Special Reports

Tacoma's new policy is not zero tolerance

The Tacoma Police Department's new policy on officer-involved domestic violence has been praised by police officers, domestic violence victim advocates, and even former victims throughout the community.

But one provision gives at least one national expert pause.

The policy doesn't include a "zero-tolerance" edict, in which any employee found to have engaged in domestic violence shall be fired immediately. Zero tolerance has been hotly debated among the small group of people nationally who work in police-involved domestic violence.

Detective Bill Roberts of Clark County, Wash., created a zero-tolerance policy for his department. He describes it this way: "If I push my bride ... off a bed, or off a cliff, it's still domestic violence," and either way, it's a firing offense.

Tacoma officials believe that's too extreme. Officers convicted of a domestic violence crime will be fired immediately, they said, and Internal Affairs will investigate any allegation. But some minor domestic problems are better handled with discipline and counseling, they believe.

To use Roberts' example, if an officer in Tacoma were to push his wife out of bed and an Internal Affairs investigation determined it qualified as domestic violence, the chief could decide on a lesser punishment than firing, such as counseling.

Tacoma's policy is based on the advice of victims of police domestic violence, and counselors who have worked with hundreds of victims.

"I think that zero tolerance is a scary way to go," said Dottie Davis, a Fort Wayne, Ind., police captain who has written guidelines for police domestic-violence policies.

A zero-tolerance policy means officers won't want to ask for help if they think they have problems at home, victim advocates say. Zero tolerance means battered spouses will be afraid to ask police for help, because victims often don't want their spouses to lose their jobs, they say.

"The more harsh you make it, the more reluctant people are going to be to come forward," said victim advocate Diane Wetendorf of Chicago, who will be lecturing in Tacoma next month.

And zero tolerance means abusers could be put out on the street without a job, potentially creating more anger at the victim. Advocates say abusers are most dangerous at two times: When their victim tries to leave, and when they lose their jobs.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, an Alexandria, Va., organization that helps police departments develop policies, recommends zero tolerance.

Nancy Turner of the association was reluctant to criticize Tacoma's policy, saying it seems to reflect what the community wants. But she said she thinks the policy gives department officials too much flexibility in deciding how to punish employees.

Interim Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell and Capt. Tom Strickland, who wrote the policy, said they believe that if the employee has a pattern of violence, or serious problems, he or she likely will be fired. Only minor cases will lead to counseling or discipline, they said.

The policy doesn't define what constitutes minor cases, because there's an enormous range of possibilities, Strickland said.

Tacoma attorney Debra Hannula said the Task Force on Officer-Involved Domestic Violence (formerly the Crystal Clear Committee) researched and debated zero tolerance many times. She said she was appalled by the association's stance. She met with association members twice.

"This is not making victims safer," Hannula said of zero tolerance. "I was like, you have got to be kidding me. ... This is just a death warrant for the victim, and you don't care."

At one of the meetings, Hannula - usually considered a calm, capable leader by members of the task force - became so frustrated with Turner's insistence on zero tolerance that she stormed out of the room to cool down.

But Turner was appalled that officers could be sent to counseling for domestic violence problems. "What other crime do police officers or civilians commit that they get sent to counseling?" she asked.

Davis said police departments often prefer zero tolerance because it protects them when fired officers sue to get their jobs back.

People who prefer zero tolerance, Davis said, "are thinking liability, liability, liability." Victim advocates, she said, "are thinking victim safety, victim safety, victim safety." Tacoma has made a good move in choosing victim safety, she said.

"It would be nice if everyone would look at victim safety as the highest priority, not how to protect your job, not how to protect the department from liability," Davis said.

Lt. Jim Barker, who supervises the San Diego Police Department's domestic violence unit and lectures on police domestic violence throughout California, said Tacoma officials are politically brave.

Most departments, including San Diego's, claim they have a zero-tolerance policy because officers convicted of domestic violence will be fired, he said - and that's true in Tacoma. But most departments, such as Tacoma's and San Diego's, actually have flexibility in how to discipline officers who have been investigated for domestic violence but not charged with a crime.

"Politically, we have zero tolerance," he said. "Case by case (as in Tacoma) is more realistic."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658



Comparison: Police-violence experts across the country praise the policy. Back page