Special Reports

Inconsistencies mark police handling of domestic abuse

The Tacoma Police Department's policies on domestic violence shouldn't give even an inch of wiggle room to officers and employees who physically assault their spouses or domestic partners.

Threats of violence are unacceptable as well. But an examination of the department's handling of confirmed domestic violence complaints in recent years reveals a decidedly mixed record.

On Thursday, The News Tribune concluded a two-part report on case histories of eight officers and a civilian employee accused of domestic violence or abuse since 1998. The sanctions appear to have been appropriate in most of the cases.

But two cases stand out as excessively lenient department responses to unacceptable outbursts of violence that should have been grounds for termination.

In 1998, then-Chief James Hairston handed down a 10-day suspension to an officer who had beaten and choked his girlfriend. The officer was charged with fourth-degree domestic violence assault, but the charge was dropped after the officer complied with court-ordered conditions and stayed out of trouble for two years.

The next year, Hairston issued only a written reprimand to a civilian employee for throwing his girlfriend into a freezer during an argument.

Hairston, who retired early last year, would be facing a hailstorm of criticism if he had issued those flimsy punishments today.

The good news is that during this period the department did some things right. The total number of domestic violence investigations since 1996 - 15 - isn't out of line with other departments. Internal affairs investigators sustained charges in nine of the cases, a rate higher than many other departments. Tacomans can also find some measure of comfort in knowing that Hairston's slap-on-the-wrist treatment of violent abusers isn't likely to happen again.

But that isn't good enough, not after the unaddressed domestic violence allegations against former Chief David Brame, who killed himself and his wife in April.

Strengthening current domestic violence policies, creating a culture within the department where officers and other employees know that attacking a spouse or domestic partner is a career-ending violation, and establishing a reporting system that protects victims from retaliation should be the main goals of Acting Chief Don Ramsdell.

Ramsdell has launched an extensive review of the department's current policies and is expected to make changes.

The challenge of eradicating domestic violence within the department is multi-faceted. Even with stiffer penalties, no one is really sure how deeply the problem runs in Tacoma or in other departments.

This part of the problem won't be fixed until victims feel safe enough to file a report with police - and confident enough that it will be thoroughly investigated. On this point, Ramsdell has made some important progress already.

When the department recently received a tip of possible abuse by one of its commanders, Ramsdell asked the Pierce County sheriff's office to investigate it. In general, an outside review helps assure an unbiased investigation and greater protection for the victim. It also sends an important message to Tacomans - that the department has nothing to hide and that it won't protect even high-ranking officers from the consequences of domestic violence.

That's a good start. But the department now needs to demonstrate that it will be consistent in its discipline when its new policies are finally in place.