Special Reports

Police handling of abuse criticized

Past cases of domestic violence in the Tacoma Police Department weren't handled consistently, officers often weren't disciplined enough and the number of cases investigated is low, local and national domestic violence experts say.

Inconsistent and inadequate discipline sends a message to officers and to potential victims that domestic violence isn't taken seriously, the experts said.

Over the past two weeks, police released Internal Affairs files of eight officers investigated in nine incidents of domestic violence and domestic abuse since 1996. One case file has yet to be released; two other investigations are ongoing.

According to the reports and to acting Chief Don Ramsdell, the department investigated 16 allegations of domestic abuse involving officers since 1996, the earliest year for which records are available.

Of those allegations, four weren't sustained, one officer was fired, two quit to avoid being fired, and one was suspended for 12 days and another for 10 days. In addition, one officer was reprimanded twice, two others were reprimanded once and one was sent to disciplinary counseling.

Two other cases are being investigated.

Overall, "the punishment appears to be rather weak," said Anne O'Dell, a retired police officer and domestic violence expert who created a nationally recognized family justice center in San Diego. O'Dell read The News Tribune's summary of the cases, noting she couldn't give a full analysis of each case because she hadn't read the files.

Regarding one officer, whom Internal Affairs investigators found had punched and choked his girlfriend, O'Dell said, "He should be fired."

"They shouldn't want someone like that on a police department," she said. "That's basically sending a message that, 'Yeah, this is the kind of abuse we will tolerate on the police department.'"

The department's handling of domestic violence incidents has drawn close attention since Chief David Brame killed his wife, Crystal, and then himself April 26. The couple's contentious divorce included allegations that Brame had abused his wife.

O'Dell and Mark Wynn of Nashville are nationally consulted experts in police domestic violence. Both pointed out that discipline in the department's past cases was inconsistent.

For example, investigators said the officer who hit his girlfriend twice, choked her and lied about the incidents to investigators was suspended for 10 days. Another officer shoved his wife once and obstructed police officers while drunk; he quit rather than be fired. Another employee threatened his girlfriend and threw her against a freezer; he was given a written reprimand.

"On the surface, it looks like someone in the government minimized it," Wynn said of the department's past cases.

The department needs to develop a policy so cases are dealt with consistently, he said.

"When there's no policy, nobody knows what to do," Wynn said. "Without it, you've got too much wiggle room."

Because the responses were inconsistent, it's difficult to tell victims it's worth reporting their problems to the police department, said Ann Eft, director of the Pierce County Commission Against Domestic Violence.

"There wasn't something that the victim could see and say, 'Well, I can count on that,'" Eft said. "It's like no response, in a way. It means they don't know what's going to happen."

Police spokesman Jim Mattheis said Ramsdell is addressing the department's disciplinary problems in part by appointing a captain, a lieutenant and three detectives to examine domestic violence policies at police departments throughout the country, and report back to him in four weeks. The department plans to create a policy for dealing with officer-involved domestic violence, he said.

Meanwhile, Ramsdell is handling two current complaints based on how allegations are handled in Chicago, where the police department's priority is victim safety.

The two cases have been sent to the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, which will do criminal and Internal Affairs investigations. Tacoma's cases were never handled that way before, Mattheis said.

"We can't continue to be judged by past administrations," Mattheis said, pointing out that past discipline was handled by Chiefs David Brame and James Hairston. "What we've been doing is totally different. ... It's very proactive. ... Don jumped on this right away. He's not taking it lightly."

Still, the department's record will make it difficult to persuade future victims it's worth telling their stories to police, the experts said.

Nationally, Wynn said, "only half the victims are reporting domestic violence. One of the reasons is, they don't trust us."

O'Dell and Wynn also thought the number of investigations was low. In general, Wynn said, domestic violence experts believe 10 to 16 percent of families in the population have domestic violence problems each year.

If the 10 percent figure held true for Tacoma's 380-member department, there would be 38 police families with domestic violence problems each year. Instead, for the last eight years, the department has investigated an average of two complaints per year.

"We know that there are more victims out there," said Judie Fortier, the City of Tacoma's women's rights coordinator. "We know there are victims who have not come forward to the Tacoma Police Department, out of fear."

But Fortier believes the department's release of its domestic violence investigations might make victims feel more confident about talking to the department.

"Some people will be encouraged by the fact that Tacoma has done something," Fortier said. "Some people thought the police weren't doing anything."

Rick Talbert and Connie Ladenburg, the lead City Council members on domestic violence issues, said they were disturbed by the Internal Affairs reports, because they show Tacoma has a long way to go before things will be better for victims.

Talbert has asked whether discipline in past cases can be changed. Mattheis said department policies don't allow past cases to be reopened for new discipline.

Talbert said he also was alarmed to see that three officers charged with fourth-degree domestic violence assault received deferred prosecution.

People convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor aren't allowed to carry weapons, which means that, if convicted, the officers would have lost their jobs. It looks as if they might have received special treatment, Talbert said.

"There's no preferential treatment," said Pierce County deputy prosecutor Al Rose, who prosecuted one of the three officers. The victim in the case minimized her account, probably because she didn't want the officer to lose his job, he said.

Ladenburg said she would like the city or the police department to develop a policy that encourages finding officers with potential problems and getting them help before the situation escalates into violence.

"The earlier you are to get help, the more likely you are to be successful in your treatment," Ladenburg said. "Yet if we are going to punish them and they might lose their job, they are less likely to get the help they need."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658


Abuse On the Net

The News Tribune's coverage of the David Brame scandal is available online at www.tribnet.com/brame.