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 house".

"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 safe at."

"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 months.

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 their lives.

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 headquarters.

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 themselves.

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 of violence."

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 her office.

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 order.

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 fight."

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."