Officers Accused of Domestic Violence Usually Keep Their Jobs. Advocates for Survivors Say That’s a Problem

Seattle Police Department West Precinct; image by Adbar, Creative Commons license

By Paul Kiefer

Last November, a small team of Seattle police officers parked near the home of one of their colleagues, Officer Amy Jean Branham. They were responding to a 911 call from Branham’s estranged (now ex-) wife, who told dispatchers that Branham had attacked her during an argument about their pending divorce.

Branham’s wife told the responding officers that Branham was drunk. She pointed to red marks on her neck and chest, claiming that Branham had placed her in a headlock. But Branham told the officers that the fight began when her wife tried to force her way into the house. She showed her colleagues a red mark on her jaw—evidence, she said, that the fight wasn’t as one-sided as her wife claimed.

Washington law requires police officers who respond to domestic violence calls to arrest the person they determine was the “primary aggressor.” The responding officers decided to arrest Branham’s wife, reasoning that Branham was only trying to prevent her wife from entering the house; the Seattle City Attorney chose not to file charges. Meanwhile, Branham’s wife obtained a protection order, alleging that Branham was prone to violence and stalking.

As part of the protection order, a King County judge ordered Branham to turn over her service weapon, prompting Interim Chief Adrian Diaz to place her on administrative leave. Meanwhile, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) conducted an investigation of the allegations against Branham. In findings published last month, investigators concluded that Branham violated the department’s professionalism policies by hitting her ex-wife, as well as by following her ex-wife off-hours in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security cruiser, which she had access to as part of a joint task force. She received a written reprimand.

Today, at least six officers who’ve been accused of abuse or domestic violence remain on the force, including in supervisory roles.

The issue of intimate partner violence by officers tends to fly under the radar; the last case that drew significant local attention was in in 2003, when then-Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot and killed his wife, Crystal Brame, at a Gig Harbor shopping center. In the past five years, SPD has fired three officers for domestic violence or harassment, including Todd Novisedlak, whom former SPD Chief Carmen Best fired in 2019 for beating his former girlfriend and repeatedly using racist slurs to describe his coworkers, and Daniel Amador, a North Precinct sergeant arrested in 2016 for raping and abusing his daughters.

Officers accused of domestic violence or harassment can be found on nearly every level of the department’s hierarchy. Officer Todd Harris, a member of the department’s gun violence reduction squad, was charged by a Snohomish County prosecutor with domestic violence assault in 2012; Sergeant Alfred Warner, whose ex-wife obtained a protection order against him after he allegedly pointed a gun at her during an argument in 2006; and Sergeant Brian Rees, whose ex-wife—at the time, a fellow SPD officer—sought a protection order against him after he allegedly punched her and spent his off-duty time stalking her inside the department’s north precinct building.

Domestic violence allegations are notoriously difficult to prove in court, which survivor advocates say has allowed some Seattle police officers with a history of abuse to avoid accountability and remain in positions of authority within SPD. Today, at least six officers who’ve been accused of abuse or domestic violence remain on the force, including in supervisory roles.

For some survivor advocates, allowing these officers—especially those who received criminal charges—to remain in positions that can involve handling domestic violence calls raises questions about the department’s respect for survivors. A record of abuse, advocates say, could impact the way an officer interacts with people seeking help, including victims of domestic violence, and could reflect on the officer’s ability to control their temper and exercise good judgment.

“Survivors and advocates end up wondering how much weight is given to our voices if we’re dealing with officers who work alongside these people who have been accused of abuse,” said Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, the director of the Sexual Violence Law Center, which provides legal assistance to victims of sexual violence.

Advocates like Mukhopadhyay are especially concerned about officers who’ve risen in the ranks after facing domestic violence charges. Sergeant Domingo Ortiz faced domestic violence-related charges twice before he reached his current rank: in 2000, he received a deferred sentence after punching a man who took his estranged wife to lunch, and in 2004, Pierce County prosecutors charged Ortiz with domestic violence harassment for threatening to hurt his estranged wife “permanently.” (Ortiz was not convicted of the 2004 charge).

