Keeping Victims Safe: Police Accountability and Domestic Violence

Since Colorado domestic violence victim Jessica Lenahan won her human rights case in 2011, police in many states still have a long way to go in enforcing federal laws requiring them to respond proactively to victims’ needs, speakers at a screening of the 2017 documentary Home Truth about the Lenahan case said Tuesday.

When restraining orders are filed against perpetrators of domestic abuse, are police doing everything in their power to prevent victims from further harm?

While the federal government legislation now holds law enforcement accountable for recognizing such restraining orders, “the challenge is in the states,” said Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Karol Mason

Karol Mason

The Department of Justice (DOJ) continues to fight for uniform recognition of the validity of restraining orders, Mason, former head of the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice (DOJ), and Assistant Attorney General under the Obama Administration, said Tuesday night at a screening of the film Home Truth at John Jay College in honor of Women’s History Month.

“However, it’s hard because all 50 states have different laws.”

The 2017 film, directed and produced by April Hayes and Katia Maguire, highlighted the case of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), who sued the police department of Castle Rock, Co., for failing to enforce a restraining order against her husband, which resulted in the murder of her three children in 1999.

On the night of the murder, Lenahan’s husband Simon Gonzales kidnapped their three little girls, shot them in the head, and proceeded to drive his car into the Castle Rock police headquarters, prompting a shootout between the officers and himself, in which he was killed.

That same night, Lenahan made several calls to local officers, urging them to look for her daughters, who had been kidnapped by their estranged father.

The police did not follow up on her request.

In a landmark 2011 decision, the Inter-American Commission found the United States responsible for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased children. Her case, Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. the United States, was first case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the US before an international body.

Mason acknowledged that since the Castle Rock case, national strides have been made to reduce fatality among domestic abuse victims and their families.

In 2013, provisions were added to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to hold law enforcement accountable for acting against perpetrators responsible for these crimes.

“What they got passed is a miracle,” said Mason, who praised the long-overdue national effort to reduce domestic abuse.

Some of the provisions to the Violence Against Women Act include:

  • Keeping victims safe by requiring that a victim’s protection order will be recognized and enforced in all state, tribal, and territorial jurisdictions within the United States;
  • Increasing rates of prosecution, conviction and sentencing of offenders by helping communities develop dedicated law enforcement and prosecution units and domestic violence dockets;
  • Ensuring that police respond to crisis calls, and that judges understand the realities of domestic and sexual violence by training law enforcement officers, prosecutors, victim advocates and judges.

VAWA provides funding for the training of over 500,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, and other personnel every year, and also disburses annual grants of up to half a million dollars for developing domestic violence intervention strategies among law enforcement agencies.

The federal government often uses money as a way to incentivize changes in behavior, Mason said.

“Yet some people who get the money don’t use it properly, and that’s where the advocacy comes in,” she said. “You’ve got to hold people accountable because they are getting substantial resources.”

While strides are being taken by local and federal law agencies to reduce domestic violence crimes, gaps in the system still remain.

For instance, such gaps allowed Stephen Paddock, formerly accused of domestic abuse, to purchase a semi-automatic weapon and fire into a crowd at a country concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring 851 more.

“Our systems need to be better at communicating and trafficking information on abusers,” said Mason.

The systems are “only as good as the information people enter,” and “as good as the people who look at it before they go and sell the weapon.”

Bea Hanson, a national expert on addressing domestic abuse and sexual violence and current executive director of the New York City Domestic Violence Task force, agreed.

“Enforcement of gun laws is a huge problem,” she said.

While crime rates are dropping, domestic violence homicide-suicides are on the rise, she continued.

Hanson noted that police officers often grow frustrated when a woman who has been a victim of domestic abuse doesn’t leave her husband after multiple interventions.

Also, in some cases, officers are more concerned about liability and keeping their job positions, John Jay’s Karol Mason pointed out.

They become defensive, she said.

What they need to be asking is, “what do we learn from these things?” she said.

Megan Bradley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.