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In June 2001, Susan -- who asked that her real name not be published for fear of provoking her former husband -- finally requested a court order that required her ex-husband to stay at least 100 feet away from her and not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.

In St. Louis, domestic violence has touched the very top of the department. Over the last two years, Chief Joe Mokwa's daughter and her husband, an officer on the force, have traded allegations of abuse that include hitting, choking, death threats and gunplay.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department doesn't keep readily available statistics on how many officers have been investigated or disciplined for domestic violence within their families, according to a department spokesman.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says her staff recalls eleven instances in which St. Louis police have applied for warrants against their own in domestic-violence cases. In five of those cases, prosecutors didn't press charges, and state law prohibits Joyce from discussing them. In four of the other six cases, the charges were either dropped or the defendants were acquitted or received suspended sentences; again, state law mandates official silence and sealed records.

The other two cases include John McKenzie, a fomer sergeant, who is facing charges of abuse of a child, unlawful use of a weapon and third-degree assault for allegedly pointing a shotgun at his two daughters in August 2002. McKenzie had already lost his state peace officer's license owing to a shoplifting conviction when the alleged crimes occurred.

In the other case, former officer Roscoe Jackson Jr., who had been charged with felony abuse of a child, was convicted of misdemeanor assault in 2000 for choking and punching his fourteen-year-old son. There were signs of trouble in Jackson's family life before he joined the St. Louis Police Department. One month before he was hired in 1994, he filed for an order of protection against his girlfriend. In his court petition, Jackson admitted he might be a danger himself, saying there had been "physical contact on both parties." Added Jackson: "I don't want to do anything to cause harm to myself or her." Five years later the girlfriend, who by then was married to Jackson, obtained a protective order after she alleged he'd broken down a door and threatened to kill her. The order remained in effect for six months, and Jackson remained a St. Louis police officer. He resigned from the force on October 21, 2000, two days after a jury found him guilty of assaulting his son. The Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST), which licenses police officers in Missouri, placed his license on probation for five years after the conviction, but Jackson remains eligible for employment by any law-enforcement agency in the state.

In St. Louis County, police spokesman Rick Eckhardt says that in the twenty years he's been on the 750-member force, he can recall only one domestic-violence case involving an officer. That was the case of former officer Thomas Zeigler, who has been charged with assault for allegedly shooting a fellow officer last year. A few months before the shooting, Zeigler checked into a hospital for a mental evaluation after a dispute with his wife, who told Jefferson County sheriff's deputies that he had broken down a door and threatened to shoot himself. Zeigler wasn't charged with a crime in the incident but was ordered into counseling. He also was permitted to continue mentoring new officers as a field-training instructor. (For more about the Zeigler case, see "Shot in the Act" in the December 24, 2003, issue of the Riverfront Times.)

Jeremy Spratt, executive director of the Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST), says the commission doesn't track cases of officer-involved domestic violence, so he can't say how many officers have had their licenses revoked or placed on probation because of violence in their households. Records at the state Administrative Hearing Commission, which conducts hearings to determine whether officers should be disciplined, show that since 1999 ten officers have had their licenses revoked or put on probationary status owing to domestic violence. Offenses range from violating a court order to beatings that resulted in criminal convictions. None of those disciplined came from St. Louis County or the city of St. Louis, the region's two largest police agencies.

Research on domestic violence in police households is scant. The two most comprehensive studies are more than a decade old. That data, however, indicates violence in police households may be more pervasive than in the civilian population.

In the late 1980s, Arizona State University researchers surveyed 728 officers and 479 spouses from five East Coast police departments and found that 40 percent of the officers (who were granted anonymity) reported they'd acted violently toward a family member during the preceding six months. In 1992, with the help of a psychologist specializing in domestic violence, the Tucson Police Department interviewed 385 male officers from departments in the southwest. Twenty-eight percent admitted they'd been violent toward a spouse during the preceding year. The same researchers subsequently surveyed 891 policemen at a Fraternal Order of Police conference and found that 24 percent had engaged in violent behavior toward their spouse during the past year, ranging from pushing to threatening with a knife or gun. By way of comparison, a telephone survey funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention four years ago showed that 1.8 percent of 8,000 women randomly surveyed had been assaulted, raped or stalked by a significant other during the previous year.

Given that no one has conducted a thorough statistical study of police families, no one knows the extent of abuse within officers' households, the IACP's Aviva Kurash says, but that doesn't really matter. "Police officers are part of the general population, so it's at least as much as the general population, is what we say. As long as there's any amount of this going on, it's unacceptable."

To help prevent violence, the IACP recommends that departments regularly train officers on spotting signs of domestic violence and also provide them -- and their families -- with information about how to seek help before problems escalate to violence and careers are jeopardized. Such outreach and education efforts, the IACP states, should begin as soon as a recruit joins the force and continue periodically throughout his tenure.

Rita Zagarri says she'd like to see St. Louis police step up education efforts, especially in the rank and file.

"The majority of police commanders and the upper echelon of the police department seem to be very concerned about the liabilities [of domestic violence] -- they want to hold officers accountable, they want to take care of their department," Zagarri says. "There seems to be a real problem with the middle management and the street officers and their education. I know they have an enormous amount of domestic-violence training when they go through the academy -- I think the city academy was the second-highest in the nation a few years ago in terms of the hours spent on domestic violence -- but somehow it doesn't seem to be enough. And there's a lot of things we'd like to get out to police officers' families in case situations occur."