Similarly, now-Captain Scott Moss was charged with assault in 2009 for allegedly cutting his then-wife’s hand with a kitchen knife. Ultimately, a King County Superior Court jury acquitted Moss after his attorneys attributed his wife’s injuries to her history of mental illness and self-harm; Moss’ wife chose not to cooperate with the prosecution. It’s fairly common for victims to decide not to cooperate in domestic violence cases, which typically prompts courts to dismiss the charges against the alleged abuser.

Since his acquittal, Moss has received a series of promotions, including a recent stint as the acting captain of SPD’s Special Victim Crimes section, which includes the department’s domestic violence unit.

Most of the officers accused of domestic violence have run into other types of legal trouble during their careers with SPD. Ortiz, for instance, was one of three officers named in a 2010 excessive force lawsuit stemming from a violent arrest at the department’s evidence warehouse; and in 2014, a US district court jury found Rees guilty of excessive force for pepper-spraying a woman while another officer detained her at a May Day protest two years earlier.

In the past five years, the OPA has conducted 15 investigations into allegations of domestic violence, stalking, or protection order violations against department employees. In most cases, the OPA investigated the allegations during or after a criminal investigation by another law enforcement agency. In seven of the 15 cases, OPA investigators weren’t able to reach a firm conclusion about whether the officer had committed abuse.

In one case, investigators reached a dead end when both the officer and her alleged victim denied that any abuse took place. In another, investigators couldn’t determine whether an officer had hidden or destroyed a hard drive containing a library of child pornography; in that case, investigators also noted that the daughter of the officer’s ex-girlfriend accused him of stalking her. And in a 2016 investigation into an incident in which an officer allegedly threatened his ex-wife, the only eyewitness the OPA investigators could find was the couple’s child, who was too young to testify.

This relatively low number of investigations doesn’t mean that only 15 officers committed or were accused of domestic violence in those years, just that additional incidents, if any, weren’t reported to SPD. “We know domestic violence perpetrators are often in a more powerful position than their partners, and are much more charming, controlling or manipulative,” she said. “That’s one reason why it’s not uncommon for perpetrators to not face consequences.”

According to OPA Director Andrew Myerberg, investigations into alleged domestic violence or stalking by police officers can be uniquely challenging. “We almost presume that we’re not always going to get full cooperation from at least one person involved in the incident,” he said. “It could be that the relationship started up again, it could be because of fear, it could be because they don’t want to have to deal with the investigation process.”

The bar for obtaining a protection order against an abusive partner, he said, is much lower than the bar for disciplining an officer. “And that’s for good reason,” Myerberg said. “You don’t want potential victims of domestic violence to have to jump through a lot of hoops to get immediate protection from their abusers.” But within the department, an officer who is subject to a protection order won’t automatically face discipline until the department can investigate the allegations against them—though, like Branham, they are more likely to spend several weeks on paid administrative leave while they are barred from carrying a gun.

Since his acquittal, SPD Captain Scott Moss has received a series of promotions, including a recent stint as the acting captain of SPD’s Special Victim Crimes section, which includes the department’s domestic violence unit.

Mukhopadyay said that some of her center’s clients still lose confidence in SPD after learning that an officer or supervisor involved in their case was accused of abuse. “We’ve had a number of situations in which a survivor calls us at some point down the line to tell us about allegations against an officer they worked with,” she said. “It just contributes to a lack of faith in the department.”

Without a conviction or discipline, allegations of domestic violence or harassment that generally don’t factor into SPD’s promotion decisions, which police chiefs base largely on officers’ scores on an aptitude test. But Mukhopadhyay says survivors and advocates would be more likely to trust SPD if the department took allegations of domestic violence, rather than convictions and formal discipline alone, into account when making promotional decisions—including, she added, by consulting with multiple survivor advocates before deciding who should rise in the ranks.

“Just looking at when a protection order was issued, and deciding that enough time has passed without another incident doesn’t necessarily mean abusive behaviors have gone away,” she said. “And that should be considered when making decisions that have an impact on survivors’ ability to feel safe.”

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