Shot in the line of duty. Twice awarded the Medal of Honor. Named Essex County, New Jersey Police Officer of the Year. A highly decorated officer with an impeccable record. For 22 years police officer Eric Washington battled criminals on the streets of East Orange, New Jersey. On January 21, 2001 Washington was ambushed and brought down–not by an ex-convict bent on revenge or a shadowy gunman, but instead by a false accusation of domestic violence.
Under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 individuals, including police officers and armed forces personnel, are prohibited from possessing a firearm if they are subject to a restraining order issued at the behest of a spouse or an intimate partner. The 1996 Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban expanded this prohibition to bar officers and service personnel from carrying weapons as part of their jobs. As a result, most police officers who are hit with restraining orders lose their careers.
Were restraining orders issued as a result of a reasonable proof of guilt, the two laws might make sense. However, according to Elaine Epstein, former president of the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association, restraining orders are doled out "like candy" to "virtually all who apply," and that "in virtually all cases, no notice, meaningful hearing, or impartial weighing of evidence is to be had."
A study conducted by Massachusetts courts revealed that the majority of restraining orders did not even involve an allegation of violence. According to family law attorney Lisa Scott of Seattle, Washington, "the woman saying she ‘feels afraid’ of her husband is usually enough. Men have no way to defend themselves against these accusations. Most judges grant restraining orders to any woman who applies for one, and often do so in an assembly-line fashion."
Thus unless the accused can get the order undone at a later hearing–no easy feat in today’s climate–any police officer’s or serviceman’s career is one flimsy accusation away from destruction. In some states, officers forfeit their right to possess weapons (and consequently lose their jobs) by the mere fact that a woman has made a police report of domestic violence.
For fathers, the destruction is often double. Since restraining orders are frequently utilized in divorce and child custody battles, falsely accused officers often have their careers destroyed at the very moment they are slapped with stiff child and spousal support obligations, as well as divorce-related legal costs.
Beyond the grave injustices visited upon many innocent men, the current law may also have a negative long-term effect on police and military recruitment, both of which are already in troubling decline. Why should a man risk his safety and devote his life to a career that can be taken away from him at any moment by a flimsy allegation?
Washington’s career survived because his department had the resources to provide him with a desk job while he waged his long and ultimately successful legal fight to clear himself. Most officers aren’t so fortunate.
Former Torrance, California police officer John Brumbaugh recently won a seven-year legal battle after an ex-girlfriend falsely accused him of battery. Though Brumbaugh’s conviction was overturned and his name finally cleared, the false charges cost him his career as a police officer and several hundred thousand dollars in legal expenses and lost wages and benefits.
The Violence Against Women Act expires in September and legislation to renew it for five years was recently introduced by Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Arlen Specter (R-PA). In hearings beginning on July 19, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider various amendments to include in the law’s reauthorization.
The Committee should repeal the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, and provide that men with restraining orders against them can still possess department-issued firearms for the purposes of their employment.
The principle of ensuring that police officers are of solid character is a good one. What is lacking in current law is a reasonable standard for punitive action. The findings of police department investigations and criminal convictions are reasonable standards. The issuance of restraining orders is not.