Conn. police use peer support, assistance programs to address domestic violence in ranks

“Since the last incident, we’ve had a number of officers come forward to get help they need,” New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell said.

By Clare Dignan
New Haven Register

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — New Haven police respond to upwards of 100 calls a week on domestic violence incidents and earlier this year responded to a call involving one of their own.

In fact, four members of the New Haven Police Department were involved in alleged domestic violence incidents in a three-month period this year. They included Lt. Rahgue Tennant, Officers Ryan Walker and Luis Lopez and another unnamed officer whose case was thrown out of court.

Tennant allegedly assaulted his wife several times, holding her and their children hostage in their New Haven home for days, the Register previously reported. He is charged with second-degree assault, unlawful restraint, three counts of risk of injury to a child and second-degree threatening. Tennant remains on paid administrative leave while state police investigate. He is due back in Superior Court Nov. 16, online records show.

Walker was charged by Trumbull police with reckless endangerment and breach of peace after pleading guilty in an incident in which he allegedly choked an intimate partner, according to court records.

Walker remains on administrative duty as his case is reviewed by internal affairs.

Lopez was arrested and charged in two incidents, one in which he allegedly repeatedly physically abused an intimate partner and locked the person in an attic for hours. He is on administrative duty as his case was referred to a family relations officer. He has not entered a plea.

“In my career, I’ve seen a lot of officers arrested for domestic violence,” New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell said. “What is unique is we’ve had four within a three-month period, but what’s not unique is when you look at what is really going on, officers are under a lot of stress and it’s not an excuse, because no officer has a right to put their hand on another individual.”

Campbell said the stress of work conditions, marital issues, finances and other things create a storm of tensions for which officers may not know how to seek help because of the negative stigma associated with getting help for emotional issues.

The department offers an employee assistance program, which is utilized by his members more than any other department in the state, Campbell said, in addition to peer support and training supervisors to watch out for the officers.

“(The incidents) didn’t happen on the job,” Campbell said. “They happened in their homes and outside of New Haven, with the exception of Lt. Tennant.

“What we try to do is when we see this happen, we make sure the officer gets assistance and reach out to the families because they’ve been victims and want to make sure they get help they need,” Campbell said. “The stress of the job is experienced by the entire family and that’s one reason I’m pushing so hard for the Family Justice Center and an additional resource for law enforcement outside the community.”

The Family Justice Center, which announced an upcoming soft launch of Nov. 13, gathers services around the victims under one roof, including police, prosecutors, victim advocates and other providers. The center is planned for downtown New Haven where it’s central to transportation, the Police Department, City Hall and the courthouse. It would also aim to help children involved in domestic violence as either witnesses or victims.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or NCADV, one in four children were exposed to at least one form of family violence during their lifetimes. Most children exposed to family violence, including 90 percent of those exposed to intimate partner violence, saw the violence, as opposed to hearing it or other indirect forms of exposure.

“Since the last incident, we’ve had a number of officers come forward to get help they need and that’s what you want to see after an uptick,” Campbell said.

“You want to see people coming forward and getting help,” he said “In the future we need to emphasize zero tolerance for domestic violence. We provide services and we can’t expect you to be a guardian for the community if you’re not guarding your heart.”

Intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime, according to the NCADV. It can be uniquely difficult for families of law enforcement to get out of a domestic violence situation, said Karen Jarmoc, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“We know victims are fearful to reach out to law enforcement for help for many reasons,” she said. “They fear they won’t be believed and the officer’s relationship within the law enforcement community will not allow for a fair and impartial response.

“They fear their confidentiality will be breached if their partner lives in one town and is reported in another town. They are fearful their partner will lose their job if they reach out for help because that may be the family’s only job,” Jarmoc said. “For individuals whose partner works in law enforcement, it’s complicated and there is heightened fear.”

The CCAD doesn’t track how many domestic violence incidents involve law enforcement, but Jarmoc said they are seeing charges lodged against officers in domestic violence incidents, which indicates to her that law enforcement is being held accountable.

“They are being arrested and it gives the opportunity to talk about when your partner works in law enforcement, why it creates additional concerns for the victim,” Jarmoc said. “That’s why law enforcement’s response is so important. The victim is fearful enough.”

One in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, with nearly one in five women having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In New Haven last year, officers responded to 4,217 domestic violence calls, and 2,058 arrests were made related to domestic violence calls, according to BHcare’s Umbrella for Domestic Violence Services.

On average, New Haven sees one domestic violence homicide per year, but this year has seen two, Campbell said.

Moreover, presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent, according to data from the NCADV. Since all officers are licensed to carry a gun and may keep firearms in the home, this can add to an already dangerous situation in which a spouse is being abused by law enforcement.

State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, a domestic violence survivor, pushed for legislation in 2016 to help protect victims in domestic violence situations through a bill that would require firearms be given up pending a temporary restraining order. The last action taken on the bill was that year, so current law requires gun owners accused of abuse to surrender their guns only if a judge issues a permanent restraining order, leaving guns in the home during during the vulnerable period a victim may be leaving the abusive relationship.

In the cases of Tennant, Walker and Lopez, they all kept guns that were seized when police responded.

It takes an average of seven times before a victim can leave their situation for good because when a victim leaves their abuser, they’re actually in greater danger than when they stay, according to the UDVS. Between 70 to 75 percent of all women who are victims of domestic violence homicides were leaving or attempting to leave the relationship at the time of their death, according to the NCAD.

Campbell said when a member of the department perpetrates domestic violence, “it’s always deflating. It’s sobering because it reminds us we’re not super men or women and we do recruit from the human race and as long as we do that, we’ll experience what the community experiences. We need to keep that in mind.”

Jarmoc said the CCADV does work on arrest policies, training and trauma with police departments across the state, including New Haven, and the strong working relationships established over the years of conducting training is useful when having conversations with a department if an officer is involved.

“Since all these happened, we made it very clear that we don’t tolerate domestic violence,” Campbell said. “On duty or off, it’s not tolerated. If a person is convicted and can’t carry a gun, they can’t be an officer.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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