Wisconsin takes action to fight domestic abuse among cops

Editor’s note: Recently, a New York City police lieutenant stabbed and shot his wife to death, bringing up the important issue of acknowledging that police officers can be abusers or can be abused by another family member, regardless of age or gender. When Tyler Peterson killed his ex-girlfriend, along with five others, Force Science News consulted 3 prominent authorities on police psychology for their professional insights. Read the article here: Experts look at a young officer’s murderous rampage

MADISON, Wis. — Christmas has twice come and gone since Wayne Coulter last saw Lindsey Stahl alive.

The hurt hangs in his voice as he talks about life without the girl he helped raise since she was a toddler. Words of anger, frustration and sadness come next. They catch in his throat as he tries to rationalize how Lindsey’s life and the lives of five others were taken in Wisconsin’s most extreme, deadly case of officer-involved domestic violence.

Fourteen-year-old Lindsey died on Oct. 7, 2007, in the small, northern Wisconsin town of Crandon. Jarred by the news that his former girlfriend was seeing someone new, 20-year-old Tyler Peterson, an officer employed by the Crandon and Forest County departments, went to the home of his former girlfriend. Upon entering the apartment, he opened fire with an assault rifle on all seven people who were there for a pizza party. A standoff ensued between Peterson and his friends on the force. Peterson eventually killed himself with a pistol.

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Now, the families of three of the six victims and the sole survivor of the shooting have filed a civil suit against the police departments that employed Peterson. The suit charges that the police chief and sheriff knew that Peterson had shown a pattern of domestic violence and abuse of authority but did nothing about it.

Before Forest County denied the initial claim that preceded the lawsuit. County Corporation Counsel Paul Payant told the Associated Press that the Sheriff’s Department had no way of knowing that Peterson was capable of such violence.

Bitter feelings continue to swirl around the community, even toward the families of the victims. Coulter said they have anonymously been receiving “nasty letters saying we should drop the suit, and we should be hanging our heads in shame.

“It’s pretty rough living up here now.”

News of the crime in Crandon rang out far beyond the small town’s borders; even the Los Angeles Times reported on the story. The crime not only received national exposure, but put faces to a grim reality of the law enforcement community, a reality seldom discussed outside internal affairs offices or among officers themselves.

Yet those in the know — the officers, prosecutors and domestic violence advocates — have become increasingly aware of the higher prevalence of domestic violence in the families of law enforcement officers.

The National Center for Women and Policing cites two studies from the mid-1990s that have found at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, defined as verbal, psychological or physical abuse, in contrast to 10-20 percent of families in the general population. The studies are well-regarded and often cited by law enforcement and domestic violence advocates locally and nationally.

In the Madison area, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said two officers had been disciplined internally for domestic violence incidents in the past year, but no criminal charges were brought against them. They are still on the force. Following an open records request, the Madison Police Department reported that one officer has been fired or suspended for domestic violence in the past five years. That was Russell Henderson, who was fired in 2006.

In Wisconsin, nobody is keeping track of the problem. Unless an officer shoots or severely abuses someone, news about an incident will rarely make its way out of internal affairs, and no state agency collects the data.

But state law enforcement officials are concerned about the problem, and this summer, the Law Enforcement Standards Board approved a new policy and 99-page training manual. All new law enforcement recruits will now learn about how officer-involved domestic violence cases should be handled from the moment a call is received, on through how an allegation is vetted and potentially prosecuted in court. Current officers don’t have to take the training, but they can do so by attending a training seminar, one of which was held Tuesday in Green Bay. Another is being held in Oconomowoc on Thursday.

“This is no longer law enforcement’s dirty little secret,” said Michael Serpe, a board member of the Law Enforcement Standards Board since 2003 and the Door County administrator. “The research has been out there for years. Police officers are more inclined than other groups to be involved with domestic violence themselves. It is time to raise the public’s awareness on this issue.”

Reasons for the prevalence of domestic abuse among officers are numerous. Historically, police were reluctant to pursue domestic violence cases, seeing them more as lovers’ quarrels meant for social workers to handle rather than police officers. While this viewpoint has evolved over the years with the criminalization of domestic violence crimes, some officers remain reluctant to crack down on their own. Even the state’s own training manual reads: “Officers’ reluctance to consider officer-involved domestic violence as a crime remains the final obstacle to overcome.”

