Police have set procedures for responding to domestic violence, but when one of their own or a high-ranking public official is accused, guidelines for handling these potentially conflict-laden calls are rare in Minnesota.
Measures introduced this legislative session would require all of Minnesota’s 400-plus law enforcement agencies to adopt a policy on handling such calls and investigations. Specifically, they would require the state’s police licensing board — the Minnesota Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board — to develop a model and mandate that all agencies write up their own.
A Star Tribune investigation last year found that more than 500 sworn officers were convicted of crimes since 1995, with nearly 1 in 10 of those convictions stemming from a domestic altercation. Just four officers with domestic-related convictions lost their state law enforcement licenses.
While neither bill got a hearing in this year’s short legislative session ending May 21, there is a chance lawmakers could fold them into this year’s omnibus public safety bill. If not, both authors plan to reintroduce the bills next year.
A number of cases highlighting the issue made local headlines in recent years. In 2016, a Republican Party-endorsed candidate for the House was arrested in Burnsville after throwing his wife to the ground and choking her son during a fight over some pizza. Bradly Gerten was convicted of felony and misdemeanor domestic assault.
Last year, St. Paul officer Joseph R. Labathe was arrested in Woodbury on suspicion of domestic assault after striking his girlfriend’s arm with a car he was reversing during a dispute. Labathe pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. The same year, the Minneapolis Police Department fired rookie officer Ahmed Jama after he was charged with threatening to shoot his wife in the head. The charges were later dropped when his wife recanted and refused to testify.
The measure’s author, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, called it “common sense” that police departments should have a uniform set of standards for approaching these types of incidents, while Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chief author on the Senate side, said he hasn’t heard of any pushback.
The POST Board, an independent state regulatory board that’s part of the executive branch, is charged with setting and enforcing standards of conduct for the state’s licensed peace officers. Neither the POST Board nor the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents union members, has taken a position on the bills. POST Board head Nathan Gove said he’s made recommendations on logistics should the Legislature pass such a requirement. Establishing such a model policy would cost up to $5,000, primarily for staff costs, he said.
Dave Metusalem, head of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said most law enforcement agencies already have “extensive” policies and procedures on the books for handling alleged criminal acts by officers. Metusalem said he’s not aware of any recent domestic violence cases that would indicate that this is a widespread problem in the law enforcement community, but he said his organization takes domestic violence seriously and is open to discussing ways to improve the system.
Safia Khan, a program manager at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said her group does not think domestic violence is any more widespread in law enforcement than in the general population. But victims are less likely to call for help when their abusers are police or in high-profile positions.
Several states have model policies on officer-involved domestic violence, said Mark Wynn, a former Nashville police lieutenant who consults worldwide on police domestic violence. But they’re voluntary and not mandated, Wynn said. Wynn said he’s aware of only two states that require law enforcement agencies to establish a written policy.
“I think we should do that in every state,” Wynn said in an interview. “When it’s mandatory, then you see things change.”