Not even the family of St. Louis police chief Joe Mokwa is immune to domestic violence, according to court records. Officer James Daniel Goodrich, Mokwa's 33-year-old son-in-law, was arrested two years ago on suspicion of assaulting his wife Aimie Mokwa, the chief's daughter. In petitions for protective orders, the parties have accused each other of physical abuse, death threats and drug abuse.

Goodrich was arrested for assault in 2002, but the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office dropped the charges. In a request for an ex parte order of protection filed this past summer, the 29-year-old Mokwa wrote that her injuries had required hospitalization. On another occasion in June 2003, Mokwa claimed, Goodrich choked her and hit one of the couple's three children. "He hits me in my head, face, spits in my face, forces me to have sex with him," Mokwa stated in her petition for a protective order. "He hits my son in the head, slaps [him] in the face, beats him until he has bruises on him." Wrote Mokwa of the man she'd married in 1995: "He said he would kill me."

Goodrich himself has twice filed for orders of protection against his wife, the first time shortly after his 2002 arrest. In a second petition for an ex parte order filed this past summer, he alleged that Mokwa had twice tried to shoot him in 2002 -- once on March 8 and again on March 23. Additionally, a police report the Riverfront Times obtained under the state public-records law describes yet another incident on March 15 of that same year, in which Mokwa was charged with illegal discharge of a firearm after firing four rounds from her husband's 9 mm Beretta in the kitchen of the couple's south St. Louis home, while Goodrich was in a bedroom. Associate city counselor David Miller says he gave Mokwa a choice: She could plead guilty to the charge and be placed on probation for a year, or she could plead guilty to a charge of peace disturbance and pay a $200 fine. She chose the latter. Miller says he offered the plea because Mokwa was a first-time offender and there was no evidence she'd aimed at anyone.

Ex parte orders usually remain in effect for fifteen days, or until a hearing can be held to determine the truth of accusations and whether they're serious enough to merit a full order of protection. Goodrich allowed his 2002 ex parte order to lapse; his second request last summer was denied by St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Mullen. But with the consent of both parties, Mullen last year extended Mokwa's ex parte order against Goodrich four times based on the same allegations -- that he'd choked, hit and threatened to kill his wife. The order ended in November when Mokwa stopped pursuing the case.

Neil Bruntrager, Aimie Mokwa's attorney, wouldn't say why his client didn't press for a full order of protection, which lasts at least six months and can come with requirements such as counseling aimed at preventing someone from getting seriously hurt. He did, however, agree to speak in general terms about such situations. A petition for an ex parte order is filed under oath, Bruntrager points out. "It's certainly a substantive claim," he says. But in cases involving a police officer, a full order of protection, which includes an official finding that abuse has occurred, may cost a spouse his or her job, leaving the petitioner with no financial support. "Does that really deal with the root problem? I don't know," Bruntrager says. "They're willing to trade off a full order of protection if they can be confident they're safe. Does it work? I don't know, but I know that's the thought process."

Victims' advocate Rita Zagarri adds that police officers who are subject to full orders of protection aren't allowed to carry guns off-duty, which restricts potential income from security-guard jobs.

Goodrich also applied for a protective order this past summer against his estranged wife on behalf of the couple's three children. Mokwa, Goodrich alleged, was dependent on prescription drugs and had overdosed more than once, leaving the children unattended. Additionally, Goodrich cited an incident in July 2003 in which police were summoned to a Des Peres Walgreens store after Mokwa, who left her children in a car outside with a friend, allegedly attempted to obtain drugs without a valid prescription. According to the incident report, Des Peres police referred the matter to the St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office, classifying it as a felony case of obtaining prescription drugs by fraud. (Judge Mullen denied the request, according to court records, but he did appoint a guardian for the children and ultimately assigned custody to the paternal grandparents.) In his divorce petition, Goodrich repeats claims that his wife is a drug addict. Alan Weber, another of Mokwa's attorneys, disputes that, although he declined to comment in detail.

Aimie Mokwa also got into a scrape in September 2002, when she drove into two parked cars near the intersection of Tholozan and Macklind avenues. According to a report filed by St. Louis police, the impact flipped the Dodge Neon she was driving; the car came to rest on its roof in the roadway with its airbag deployed. Officers at the scene attributed the accident -- which took place at 12:30 a.m. on a clear night on a stretch of dry, well-lighted pavement -- to "inattention." But although Mokwa had no insurance and the out-of-state license plates on the Neon were expired, she received no citation. The couple that owned the two cars sued Mokwa, claiming $11,000 in damages. This past fall, she agreed to pay them $9,000 at the rate of $200 per month.

Mokwa and Goodrich could not be reached for comment for this story. Their attorneys say their clients have not received any special treatment. "If the question is, was there something done by the police department, and I guess because her last name is Mokwa, was there something done by her father, the answer is no," says Neil Bruntrager, Mokwa's attorney.

Goodrich's lawyer, Nels C. Moss Jr., says the same thing. "The chief is hands-off on this thing," he asserts.

Aimie Mokwa holds a state peace officer's license but is not currently employed by a police agency, according to the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Goodrich, too, is in good standing, according to the POST commission. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department refuses to divulge what, if any, discipline Goodrich has faced as a result of domestic-violence allegations against him, saying the department considers such information a personnel matter.

As for the couple's divorce proceedings, Goodrich's attorney sees light at the end of the tunnel.

"These two people have been yanking each other's chain forever. These are just two people who never should have gotten married and just don't get along," Moss says. "They're getting to the point where they're going to get divorced and everything will be fine. You'd be surprised how typical this is on these kinds of cases."

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