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Friday, May 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Brame case: When a wife's abuser is a cop, who can help?

Seattle Times staff reporters

It started with a shove. Then it was a punch. Once he knocked her down, using a maneuver taught in the police academy. Finally, she landed in the hospital.

The violence has to stop, she told her husband, a Tacoma police officer.

His response, she said, was chilling: " 'Who are you going to call? One of my buddies?' "

It's a question women here and across the country confront when their abuser is a cop. Women battered by police officers say they are reluctant to make reports because they fear the very system set up to protect crime victims. And those who do report say their complaints have produced few results.

That same system was of no help to Crystal Brame, who was shot and killed by her husband, Police Chief David Brame, after her allegations surfaced in divorce records and in the media two weeks ago. After he shot her, Chief Brame killed himself. He was buried last weekend; she will be buried tomorrow.

Crystal Brame's divorce pleadings describe a husband who was controlling and violent; she said he threatened her with his gun and used the power of his badge to get away with it.

A half-dozen former wives and girlfriends of Tacoma cops say the Brames' story reminds them of their own. Their abusers used police training in their attacks, service weapons to threaten them and department resources to track them. Most agreed to discuss their situations only if their names and some details were not disclosed; all of them filed reports or court claims outlining their stories.

And while each of their stories is different, they say their husbands or partners were supported by a system that gives the police more credibility than their mates, fails to fully investigate abuse allegations and, in some cases, offers aid and support to the abusers. The department's record with women is not unblemished; in 1997 the department paid more than $600,000 to four women who sued, alleging decades of sexual harassment against women and violent incidents between male and female cops.

The Tacoma Police Department refused to respond to repeated requests for comment and would not release its policies. Judie Fortier, the city's women's rights coordinator, said that, in her experience, the department does not view domestic violence as a priority.

But Tacoma isn't unique. Nationally, studies have shown that police officers are two to four times more likely to be involved in domestic violence than the general public, according to the National Center for Women & Policing, co-founded by former Portland police chief Penny Harrington in 1995.

"Unfortunately, it's all too common," said Harrington, who now is an expert witness in domestic-violence cases. "There are still not enough police administrators out there who think that this kind of violence is a crime."

Why police abuse more often than the general public is often debated. Jan Russell, a victim advocate in the Chicago Police Department said the abusers she has seen were already controlling people and entered into police work because of the power they could have.

In the days since the shootings, the issue has raised the question again. Who protects the women from the men whose job it is to protect and serve?

A culture of fear

"Despite having suffered through years of physical and emotional abuse from my husband, I questioned whether to pursue a personal restraining order against him. My husband is a high ranking official with the Tacoma Police Department."

Crystal Brame in her divorce filings

Fear dominates a victim of domestic violence; when the abuser is a police officer, that fear is compounded, experts say.

"They're afraid of retaliation, of [losing] financial support," said Diane Wetendorf, a national expert in police domestic violence. "It's a last resort for them to do anything like make an official complaint."

Maureen McClain-Meyers, who was married to a Tacoma police officer, wrote in court documents that she had been assaulted repeatedly, but didn't call police because "[my husband] is also in law enforcement and said they would arrest me, not him."

Her husband ultimately resigned.

"It's a double-edged sword," said another woman, whose husband stayed on the force. "If he had been fired, I would have paid for that in some manner. That's their identity, being an officer. ... If you take that away from them, they're nothing."

In addition to abuse, the officers threatened them with the power of their badge, the women said.

One officer forced his way into his girlfriend's house and charged at her. She kneed him in the groin. During their scuffle, his nose was broken, according to court records.

"I know the law and you're the one that's going to get arrested," she said the officer told her.

"I sat there with my shoes, all ready, and just sat there and waited 'cause I thought I was going to go to jail," she recounted later. She did not go to jail, but was too scared to report her boyfriend then. Months later, after her officer boyfriend punched her in public, she reported him to another police department. Prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against him if he kept his record clean for two years.

Another woman said her ex-husband used his police powers to get her phone records and to trace her movements.

Using the system

"She grabbed and scratched my left shoulder and neck, leaving scratches and bruises. I went directly to the Gig Harbor police station. My intent was to report the incident in order to protect myself from potential false claims by Mrs. Brame. I did not want Mrs. Brame arrested because that would assure that the marriage would be over. In this conversation, I expressed the fear that Mrs. Brame would fabricate allegations."

Chief David Brame in divorce filings

While women do sometimes abuse men, national experts say it's a well-known tactic among batterers to pre-empt allegations against them by filing their own complaints first.

