Batterer in Blue
U.S. evidence shows that wives and girlfriends of male cops are frequent
victims of domestic violence
Georgia Straight July 24, 2003
by Alex Roslin
On the afternoon of April 26, Crystal Brame was driving to a tanning salon
as she spoke on her cellphone with her mother. "Oh, I think I see David,"
she said, referring to her estranged husband, David Brame, the police chief
in Tacoma, Washington.
"I gotta go; I gotta go," Brame said, ending the call.
Crystal’s mother tried to call her daughter back as Crystal and David pulled
into the parking lot of a shopping mall in their separate vehicles. Minutes
later, according to local newspaper reports, David shot his wife in the head
with his police-issue .45-calibre Glock handgun. He then killed himself with
the pistol as the couple’s two young kids sat in his car a few metres away.
Crystal was taken to hospital but never recovered, dying of her injuries
a week later.
That night, Lara Herrmann, a lawyer in Tacoma, saw the story on the TV news.
"Oh, my God," she recalled thinking, interviewed by phone from her office.
"A police chief doesn’t just kill his wife out of the blue. There must have
been signs." Herrmann followed the news over the next few days. City representatives
said Brame was a good man and that the killing was totally unexpected. Herrmann
had a strong feeling that there was more to the story. She helped start a
group called Women for Justice to demand an independent inquiry and action
against police officers who are violent with their spouses. Women for Justice
is seeking the local, statewide, and national passage of the Crystal Clear
Act, legislation that would create an independent body to investigate allegations
of domestic abuse by police officers and other public officials.
As it turns out, Herrmann was right. Evidence emerged that senior city officials
had covered up for Brame for years and refused to heed warning signs or take
action that may have averted the tragedy. As part of the screening process
that accompanied Brame’s hiring, two psychologists had deemed him unfit because
he was overly "defensive" and "deceptive". Yet he made the cut and rose through
the ranks to become chief of police, even after a rape complaint and an allegation
that he pointed a gun at a girlfriend.
The day before the shooting, local media reported that Crystal Brame had
filed divorce papers alleging that her husband had tried to choke her, threatened
to snap her neck, and pointed a gun at her, saying, "Accidents happen." City
officials didn’t investigate these claims or follow a recommendation from
their human-resources director that Brame’s gun and badge be taken away.
In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mayor Bill Baarsma dismissed
Crystal Brame’s allegations as a "private matter".
The FBI and state authorities have now stepped in to investigate what went
wrong. Crystal Brame’s family has filed a US$75-million suit against the
city of Tacoma, alleging it is responsible for her death.
Tracy Nolan (not her real name) also followed the news in Tacoma. Whenever
she hears of a cop who kills his wife, she says a prayer of thanks that her
life didn’t end the same way. In a phone interview, the Canadian woman said
she was married to a police officer who subjected her to a barrage of violence
during their more than two decades of marriage. Her husband was twice her
weight. He knocked out her teeth, gave her black eyes, attacked her while
she slept, and once even threw a pitchfork at her. She called her home "hell
"To the day I left, I could never believe the level of anger this person
could have. It was like watching a wild animal," said Nolan, who asked that
her city of residence and other identifying details be left out of this story.
"Violence could occur at any time. It could occur over nothing. I lived in
fear all the time. I still do."
Nolan thought she would never make it out alive and considered suicide. Although
she finally escaped her torturous marriage in the mid-1990s, she is still
afraid for her safety and that of her children.
"I am a miracle," she said. "The fact that I’m here today is a total miracle.
I will tell you, at the end of that marriage I was very close to death. I
knew my days were numbered, and I prayed big-time."
When most people think of domestic violence, they imagine police to be the
ones breaking it up, not committing it. In fact, the stories of Crystal Brame
and Tracy Nolan are not isolated. Research shows that a staggering amount
of domestic violence is hidden behind the walls of police officers’ homes.
(While some female cops are violent at home, too, male officers are responsible
for the bulk of the abuse, particularly the most severe violence resulting
in deaths.) The Brame case is only unusual because it was so extreme and
so public. In the vast majority of cases, the abuse remains a secret and
the victims are isolated. They rarely make a complaint, criminal charges
are rarer still, and an abusive officer’s chances of losing his badge and
gun are virtually nil, even if the woman comes forward.
The average abused woman goes through nine violent incidents before she calls
police, said legal advocate Sheryl Burns, interviewed by phone from her office
at Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver. But spouses of violent
cops face worse barriers to stopping the attacks and getting justice, according
to women’s-shelter staff and former police spouses. These women are usually
too afraid to call 911 because it might be a coworker of their partner who
comes to the door. They have to confront the infamous blue wall of silence:
the strict omerta-like code that protects officers from investigation or
arrest. When women do complain, said Amy Ramsay, executive director of the
International Association of Women Police, police departments often cover
up the case. On the line from her Ontario office, Ramsay explained that they
opt for a closed-door, internal-affairs disciplinary process rather than
an embarrassing public trial.
