Special Reports

Subjects of abuse complaints still on job

In 1998, a Tacoma Police officer "cold-cocked" his girlfriend with two punches to the face in a Lakewood parking lot.

He choked her, broke her necklaces and shouted obscenities at her, according to investigative records. A few weeks earlier, he had kicked in the door of her home, demanding that she return an engagement ring.

He avoided a court conviction on charges of fourth-degree assault and kept his job, after serving a 10-day suspension without pay, ordered by then-Police Chief James Hairston. Later, he was promoted to detective, a rank he still holds.

The domestic violence investigation of Michael Justice is one of seven sustained complaints involving Tacoma Police Department employees since 1996. City officials on Friday released heavily redacted Internal Affairs files related to three of the complaints; all three employees remain on the payroll. Officials expect to release the remaining four files Tuesday.

Police department officials did not release the names of the employees. The News Tribune obtained them through court documents and other sources.

The Internal Affairs files emerge as the City of Tacoma and its police department struggle to redefine policies regarding domestic violence in the wake of Police Chief David Brame's fatal shooting of his wife and himself April 26.

Acting Police Chief Don Ramsdell, promoted to assistant chief in 2002, was not a member of the department command staff when the complaint involving Justice was investigated.

He declined to comment directly on the investigative files, or how they were handled by previous police department leaders. But he said the department will develop a response to domestic violence complaints that includes "a complete evaluation of the facts and circumstances of each case.

"We are listening to and talking with local and national domestic violence experts, and are currently in the process of revising our policies and procedures relative to domestic violence incidents," he said.

"The bottom line is that when department members are involved in sustained allegations of domestic violence, they will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination."

Documents related to the three employees show their punishments ranged from disciplinary counseling to a 10-day suspension.

In 1998, Justice faced charges of fourth-degree assault in Lakewood Municipal Court. He received a two-year continuance on the charge, meaning he would not be convicted if he avoided further criminal violations. Lack of a conviction meant he could continue to carry a gun, and keep his job.

He agreed to enter treatment for anger management and alcohol abuse, pay restitution to the victim, and abide by a no-contact order.

When police investigators asked him about his behavior, he lied. He said he didn't punch the woman, and didn't wait for her in the parking lot.

Justice did not respond to requests for comment, and his former girlfriend could not be reached. Hairston also did not respond to requests for comment.

A civilian police department employee, Ted Garn, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault in 1999 after an argument with a girlfriend ended with him throwing her into a freezer. He was convicted of fourth-degree assault in 1999.

After an internal investigation, Hairston gave Garn a written reprimand. As a civilian employee, Garn did not carry a department-issued weapon.

He is on extended leave from the department, unrelated to the 1999 complaint. He refused comment Friday.

A third department employee, a female officer, received disciplinary counseling in 2002. The complaint alleged that the officer improperly used police department equipment to perform criminal background checks on her husband.

Local domestic violence experts said the responses to the three complaints illustrate the challenge city leaders face.

"Until the city of Tacoma gets some policies that cover domestic violence in the workplace, we're going to have no consistency in how to address these problems from a disciplinary standpoint," said Judie Fortier, Tacoma's women's rights coordinator.

"The second thing we are not going to be able to provide is victim safety."

Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps wants greater accountability from abusive officers and the administrators who discipline them.

Phelps said the city needs procedures that include mandatory classes in domestic violence issues, counseling and check-ins with the victims.

"We have to work more on trying to solve the problem - we can't just punish it," he said Friday.

Councilman Mike Lonergan believes that Tacoma already is dealing with domestic violence cases differently now than it has over the past few years.

Still, he admitted, "I don't think you're going to find anyone in our police department or in our city government or in our citizenry who will say that mistakes have not been made in the past."

Staff writers Kris Sherman and Stacey Mulick contributed to this report.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486