'ProPublica' Reveals Risks Of Reporting Domestic Violence In Connecticut

Feb 17, 2017
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When police in Connecticut respond to a domestic violence call, they're supposed to make an arrest. In fact, they often make two. Sometimes the victim who called the police is arrested along with the abuser. That's because of a police practice called dual arrest. If it's not clear who's the aggressor, arrest them both. Dual arrests in Connecticut are ten times more common than the national average according to a new report from ProPublica. Sarah Smith reported this story, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SARAH SMITH: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Explain why would police ever arrest the person who has called in police to report domestic violence?

SMITH: Well, it actually started with an incredibly well-intentioned law back in the '70s and early '80s. The practice of police was when they got domestic call, they would maybe just say go cool down or separate for the night or really this is a family matter, it's not our business.

And so predictably, in Connecticut a woman named Tracey Thurman called police. And she had had multiple restraining orders against her ex at this point. And because they didn't respond for 25 minutes, she was stabbed 13 times. Remarkably, she lived. But Connecticut instituted a mandatory arrest law, which is to say no police officer responding to a domestic violence call could leave if there is probable cause to make an arrest.

SIEGEL: Why is the practice of dual arrests so much more common in Connecticut than in most places?

SMITH: Well, Connecticut's mandatory arrest law does not have a primary aggressor statute, which would require police to determine who is the one responsible really for instigating the violence. Other states such as New York that have a mandatory arrest law also have a primary aggressor law to go with it.

SIEGEL: Meaning that the police officer who responds to the call is obliged to figure out who is really at fault here, and if you can figure that out, arrest that person.

SMITH: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Is it possible for someone to pick up a record of arrest just for having tried to defend herself in a domestic fight?

SMITH: Oh, yes, absolutely it is. Luckily, many of these cases will not end up on their record if they're able to do court-mandated classes or something like that. But the trauma on victims after calling for help and then actually getting arrested themselves is something that is hard to shake. Like, I had one woman tell me that as she's going through this court process, she had looked over at her victim advocate and said, I wish I didn't even call.

SIEGEL: This sounds like a - as you say, a well-intentioned law gone wrong. On the other hand, I can imagine a police officer saying, I'm called up. I turn up at this house. Two people are furious. They're shouting at each other, each blaming the other. And I'm not a judge, I can't conduct an investigation on the scene, so I bring them both in.

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, that's absolutely a concern. And Connecticut has gotten better about training its officers to do domestic violence calls. But when I spoke to police officers around the state, what they kept emphasizing to me is how difficult it is for an officer to go into a domestic situation. Emotions are high. The couple might gang up on the officer eventually. Everyone is saying opposite things. And it's - what multiple people said to me is that, like, no domestic call is like the other.

SIEGEL: Have you detected in the course of your reporting revived interest in, say, having a primary aggressor law in Connecticut?

SMITH: One legislator, who is actually a survivor of domestic violence herself, said that she'd be interested in looking at it. So I guess we'll see what happens. And a lot of its success or failure, I'm sure, will depend on the exact wording.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Sarah Smith of ProPublica. Thanks for talking with us.

SMITH: Thank you so much for having me.

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