The reluctance may be a consequence of one of the central tenets of police culture.

“The first rule is a code of silence,” said Diane Wetendorf, an independent consultant on officer-involved domestic violence based in Arlington Heights, Ill. “They don’t rat on each other.”

There is a logical reason for the protective atmosphere. The culture not only builds trust and security among those in a department, but is necessary in a profession that can be extremely stressful and dangerous.

“Not all police officers are abusers. Nobody ever said they were,” said Dottie Davis, a deputy chief of the Fort Wayne, Ind., Police Department and keynote speaker at this week’s training sessions in Wisconsin. “But for those who are, we have to police our own and hold officers to the same standards as the average citizens.”

For those who do turn abusive, combat skills taught at the police academy can be used to grim effect at home.

Prosecutors say former Wausau police officer Chueng Lee used intimidation tactics and expertise he gained from investigating accidents in an attempt to kill his wife in a car crash on Sept. 18, 2007.

On that night, Lee, 47, dropped the speed of his truck down from the posted 55 mph limit to between 25 and 30 mph on a rural country road, Shawano County District Attorney Gregory Parker said in an interview. Lee then turned the car into one of only two concrete bridge abutments in Shawano County. Parker described the concentrated impact to the passenger-side headrest, where Lee’s wife was sitting, as “astounding.”

“He was a cop. He knew what he was doing and he knew how to drive that vehicle,” Parker said. “There were a lot of us — investigators and such — that thought that’s what was going on in relation to how he crashed the vehicle.”

Parker said he had officers within Lee’s jurisdiction set to testify at the jury trial. Had those officers had a chance to take the stand, they would have told of another incident in which Lee followed his wife and repeatedly nudged her car with his vehicle, Parker said.

“Officers had contacted him and told him he needed to cease this type of behavior or he would be charged,” Parker said. Several days later, Lee drove into the bridge.

Before those officers had a chance to testify, Lee accepted a plea deal. When he did, his wife recanted her story. She told the judge she still loved her husband and still wanted to be with him. She said she was joking when officers interviewed her about the incident and told the judge that Lee wasn’t trying to kill her, Parker said.

Despite that, Lee was sentenced to three years in prison followed by two years of extended supervision.

Having a victim recant is always a concern for prosecutors in domestic violence cases, but particularly so in cases involving police officers. A domestic violence conviction is a career killer for them. A misdemeanor or felony conviction means the officer can no longer use or own a firearm. No gun, no job. If money and financial security are issues for the abused, this reality may push a victim toward recanting their story.

“It is great to have a policy, but if the victim will suffer a financial toll, too often the victim is silenced,” said Margie Moore, director of the National Center for Women and Policing. “We really need to look at financial solutions for those who come forward.”

Wetendorf, who has worked with domestic violence victims for nearly 30 years, said the knowledge police officers have of how victims typically seek help also makes coming forward more difficult for victims. The advice she usually gives to victims — call the police, seek assistance at a shelter — doesn’t work. Officers know the locations of domestic abuse shelters. They know if a call is placed to police. If the officer works undercover, they are trained to deceive people, which helps them hide their abuse from others. Then there’s the credibility issue. Wetendorf said officers commonly warn their victims that it will be their word against the word of an officer.

“Domestic abuse is about power and control,” Wetendorf said. “And policing is about gaining and maintaining power and control. The skills that can make a competent police officer can make a dangerous abuser.”

In the early 1980s, Deputy Chief Davis of the Fort Wayne Police Department was in an abusive relationship with her husband. He was also a police officer. The two worked in different departments, which Davis never names in her frequent public lectures on officer-involved domestic violence.

In her case, the verbal and psychological abuse started when he began to tell her she was “wasting a man’s job.”

Tactics he had learned at the academy came next. He would sweep his leg under her to knock her to the floor and then pin her down. The move is used to bring someone under control quickly in the field and to leave no visible signs of injury. The tactics had the same effect on her.

