she is being watched by the department. That often curbs controlling behavior, a common precursor to violence.

"This is my personal opinion, not the department's, but I think it's better that they stay on the job where we can monitor their behavior," rather than firing every officer suspected of domestic abuse, Russell said.

The other element in the Chicago system is led by Andrea Stoutenborough, a 16-year veteran of the Office of Professional Standards. She heads the six-person team that specializes in investigating domestic violence charges against Chicago police officers.

"What we're mostly talking about is a straight beating case," she said. They also investigate other domestic issues, such as violation of protection orders, harassment, stalking and child abuse.

When an officer is accused of domestic violence, whether in a 911 call or in a call to Russell's victims' advocate office or the OPS, Stoutenborough dispatches investigators to interview witnesses just as police officers do. The difference, she said, is that her investigators are not sworn officers, don't prepare court cases and don't have the ability to seek a subpoena.

Stoutenborough's investigators' job is to find facts and analyze cases to see if officers should face department discipline.

Stoutenborough can also call the officer's supervisors and have them order the officer not to contact his victim.

"We might even have the officer stripped (of his police powers and badge) right away or have his guns taken," she said. "Our number one concern is the safety of the victim."

The OPS offices, though a part of the department, are located across the street from headquarters. They have the OPS title stenciled on the door, but bear no police department logo.

Even though the OPS is part of the department, administrators wanted to lessen their association with it and emphasize their independence, Stoutenborough said.

If abuse rumors, fueled by allegations in divorce papers, circulated in the Chicago department, as happened in Tacoma with the Brames' divorce, officers who heard them would immediately call the OPS, Stoutenborough said.

"That's pretty amazing" that Crystal Brame's allegations were known but not acted upon, she said.

Stoutenborough's investigation would ultimately be forwarded to Lori Lightfoot, chief administrator of the Office of Professional Standards. Lightfoot then would recommend a penalty, when appropriate.

Under the department's rules, negotiated with the Fellowship of Police union, Lightfoot has only three choices: a reprimand, a suspension of any number of days between 1 and 30, or termination.

The officer can appeal Lightfoot's recommendation internally, but ultimately her recommendation goes to the civilian police board, which makes all firing decisions. The board can agree with Lightfoot's recommendation or change it. The board also has the power to order the officer to get counseling - something Lightfoot cannot.

Chicago's system requires a holistic approach that places the victim's safety first, but also attempts to treat problem officers.

Said Russell: "You need a whole plan. You need to know what your values are. And you need to start with a hard case. If anyone has a hard case, it's Tacoma."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658