Domestic Violence Requires Police Vigilance

The Hartford Courant

Almost exactly 30 years ago, Tracey Thurman successfully sued Torrington after local police officers failed to respond to her pleas for help in keeping her safe from her estranged husband. Now, the estate of Tiana Notice was awarded a $10 million judgment from Plainville and two of its police officers for an eerily similar set of circumstances — the failure to take appropriate action to enforce laws and court orders against a known domestic violence offender.

Like Thurman, Tiana Notice, who was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in 2009, was not a victim who kept silent about what was happening to her. She actively reached out to the criminal and civil justice systems and repeatedly requested police assistance as she tried to keep herself safe and find ways to hold her ex-boyfriend accountable for his persistent threats. Her immediate family, friends and co-workers joined her efforts.

Yet on multiple occasions, police in Waterbury and Plainville were either unwilling to or incapable of responding appropriately. We will never know whether or not Tiana Notice would be alive today, if the police had responded as they should have. In the Thurman and the Notice cases, the similarities in the responses of individual officers, particularly the casualness with which reports of violations of court orders were handled, is nothing short of stunning and should serve as a lesson to criminal justice systems everywhere.

Violations of protection or restraining orders should always be considered a warning that there is heightened risk to the victim. The presence of a criminal order of protection or an after-hearing civil restraining order indicates that a court determined a viable threat exists against the protected person and that the offender has been notified that engaging in certain behaviors will result in arrest. There is no such thing as a "routine violation." In fact, the seemingly "innocuous" violations of these orders are often immediate precursors to horrific violence.

Police departments in the seven communities the Domestic Violence Crisis Center serves have, for many years, partnered with our agency to implement policies that broaden and strengthen protections for victims. These police departments, in Stamford, Norwalk, Westport, New Canaan, Darien, Wilton and Weston, each have a designated domestic violence liaison officer. Stamford police partner with the center in a Domestic Violence Home Visit Program, the state's longest running such program.

In 2013, the Norwalk Police Department became one of the first in Connecticut to engage in training for a Lethality Assessment Program. Officers screen victims for lethality at the site of the call and immediately connect high risk individuals to our center's counselors via phone. Darien, Westport and Wilton also joined the Lethality Assessment Program, and it will be running by mid-summer in New Canaan and Weston.

Following Tiana Notice's murder, Connecticut's Office of the Victim Advocate issued a report that analyzed the apparent gaps in the communities' response and recommended changes. Among these were the creation of a mandatory model policy for law enforcement response to domestic violence. This would include a comprehensive policy on responding to violations of court orders; a council to review and oversee this policy, ensure compliance and evaluate national best practices; and a better way to evaluate for potential lethality. In response, the Connecticut General Assembly formed the Family Violence Model Policy Governing Council. As a result, Connecticut has a mandatory model policy for law enforcement response to family violence, as well as a standing governing council to ensure annual review and revision.

There is no question that, as a state, we've made progress and that all of these actions are steps in the right direction. But the failures of the law enforcement response in Plainville and Waterbury and the fact that some of the statements and actions of the responding officers closely mirror those in the Tracy Thurman lawsuit 30 years ago, serve as fair warning that our communities must be purposeful, vigilant and continuously open to evaluation of current practices and implementation of new ideas to protect our citizens from domestic violence.

Rachelle Kucera Mehra is the executive director and Andrea Mancuso is director of legal services and public policy at the Domestic Violence Crisis Center, a nonprofit agency.

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