Policy Aims to Address, Prevent, Domestic Violence by Law Enforcement

February 13, 2014

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By Alisha Wyman

A decades-old effort to prevent and address domestic violence among law enforcement ranks continues in pockets of California.

Despite these best efforts, the crime still crops up among the highest-ranking officers.

The San Francisco Police Department is in the final stages of crafting a detailed policy that shapes how the department would respond if an officer is accused of domestic violence.

This comes after two high-ranking Sheriff’s Office staff members pleaded guilty to domestic violence-related charges in as many years.

San Francisco’s new policy is one of an array of approaches departments across the state have taken to the issue.

Over the past 18 months, the department looked at five policies nationwide and crafted a hybrid, said Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium. Templates included policies from Washington State, Florida, Wisconsin, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Tacoma.

Currently, the office uses the same policy for an officer as it would for a civilian.

The proposed policy includes protocols for pre-hire screening, psychological evaluation and criminal record checks, Upton said. No law enforcement officer with any history of domestic violence, elder abuse, child abuse or animal abuse may be hired.

It also limits access to computer systems and other department resources for those accused, along with a host of other rules guiding the department’s response.

“It’s pretty thorough,” Upton said. “It’s taken some time to hammer it out, but (city officials have) been really interested from the beginning.”

This comes after controversy plagued San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who pleaded guilty to false imprisonment in March 2012 after being accused of bruising his wife’s arm during an argument on New Year’s Eve 2011. Mirkarimi remains in office.

Just months after his plea, San Francisco Sheriff’s Lieutenant Vincent Calvarese was arrested on suspicion of several battery-related charges for allegedly pushing and punching a man he had dated inside.

He went on to plead no contest to false imprisonment in May 2013 and resumed work, but was arrested in September for failing to show to his court-ordered counseling sessions and a court hearing.

Though recent cases did play a role in inspiring the policy, advocates saw new leadership at the police department as an opportunity to broach the topic, Upton said. New Police Chief Greg Suhr has been supportive, she said.

The draft is awaiting an upcoming vote from the Police Commission.

Should it pass, it could provide a lifeline for victims, who face odds stacked against justice, advocates say.

“It is hard for people that aren’t in police officers’ families to understand what a box canyon those women are in,” said Tanya Brannan, the president the Purple Berets, a now-inactive Santa Rosa-based organization that still provides online written resources for victims of domestic violence.

The offender always carries a gun, Brannan said. He is trained to use force. He has access to computer systems, the women’s shelters and knows the criminal justice system, she said. This can make it intimidating for a victim to report the violence, Brannan said.

Perpetrators often tell co-workers that their partner is crazy to discredit her story if she comes forward, added Penny Harrington, founding director of the National Center for Women & Policing and a former Oregon police chief.

Ron Cottingham, recently retired president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, said officers understand the severe consequences of domestic violence. “I think every officer in the United States knows what great jeopardy their career would be in if they couldn’t control themselves in that environment,” said Cottingham, who is also a recently retired lieutenant from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. In addition, they could lose their gun, which means losing their job too.

The question of how to best prevent domestic violence committed by law enforcement goes back decades.

In 1995, the National Center for Woman & Policing was born out of a feminist effort to reduce the use of excessive force by police officers. It took a special interest in officer-involved domestic violence, Harrington said.

In 1996, Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act, making it a felony for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to possess firearms and requiring training for new law enforcement hires.

A year later, an office of the Department of Justice began working with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to craft a model policy, said Aviva Kurash, senior program manager for the International Association of Police Chiefs. The association distributed the policy once it was completed in 1999 and conducted trainings.

More recently, the association has shifted its focus to a leadership level and has worked with about 400 chiefs, Kurash said. Its philosophy is a combination of prevention and zero tolerance, she said.

Law enforcement officers must be held to a higher standard because of their access to weapons, computer systems and the criminal justice system, she said. “It’s about building trust and respect from the community and making sure our officers are professional.”

Ultimately, she added, the policy’s success comes down to whether local leadership embraces the practices. She is unaware of how widely used it is California.

Policies that guide departments on responding to reports that law enforcement officers have committed domestic violence vary among agencies. Some don’t have a specific policy for domestic violence; some have a brief policy; and other have in-depth policies that guide every aspect of how to respond to such reports.

The Morgan Hill Police Department has adopted Santa Clara County’s protocol on officer-involved domestic violence, said Capt. Shane Palsgrove, who oversees the special operations division. The county’s policy contains a few paragraphs that address suspects who are law enforcement.

It calls for the employing agency to be notified as soon as possible, and requires that victims be connected with domestic violence advocates trained to deal with victims abused by law enforcement officers. All cases involving officers must also be reviewed by the District Attorney’s Office. In addition, officers go through yearly training and received CDs on officer abuse.

“Domestic violence doesn’t have any boundaries,” Palsgrove said. “It exists among all classes in society. Law enforcement are involved in high stress situations and they also carry weapons, and it’s no secret that they need to take preventative measures to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Training has prevented incidents that would require the need for a more extensive protocol on handling such cases, he said.

In San Diego, deputies sign a form each year testifying that they have not been involved in a domestic violence incident, Cottingham said.

Department job candidates go through extensive screening, including background checks, interviews with neighbors and families, physiological exams, and polygraph or voice stress tests.

“Obviously we want the highest caliber of person that we can get because of the great responsibility that goes with it,” he said.

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