But a female sergeant who worked with Davis recognized signs of domestic abuse. When confronted, Davis denied it. The female officer ordered her into counseling. Meanwhile, her husband was promoted. She stayed with her husband until the abuse turned toward their young daughter. Then she left him.

Because Davis called 911 on several occasions, she knew others were aware of the abuse. She never pressed charges and her ex-husband was never reprimanded or criminally charged. Davis said the police never wrote reports and that the dispatch reports, which at the time were paper cards, were destroyed by fellow officers.

“In other words, it never happened,” Davis said.

She feels safe to talk about her experience now because most of the officers connected to her ex-husband are either dead or retired.

While the incidents occurred some 25 years ago and awareness about domestic violence is greater, a perception in the community persists that law enforcement officers are not held to the same standards as private citizens when it comes to domestic violence. Even Wisconsin’s new training manual on officer-involved domestic violence references the belief, and some recent examples give it credence.

On Dec. 15, 2005, David Riedel, a former Sauk County deputy, attended a party with his girlfriend and other law enforcement officers in Wisconsin Dells. The night turned violent after Riedel’s girlfriend, former Stoughton police officer Sonya Flower, talked with other officers, court records say. After fighting in a hotel room, Riedel tried to leave. To prevent him from driving drunk, Flower laid down behind his truck and he drove over her.

He then shouted: “You crazy f—— b—-, move,” Flower told investigators.

Flower passed out for awhile. She then dragged herself to a nearby hotel where she received help. Her liver was cut and her ribs and arm were bruised.

The next morning, Riedel admitted to officers he had been drinking. According to court documents, he said he didn’t remember running over Flower.

At one point, Riedel faced a felony hit-and-run charge. These days, his record is clean, thanks to Columbia County District Attorney Jane Kohlwey and Riedel’s attorney, Bruce Rosen of Madison.

Rather than potentially stand trial on the charges, Riedel was offered a deferred prosecution agreement. Under Wisconsin law, a deferred prosecution agreement allows a person facing criminal charges to fulfill certain conditions in return for a dismissal of the charges against them. To be eligible, the offender, in this case Riedel, usually does not have a criminal record, must be willing to participate in the agreement and accepts responsibility for the crime.

An investigation by the Baraboo News Republic, a sister publication to The Capital Times, revealed that Kohlwey pledged to destroy documents that detailed what Riedel would do to get the charges against him dismissed. Meanwhile, Flower was kept in the dark.

Last August, the manner in which this case was handled caused the Crime Victims Rights Board, an independent agency with staff support from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, to reprimand Kohlwey for her handling of the case.

With no felony conviction, Riedel could continue to own and operate a gun. The deal saved his career.

In an interview with the News Republic in December, Kohlwey said saving Riedel’s career was not her intent and that entering into the “secret agreement” to keep the conditions of the deferred prosecution agreement confidential was a “serious judgment error.”

While the charges against Riedel still were pending, Hillsboro Police Chief Thomas Richardson needed to fill a part-time spot on his small staff, a staff that included himself, another full-time officer and two part-time officers. Richardson said when he called Riedel’s attorney and authorities in Sauk County, he was told the charges against Riedel were going to be dismissed. With no conviction pending, Richardson said he felt comfortable hiring Riedel as his third part-time officer.

“He is a very good officer, and therefore he is still working here,” Richardson said. “From what I understand, he got messed up with the wrong girl.”

Like Riedel, Henderson — the Madison officer who was fired — also received a deferred prosecution deal. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and making a telephone threat connected to an incident with his stepson and was terminated from the department in 2006, but the charges against him were dismissed after he completed the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement.

Henderson’s domestic violence issues came to light after he allegedly put his wife’s 15-year-old son in a headlock and slammed him into a door in 2004. His wife told officers investigating the incident with her son that she had twice called police to report domestic violence incidents, but when they arrived, she told them that nothing happened because she feared Henderson would lose his job. One incident allegedly occurred Nov. 3, 2003, when Henderson grabbed his wife by the hair and pulled her across the floor. She fell to the floor, then called police. The second incident occurred in May 2002 when Henderson allegedly shoved her to the ground with enough force to bruise her chest.

In Wisconsin Dells, the fallout from Riedel’s night out in Wisconsin Dells a little over three years ago continues.

