World of Hurt

The St. Louis Police Department faces a taboo topic: Domestic violence within its ranks

"Susan" says her husband abused her even after they divorced four years ago. "Any time I spoke to him, he was very violent with me -- a lot of pushing and shoving," the St. Louis resident says.

But although she had a colleague at the hospital where she worked document her bruises, for the most part Susan suffered in silence. Susan's ex-husband was -- and still is -- an officer with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and she worried that if she asked for a restraining order, he might lose his right to carry a weapon -- and lose his job. "I was very scared about that," she says. "I had no means of support, except that the court forced him to support me. When I said, 'I'll call the police,' his response was always, 'I am the police.'"

In June 2001, Susan -- who asked that her real name not be published for fear of provoking her former husband -- finally requested a court order that required her ex-husband to stay at least 100 feet away from her and not contact her by phone. Five months later he showed up at a court hearing involving a monetary dispute between Susan and his mother. "He came there specifically to intimidate me," says Susan, who adds that he'd also been making harassing calls to her at work.

She obtained a second order of protection, this one preventing her ex-husband from coming within 500 feet. But she allowed the order to expire after its two-week term and, at the urging of relatives who are police officers, filed a complaint with the department's internal- affairs division. She never heard back from internal affairs, but she says the abuse stopped. "Someone on the inside says he was given a stern talking-to and [was] told he'd be in big trouble if he didn't stay away from me," she recalls.

Susan maintains that the department doesn't take domestic violence seriously when an officer is involved. "I think the police department is very tolerant," she says. "They [abusive officers] wouldn't act the way they do if it wasn't tolerated."

The department has begun addressing officer-involved domestic violence. A policy adopted in January of 2003 requires a supervisor to respond to any incident in which an employee is a suspect or victim in a domestic-violence case. If an officer is a suspect, the district watch commander must respond to the scene and internal affairs must be notified immediately. Victims are to be offered a chance to meet with a victims' advocate, in private if necessary. Whenever possible, any ensuing investigation is to be conducted by the department's domestic-violence unit.

The policy is the work of a three-year-old committee that includes police officials and victims' advocates who asked the department to work with them to establish guidelines for responding to officer-involved domestic violence and to figure out other ways to keep victims safe and hold abusers accountable. "We're a relatively new committee," says Rita Zagarri, a victims' advocate who helped launch the committee. "We realize there's a lot more to do."

St. Louis' new policy consumes less than one page. In contrast, a model policy developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a Washington, D.C.-based group of law-enforcement experts, is an eight-page document that details exactly how departments should respond to domestic violence within the ranks and spells out consequences for officers. Departments should pursue investigations even if victims are reluctant and drop requests for protective orders, the IACP says, and any officer who is found guilty of domestic violence, either by a court or by internal-affairs investigators, must be fired.

In St. Louis the department doesn't automatically follow up on orders of protection. "Depending on the nature of the allegation, the willingness of the complainant to cooperate or any independent substantiation of improper behavior, an investigation may be initiated," police spokesman Richard Wilkes wrote in response to written questions from the Riverfront Times. (The department turned down requests for interviews for this story.)

Among other things, the IACP is concerned about liability. Four years ago a federal appeals court ruled that police departments can be sued for failing to protect domestic-violence victims. The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed by the family of a California woman who was murdered by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who had a history of abusing her but was never arrested and kept his job. The county ultimately settled the case for $1 million. More recently, the heirs of Crystal Brame, wife of Tacoma, Washington, police chief David Brame, sued the city last year after the chief shot and killed her, then committed suicide. City officials had been aware Crystal Brame had accused her husband of abuse but had done nothing to protect her.

The IACP's zero-tolerance stance is controversial among victims' advocates. Diane Wetendorf, a Chicago-based consultant who specializes in domestic violence involving police officers, says such policies can have a chilling effect on victims. "They're less likely to come forward if they think he's going to get fired," Wetendorf argues.

"We are a law-enforcement organization," counters Aviva Kurash, the IACP's technical assistance development coordinator. "You can't have officers out there upholding the law and breaking the law at the same time." One concern is officers who've been violent in their own households responding to domestic-violence calls. "He or she may not be objective in those cases," Kurash says.

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