"These types of batterers know where to hit you where other people can’t
see," said Capt. Dottie Davis, director of training at the police academy
in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In a phone interview, Davis said she was married
for six years to a very violent tactical-squad officer who nearly strangled
her to death. These men have guns and often bring them home. And if a cop’s
wife runs, where will she hide? Staff at women’s shelters admit they are
often powerless to offer protection.
"What stands out is the intensity of their fear," said Laurie Parsons, coordinator
of the Mission Transition House in Mission, B.C., who regularly gets calls
from abused partners of cops. "Police officers generally know exactly where
the shelters are in the community," she explained by phone from her office.
"The women don’t feel safe to stay in the local shelter," she continued,
adding that "there really is no shelter she [the abused woman] can be entirely
"Mostly, we don’t see the wives of these officers. Those women are not free
to leave [their homes]."
How widespread is police spousal assault? To date, there are no Canadian
studies, and police departments are generally loath to discuss the issue
or give out numbers. When cases have come to public light, departments have
tended to treat them in isolation. So far, the most detailed North American
figures come from the U.S. The high stats come as a surprise to many police
officers and domestic-violence experts alike.
The first American study was an early-1980s survey of 728 male cops by Leanor
Boulin-Johnson, a professor of family studies at Arizona State University.
According to Boulin-Johnson’s 1991 testimony about her findings to a U.S.
congressional committee, 40 percent admitted they had "gotten out of control"
and behaved violently with their spouses or children in the previous six
A second U.S. survey from 1992, coauthored by Albert Seng of the Tucson,
Arizona, police department, found a similar pattern. In anonymous questionnaires,
41 percent of 385 male police officers and 37 percent of 115 female spouses
reported that there had been physical violence in their relationship in the
previous year. Eight percent of officers reported "severe" violence, including
strangulation, use of a knife, and threats with a gun. The worst problems
were among officers in their 20s - 64 percent of whom reported violence -
as well as narcotics officers and those working the midnight and swing shifts.
The authors added that the numbers could actually be even higher, "given
the tendency to under-report socially undesirable events".
"We felt that the number [41 percent] was a conservative number," said Seng,
a former detective who now works as a private therapist, in a phone interview
from his Tucson office. "It could easily have made the 50-percent mark."
A third survey, released in 1995 by the Texas-based Southwestern Law Enforcement
Institute, found that, of 123 police agencies polled, 28 percent reported
increases in domestic-violence cases involving police officers in the past
24 months. Only 19 percent had a policy of firing the officer even after
a second sustained-abuse complaint.
The rates of abuse are way above those for the general population. In a 1996
anonymous survey of 8,000 women by the U.S. Department of Justice, 1.5 percent
reported being assaulted by their husband or a male partner in the previous
year, while 25 percent had experienced domestic violence at some point in
Vancouver police department spokesperson Const. Sarah Bloor denied the issue
is a problem among her colleagues. "We don’t have situations in the Vancouver
Police Department where that has occurred," she said on the line from her
office. "I have no reports on file currently of any officers who have been
charged, nor do I have any over the last five years."
As for the RCMP, Cpl. Pierre Lemaitre, a Vancouver RCMP spokesperson, said
he was unable to tell how many cases had occurred among Mounties in B.C.
"I can’t track anything down here," he said over the phone from RCMP Division
According to Lemaitre and Bloor, neither the VPD nor the RCMP have any specific
protocol for handling police officers accused of spousal abuse in order to
ensure impartiality. Nor is there an automatic policy of firing officers
convicted of criminal abuse charges. "We would have to look at whether their
behaviour would interfere with their job," Bloor said.
But some Canadian police officers say the problem here is similar to that
in the U.S. "I don’t think the incidence rate would be much different between
the U.S. and Canada," argued Philip Moriarity, a former Vancouver police
officer who is a private investigator specializing in domestic-violence cases.
"Culturally, we are pretty close," he said over the phone from his Vancouver
office. "In North America, we’re probably pretty standard across the board
on police family violence."
Amy Ramsay, who works as a police sergeant in Ontario, agrees. "The Canadian
side is not that much different from the American, but it is kept quite quiet,"
she said. "Most police forces in Canada are very, very, very reluctant to
give out information on that."
RCMP Sgt. Margaret Shorter trains Mounties in ethics and management skills
at E Division headquarters in Vancouver. She says she was "blown out of the
water" when she first heard of the Boulin-Johnson study. "Statistically,
they [abusers] have to be here [in her force]. That’s the part that alarms
me," she said in a phone interview. "It’s not talked about anywhere. It’s
back in the places where other issues were decades earlier. It’s very much
a whispers-on-the-grapevine thing."