Of about a dozen domestic-violence incidents involving Tacoma officers that were detailed in court documents in the past decade, seven involved male police officers filing for protective orders against their wives or girlfriends. None of the women were convicted of abuse.

"It's incredibly frustrating to have abusers misuse the system," said Russell, the advocate for those victimized by Chicago police officers.

In one case, an officer accused his girlfriend of a drunken assault. The woman said the allegation was false.

Some officers used their knowledge to set up wives or girlfriends, making it appear as if the woman was stalking them, attacking them or mentally unstable, several women said.

"A lot of women are accused of being abusive when they're actually the victim," said one woman who says she was assaulted by a Tacoma cop. "It's a tremendous amount of power. It puts the victim in a place of trying to defend themselves."

The courage to tell

"I remained afraid, however, after the filing of the dissolution documents. ... My husband has told me that no matter what, he will continue to see me and talk to me, irrespective of any desires I may have to the contrary." Crystal Brame in divorce filings

One woman still remembers the day she nervously walked in to the Tacoma police station to report her husband's beatings. Her husband was there, at work. His buddies in the department were there as well.

"You get to know these officers every day. They stop by your house. You don't know what you're going to run into down there," she said. "I just didn't know how I was going to be treated."

In her case, she didn't press criminal charges. Her husband remained on the force. But the Tacoma officers were understanding. They enforced the civil protective order, telling her husband he had to leave his wife alone.

Other victims say their complaints were ignored or brushed aside.

The day Crystal Brame's allegations became public — and the day before the Brame shootings — Tacoma City Manager Ray Corpuz told The News Tribune that the city was "not interested in investigating" the claims. And although police investigators say they believed a woman who years earlier made a rape allegation against Brame, they said there was insufficient evidence to support a criminal charge against him.

The department had a "tendency" against investigating such cases, said Wendie Harper, a former Tacoma officer who worked for seven years in the department's domestic-violence unit and now sells real estate. "They like to believe the officer over the spouse."

During Harper's tenure, until the mid-1990s, if a cop was accused of an assault, a superior officer would ask a domestic-violence officer to investigate "on the sly," she said. After the investigation, the complaint went right back to the supervisor, without necessarily making its way to internal affairs investigators. "It was a private thing," Harper said. The supervisors' attitude was "we didn't want to embarrass the officer."

Fortier, the city's women's rights coordinator, helps run a free course on domestic violence for officers across the Puget Sound region. Although the department sends some officers to the training, "I did not see the commitment I saw in Seattle and King County," she said. "We were told the department didn't have the money to allow them time off their regular jobs."

Some victims said that when they finally reported the abuse, they were accused of making false claims and in some instances, of abuse themselves.

"They told me that they would have to investigate me," said one woman, who had complained to internal affairs after her police officer husband assaulted her. She declined to follow through on her complaint.

In another case, two drug-education officers had a domestic dispute. Barbara Justice, the officer in charge of the unit, recommended the male officer have a psychiatric evaluation, court records show. After the evaluation, he was sent back to the same unit to work with the woman, despite her objections.

According to court records, the male officer was reassigned only after Justice fought the placement. Justice was part of the sexual-harassment lawsuit later filed against the department.

But one of the victims isn't sure all the women's claims are true. "The reason they don't file any charges is because there's really no abuse going on," said Meyer-McClain, whose husband resigned after hitting her so hard her eardrum burst, according to media and police reports at the time. "If women married to cops are too chicken to report it, that says more about them than the police department."

A life with fear

"He (David Brame) frequently reminds Crystal in phone conversations that their marriage is, in his words, 'till death do us part.' He is still trying to terrify her."

David Ahrens, brother-in-law to Crystal Brame, in divorce filings

Since last Sunday, when she spoke out about the need for the Tacoma Police Department to establish an independent system for investigating domestic-violence complaints against officers, Tacoma attorney Lara Herrmann says she has received around 20 phone calls from women who say they were abused by police officers. Some of the abuse is still occurring today, the women told her.

Even after getting away from abusive relationships, some of the women interviewed by the Times said the fear persists.

After hearing about the Brame shootings, one woman said a relative told her: "That's what we thought would happen to you."

Reporters Mike Carter, Christine Clarridge, Ian Ith, Justin Mayo, Ray Rivera

and researcher Miyoko Wolf

contributed to this report.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com. Cheryl Phillips: 206-464-2411 or cphillips@seattletimes

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