Special Reports

Chicago model could guide response here to police abuse

Fifteen years ago, Chicago recognized it needed to change the way it handled officer-related domestic abuse. But it took three murder-suicides by police officers to drive the lesson home.

If Tacoma officials are smart, they will heed some of the lessons Chicago learned on its way to becoming the nation's model in handling abusive officers and their victims.

The most important lesson Tacoma can learn in the wake of the David and Crystal Brame tragedy is that the victim's safety must be the top priority. Victims need to know that they can report abuse, that they'll be taken seriously and that investigations will not become in-house whitewashes.

In Chicago, that change in priorities has resulted in an annual ratio of 1 abuse report for every 54 officers. In Tacoma, the ratio is 1 for every 532 officers. Unless Tacoma cops are excep-tionally less inclined to domestic violence than their Chicago counterparts, that enormous gap must indicate a systemic problem that discourages victims from reporting abuse.

It's a problem that has drawn intense scrutiny since April 26 when Brame shot his wife Crystal, who had filed for divorce, and then himself.

After that, several women told The News Tribune that no action had been taken when they had made abuse complaints against Tacoma cops. Others said they didn't risk reporting abuse because they were too afraid of retaliation or didn't think they would be taken seriously.

That has to change. The city can't afford to react to the Brame tragedy - and the subsequent revelations of official inaction - with anything but a determined effort to change.

If the Chicago lesson is followed, that would mean hiring an independent victims' advocate who does not operate out of the police department. The advocate could assess the situation and help the spouse decide whether or not to pursue a complaint. In some cases, just letting the officer know he's being watched can curb abusive behavior.

Chicago also has non-police investigators with the authority to recommend department response to substantiated abuse claims that fall short of criminal charges. The investigator can recommend reprimand, suspension of 1 to 30 days, or termination. A civilian review board can accept that recommendation or change it, and can also require the officer to get counseling.

A problem with copying Chicago's model is that in Washington, state law mandates arrest of domestic violence sus-pects. That's an important law to victims' advocates, but it also can discourage an officer's spouse from reporting abuse. She knows her partner likely will lose his job if he's charged with domestic abuse because he would no longer be allowed to carry a weapon under federal law.

To adequately address police abusers, solutions short of arrest need to be found for cases where the victim wants the abuse to stop and the abuser to get help - but not lose his job.

Crystal Brame very likely would have identified with those motives. She tried to divorce her husband in a low-key way so that he would not be professionally ruined. Had there been more options available to her, both she and David Brame might be alive today - and the City of Tacoma infinitely better off.