Content warning: This story contains references to and descriptions of domestic and sexual violence. The Beacon has included a resource box with contact information for local support organizations.
Every year, dozens of law enforcement officers in Kansas lose their certifications. The reasons vary and include failure to complete training, newfound disabilities and drug use.
But one reason stands out above the rest: domestic and sexual violence.
In the past two years, 34.5% of all law enforcement decertifications in Kansas were due to domestic or sexual violence, higher than any other decertification reason, according to a Kansas City Beacon analysis of decertification data.
An officer is decertified when charged and convicted of a crime. The problem, according to experts, is that many police domestic violence cases in the U.S. never reach the legal system.
Often, a survivor’s only option is to report their abuser to the officer’s own department. And because police departments are tight-knit, survivors fear backlash from their abuser’s colleagues.
“There’s a tension between what’s good for the department and what’s good for the victim,” said Diane Wetendorf, a national advocate and expert in police domestic violence.
Throughout the past few years there have been a series of high-profile domestic violence incidents perpetrated by Kansas City-area police. In Johnson County, Eric Walker and Eliasa Tanui, both former sheriff’s deputies, were charged with battery and convicted for physically abusing their wives. In Kansas City, Kansas, former officer Steve Rios was charged with sexual battery of a cadet and found guilty. All were decertified.
The fact that there are well-known instances of police being decertified in Kansas for domestic violence is a step in the right direction, said Anton Tripolskii, an attorney advisor for the national advocacy organization Battered Women’s Justice Project.
“I don’t think departments should be looked down on for investigating themselves,” he said. “You want to see a good number of charges, convictions and proper discipline.”
In 2021, there have been several instances of decertification due to domestic or sexual violence. Among them is the decertification of former Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department officer Chanse Henre, who was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. Michael Pagel, a former Kansas Capitol Police officer, was decertified after he reportedly pointed a gun at his spouse and threatened to kill her when she requested a divorce.
Police culture can protect abusers
Officers in the same department see themselves as a family, Wetendorf said. And what happens in the family stays in the family.
“The police become a very close-knit group,” she said. “If you marry into that group, you become part of the family, but as an in-law.”
If a woman complains, even informally, her abuser is still the main member of the family, and the family protects him, Wetendorf said.
“She becomes the outsider,” she said.
Many survivors feel the safest choice is to stay silent. In her 25 years working with police abuse survivors, Wetendorf said she’s seen almost no cases where a woman filed a formal complaint with the police.
Fellow officers retaliating against a survivor is not uncommon, Wetendorf said. They may purposefully do a bad job investigating, destroy evidence or try to intimidate the survivor.
Nancy Chartrand, the media relations specialist with KCKPD, said survivors can contact the department’s internal affairs unit, which is housed separately from the department’s other units. That separation is designed to make the process of reporting less intimidating.
Tripolskii said even if a survivor reported to a different police department, there’s no guarantee that agency wouldn’t also tip off their abuser.
“There’s a lot of pressure within each department to conform to the informal culture and standards they have for behavior,” Wetendorf said.
Female officers who are harassed fear retaliation
Female law enforcement officers are often targets of sexual violence from their male counterparts — even though they’re part of the family.
In 2018, Rios, then an officer with KCKPD, approached a female cadet while assisting with a training academy. He then reached into her sweatshirt pocket, pressed himself against her backside and moved his hand down her abdomen, according to decertification documents. Rios pleaded no contest, was found guilty and was subsequently decertified.
Also in 2018, John Warczakoski, a former Wyandotte County sheriff’s deputy, reportedly repeatedly kissed a coworker without her consent and tried to expose his genitals to her at a bar. On another occasion, he wolf-whistled at her and grabbed her hip, according to decertification documents.
Wetendorf said female officers may feel like they have to put up with the harassment in order to keep their jobs and fit into the department’s culture.
According to a lawsuit filed by the cadet Rios harassed, she initially didn’t want to report him because she was afraid she’d be fired. After cooperating with the district attorney’s investigation, she was fired. In her lawsuit, she alleged the firing was because of her complaint against Rios, which the department denies.
The lawsuit was eventually settled for $200,000.
Officers invoke institutional power
The job of domestic violence shelters is also more difficult when an abuser is in law enforcement.
For one thing, confidentiality needs to be kicked up a notch, said Arica Roland, the executive director at Friends of Yates, a domestic violence shelter based in Kansas City, Kansas. The survivor’s situation should only be discussed with people working with them, and no location or contact information should be disclosed.
“You never know how that information is going to be shared,” she said. They have to be careful even when working with other shelters, rape crisis centers or anyone else who provides emergency services.
Early in the pandemic, Friends of Yates helped place one such survivor in a hotel room and warned hotel staff to contact them if a police officer came looking for the survivor.
The officer did show up, claiming a right to see the survivor because of his authority as law enforcement, but hotel staff called Friends of Yates, who moved the survivor somewhere else.
Roland said while they never want to push survivors for information, they do ask if involving the police would pose a problem. That’s because Friends of Yates partners with the local department to escort survivors to its shelter, the location of which is confidential.
“That way, if there are some safety concerns, we can plan around that and provide them with different options for safely coming to the shelter,” Roland said.
Departments offer mental health resources
Chartrand said KCKPD’s wellness programs are an important tool to ensure domestic violence incidents don’t occur.
“We have an officer whose full-time job is operating, managing and developing programs for our officers to keep them healthy, so the chances of something getting to the point (of domestic violence) are greatly diminished,” Chartrand said.
Chartrand said the program is also meant to help partners of police understand what the officers experience on the job and what standards they’re held to. The hope is that the program will make it easier for survivors to come forward if they experience abuse from their partner.
Local domestic violence shelters, like Friends of Yates, are also working with police departments to provide trainings on domestic and sexual violence.
Whether the trainings are successful is another matter.
At one training in Kansas, Wetendorf said she was told she’d never be welcomed back, and the person who’d hired her would be fired if he brought anyone like her to the department again.
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