The numbers also stunned Penny Harrington, a former chief of police in Portland,
Oregon, and the first woman to head a major police department in the U.S.
"As a police officer I was aware of a few cases, but I was never aware of
the depth of the problem. I had no idea," Harrington said, interviewed by
phone when she was still director of the Los Angeles’based National Center
for Women and Policing.
"Close to half of all 911 calls are for family violence. If the statistics
are true, you’ve got a two-in-five chance of getting a batterer coming to
answer your call."
The question of how cops respond to domestic calls has provoked concern and
study in the U.S. In 1998, the FBI held a landmark conference on police spousal
abuse at its academy in Quantico, Virginia. Agents compiled presentations
from more than 20 researchers into a 426-page book, in which the bureau asked
why "only a small proportion" of abusers get convicted and punished. The
FBI speculated one of the reasons could be that many officers are abusers
A B.C. shelter worker confirms that suspicion. "I’ve got stories, literally
hundreds of stories," said Angela MacDougall, executive director of Battered
Women’s Support Services. "When police arrive they [often] just don’t give
a shit," she explained by phone. "At some point [in their career], they feel
that violence is a useful way of resolving conflict in an intimate relationship."
The question of how police respond to other people’s domestic disputes has
hit close to home for transition-house coordinator Laurie Parsons in Mission.
On May 20, prison guard Bryan Heron walked into the local 26-bed hospital
and killed his estranged wife Sherry Heron and her mother. They were both
shot in the head. Heron later committed suicide with his gun as he struggled
with a police dog.
Although Heron wasn’t a police officer, his job had several parallels, Parsons
said. It gave him access to guns and the kind of credibility that abused
spouses say makes it harder for them to be believed. Like policing, Heron’s
job was also all about power and control, and Parsons said those are also
factors in spousal abuse.
"We’re still trying to learn what happened there. I don’t think all was done
that could have been done," Parsons argued. A week before the shooting, Sherry
Heron’s sister approached the Mission RCMP to express fears for her sister’s
safety. The RCMP interviewed Sherry at Mission Memorial Hospital, where she
was being treated for multiple sclerosis and injuries from a car accident.
She told the officer that she was afraid of her husband, according to an
RCMP search warrant written after the shooting. "I am fearful that the defendant
could come after me with his weapons," she told the RCMP. Heron’s first wife
also said he had threatened to kill her and commit suicide and that he suffered
from depression, the search warrant reveals. Heron’s adult daughter from
his first marriage saw her father a week before the shooting and told police,
"He seemed very depressed. He was going to confront his wife about issues."
But the RCMP laid no charges against Bryan Heron, and he was also allowed
to keep his five firearms, including the .357 Magnum revolver he later used
in the shooting. Sherry Heron was advised to apply for a civil restraining
order, which a judge granted on the day of the murders.
In an affidavit in support of the order, she said, "I have always been very
fearful of the defendant because he has a very bad temper. I think he likes
to see me suffer." And: "He has threatened to harm me and my family if I
leave him. If there is no order against the defendant, he is likely to come
to the hospital."
Bryan Heron shot Sherry and her mother a few hours after the restraining
order was hung on her hospital bed. Heron’s fears stand in sharp contrast
to RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Pierre Lemaitre’s remarks the day after the shooting.
"Clearly, in her statement there was no indication of violence, threats of
violence, or harm in any way," Lemaitre told reporters. "Had there been any
suspicion of violence we would have either gone with a peace bond or, better
yet, we would have arrested the individual as we normally would in threats
After the shootings, Parsons said the Mission Transition House got a flood
of calls from abused women saying their husbands had threatened to do the
same thing. She believes the hospital shootings might have been preventable
if police had acted on the warning signs. "For the staff, I think we’re becoming
quite angry. How is it that this hasn’t changed, despite so much effort over
so many years’" Parsons asked.
Other shelter workers have also expressed concerns, and on May 30, some staged
a demonstration outside the RCMP office in Penticton, where they were attending
a conference of transition-house workers. They said police should have done
a more thorough investigation and at least advised Heron to get a peace bond,
which falls under the Criminal Code and is taken more seriously than civil
restraining orders. Criminal court judges have the authority to order weapons
to be taken away, unlike civil judges.
"The end result was that the weapons weren’t confiscated, and [Sherry Heron]
didn’t have the higher level of security," said Penny Bain, executive director
of the B.C. Institute Against Family Violence. "If he had not had those weapons,
it would have been harder for him to kill her," she said on the line from
In June, B.C. Chief Coroner Terry Smith announced an inquiry. B.C. Corrections
Branch spokesperson Wayne Willows refuses to discuss the case while it’s
under investigation. Contacted at his Victoria office, he said the department
has no plans to do its own inquiry into whether corrections officials failed
to spot signs that Heron was troubled or depressed. "There was no need to
do a review," Willows said.