On Dec. 11, 2008, Flower filed a civil suit in Sauk County against Riedel and several insurance companies. The lawsuit says Riedel caused pain and suffering as well as physical injury to Flower and should have to pay her medical expenses and lost wages.

With the civil suit now pending against Riedel and another one pending in Crandon, some departments are finding it may not be financially worth their while to keep quiet when it comes to officer-involved domestic violence.

The city of Tacoma, Wash., learned this lesson to the tune of a $75 million wrongful death suit when the city’s police chief shot himself and his wife on April 26, 2003. David Brame died instantly. His wife, Crystal Judson Brame, died a week later. The extremely public murder-suicide occurred a day after Tacoma city officials publicly stated they would not investigate Crystal’s claims of domestic abuse. On behalf of the couple’s two young children, Lane Judson, Crystal’s father, filed the suit.

Lane Judson said the secrecy had gone on long enough.

“It was never about the money,” Judson said. “It was meant to get their attention, and it did.”

The suit was settled for $12 million. In addition, the municipalities paid for the construction of the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center.

Lane Judson also pushed for the passage of a law in Washington that requires each police department to have an officer-involved domestic violence policy in place. Washington is the first and only state to have a mandated policy.

Wisconsin’s new policy differs in that departments do not have to adopt it. The number of police departments in Wisconsin that choose to adopt the policy remains to be seen.

On the national level, the Crystal Judson Brame Domestic Violence Protocol Program, an amendment to the federal Violence Against Women Act, provides access to upward of $180 million annually to law enforcement agencies to use in training their officers in the area of domestic violence. After reading Wisconsin’s policy, Lane Judson said Wisconsin was on the right track.

“They are making a heck of a good attempt to get something accomplished,” Judson said. “You can always improve on what you do.”

While some find fault with the policy, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect the victims and has only been introduced for liability reasons, others see it as a first step toward increasing awareness on the issue.

“Is it the cure-all? No,” said Patti Seger, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a member of the Law Enforcement Standards Board. “But instead of sitting and watching these tragedies happen over and over again, we took action.”

Recent examples of officer-involved domestic violence in Wisconsin

Ten days before Christmas, Thomas Hutchins, an off-duty Milwaukee County sheriff’s deputy, became upset when his girlfriend started disciplining their child. After striking his girlfriend in the face, Hutchins was asked to leave. When he refused, she started to call 911. Hutchins pulled the phone out of the wall, then pointed his handgun at her saying, “You take my job, I’ll take your life,” according to the criminal complaint.

Two shots were fired before his girlfriend ran to a nearby apartment. Hutchins then fired through the door. A 12-year-old girl was shot three times. Hutchins is now charged with first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless injury and reckless use of a firearm. He has resigned from his job.

Robert E. Hietala, 36, a former Sheboygan Falls police sergeant, was off duty on Oct. 2, 2005, when a fight broke out between him and his wife.

Police were called to Hietala’s home after his son called 911 and told a dispatcher that Hietala was threatening his mother with a gun. The argument was about the working hours of Hietala’s wife. Hietala told his wife to leave the home, which she refused to do, police said. The former police sergeant told his wife if she didn’t leave “he would have no choice but to hit her and throw his cell phone at her,” the criminal complaint said.

Hietala resigned from the police department several days after he was charged on Oct. 3 with misdemeanor disorderly conduct/domestic abuse while armed. Hietala’s resignation came in the midst of an internal investigation. He was later found guilty of the crime.

In May 2005, Beloit police officer Sheldon Kroning, 27, was arrested and given a one-day suspension following an incident of domestic-related disorderly conduct.

The verbal fight occurred between Kroning and a live-in girlfriend.

According to court records, Kroning participated in a deferred prosecution agreement and charges against him were dismissed.

Galesville police officer James T. Brudos, 39, was put on administrative leave after he was found trespassing on a former girlfriend’s home in Jackson County. He was found guilty of disorderly conduct on April 16, 2004. Through a plea deal, the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office agreed to dismiss the domestic violence enhancer to the disorderly conduct and bail-jumping charges if Brudos stayed out of trouble for nine months and agreed to meet other conditions. Within a month, Brudos was reinstated to his job in law enforcement.

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