Why do so many cops abuse their partners? Some revealing insights came from
a groundbreaking study by George Rigakos, a former sociology professor at
St. Mary’s University in Halifax. In the mid-1990s, he examined how municipal
police in Delta, B.C., responded to domestic calls. He found they made an
arrest only 50 percent of the time. This, despite the province’s "pro-arrest"
policy, which requires that officers detain a suspect when there is evidence
of violence, even if the victim refuses to press charges.
Rigakos, who now teaches law at Carleton, also found that officers laid charges
in only 35 percent of cases of an abusive spouse breaching a peace bond,
and in just 21 percent of cases involving violations of a civil restraining
Why the low enforcement rates? The answer, Rigakos discovered, was a widespread
"conservative attitude toward women". Police typically judged battered women
in unflattering terms and were often unlikely to be sympathetic or helpful
unless the abused woman was "a Betty Crocker type [who] kept the house clean
and had an apron on when she came to the door", Rigakos said in a phone interview
when he was still at St. Mary’s.
He recalled one male officer telling him: "Most of these things are started
by the women anyways. It’s just that they’re smaller and end up losing the
Carol-Ann Halliday saw such attitudes firsthand. She was a Vancouver police
officer for 30 years, retiring as a detective in 1999. Halliday was the department’s
first female street supervisor and first female detective in the Major Crimes
Unit. (Today, 19 percent of the Vancouver police force is female.) On the
phone from her home in the Vancouver area, she said that during her tenure
from 1983 to 1986, Major Crimes was full of "chauvinist pigs. Nobody would
work with me. They made the new guy do it."
Halliday said things got worse when she became involved with the International
Association of Women Police, eventually being elected president. "They were
badmouthing me because I was on this women’s group. They all started picking
on me," she recalled.
According to Halliday, a lot of the male officers were in love with the power
of being a cop, and this caused strife in their homes. "The job brings it
out. It gives this licence, and all of a sudden they realize all the power
they have," she said. "I can see how that spills over a lot. They just think,
‘I am the man; I am the boss. I am the power; I can do whatever I like… I
am sure that’s what breaks up a lot of the marriages."
Although some people point to the stress of police work as a reason for the
torrent of abuse, counsellors of abusive men say that’s just an excuse. "Many
people experience extreme stress without becoming violent," said registered
clinical counsellor Dale Trimble, who set up one of the province’s first
programs for abusive men. "To put it on stress is saying, ‘It doesn’t have
to do with me… It’s a way of diffusing responsibility," he argued on the
line from his Vancouver office.
At the root, Trimble said, is a need for power and control over others, traits
that are required and fostered among cops, prison guards, and other law-enforcement
personnel. Albert Seng, the former Tucson detective, concurs. "I think it
[policing] attracts the kind of personality that likes to be in control,"
he said. "In counselling we often tell officers they’re control freaks...
Domestic violence is in fact a control issue."
As if the present situation isn’t bad enough, Trimble said the problems are
getting worse. Massive provincial cuts have devastated social and court services
that helped abused women, he said. The cuts include a 50-percent reduction
in funds for court-mandated counselling programs for abusive men, layoffs
of all of B.C.’s Crown victim-services counsellors, and less money for community-based
domestic-violence counselling for women and children.
The province also cut 35 percent of the budget of the police complaint commissioner,
who oversees grievances against officers and internal-affairs investigations
of municipal cops. Commissioner Dirk Ryneveld said he now has only six staff
- down from 11 - to handle some 400 cases a year. "I have already told them
[the province] that I may not be able to achieve my mandate with cuts like
that," he said by phone from his Victoria office.
Also a big worry is B.C.’s overhaul of its 15-year-old pro-arrest policy.
In May, the province gave Crown prosecutors discretion to drop charges against
abusers who agree to "alternative measures" like anger-management counselling.
"It may make police less willing to do the write-ups and take it seriously,"
said Kathleen Mackay, coordinator of domestic-violence programs at Vancouver
Hospital and Health Sciences Centre and St. Paul’s Hospital, on the line
from Vancouver General Hospital.
Back in Mission, Parsons agreed. "The thought of the discretionary powers
is just horrendous. The implications will be really bad [for abused police
spouses]," she said.
For Tracy Nolan, the tragedies in Mission and Tacoma show that the victim
in all this isn’t just the battered police spouse but the abusive cop himself.
A police department isn’t doing him any favours if it covers up for his abuse
until his personal troubles boil over, she said.
"I can relate to that man as much as to that victim. I knew the strife and
stress of that job. These people don’t get counselling. They bottle it up
or go to the bar to drink. They’re not just a threat to the wife. They’re
a threat to anyone else," she added. "There are many people like me, wondering
what they are going to do, where they are going to go. These are things that
really need to be made public because it needs to change."