By Stephanie Hiller
Sunday, August 10, 2003
The case of Mitzie Grabner shows why domestic-violence cases against law enforcers can be especially tough to prosecute. Advocates call the police report on her charges a cover-up and have pushed to reopen the case.
ROHNERT PARK, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)--He grabbed her and shook her on numerous occasions inside their home and even on the street. He pushed her; he sat on her chest and yelled. He threw her down the stairs. He took her keys, broke her phone and threatened her.
Those are the charges that Mitzie Grabner has filed against her former live-in boyfriend, Curt Lubiszewski, a California Highway Patrol officer. After she ended the relationship, she says she was afraid to return to his house to pick up her belongings. That was when she called the cops.
In the ensuing investigation by the Rohnert Park Police, begun in February, Lubiszewski denied the charges. Grabner says she felt pressured to drop her complaint by remarks such as that of Detective Jeff Nicks of Rohnert Park Public Safety.
"You know, Curt has a lot of friends around here," she says he told her, right off the bat. But she did not back off.
When the police report did not contain enough evidence for the district attorney to press charges, Grabner turned to the Purple Berets, a 16-year-old advocacy group with an impressive record in prosecuting abusers in this Northern California county. Their signature case was that of Teresa Macias, a woman who made 25 calls for police protection before her husband killed her. Despite a mandated arrest policy, the Sheriff's department didn't take action. Purple Beret's founder Tanya Brannan's persistence kept the story in the headlines and resulted in a lawsuit against the sheriff's department.
After Grabner began working with the Purple Berets, the story developed a twist. Lubiszewski's ex-wife, Bonnie Garrett, reported to the police similar abuse by her former husband. Purple Beret's Brannan says that in the 15 domestic-violence cases she has handled over the past dozen years involving law-enforcement officers, these two women are the first to go public.
And they have gone very public.
On July 26, about 50 people picketed the California Highway Patrol's offices here to publicize the case against Lubiszewski. Many wore crisp white T-shirts with "Stop Violence against Women" emblazoned in black letters. Lubiszewski's two accusers, Grabner and Garrett spoke. So did Bonnie Garrett's mother, Rose Schloming. So did Bonnie's current husband, Jim.
Across the street from the protest Lubiszewski's brother Mark stood with his wife and Lubiszewski's current girlfriend. They passed out purple sheets written by a friend of the officer, accusing the two women of trumping up their charges.
Whatever the eventual outcome of this high-profile case, the events as alleged by both women fit an all-too-common scenario. Domestic violence is typically a secretive matter; but when the batterer is also a law enforcer, a woman often feels she has nowhere left to turn, according to advocates. These police officers, they say, many times threaten their work partners with reprisal if they jeopardized their livelihoods by reporting their private-life crimes to superiors.
In a letter to all relevant law-enforcement agencies charging mishandling of the case by the California Highway Patrol, the Purple Beret's Brannan described the investigation as so inadequate as to be a cover-up. She said witness testimony had been omitted from the report and demanded a new hearing. On May 28, after Purple Berets presented the evidence, the district attorney and the police agreed to reopen their investigation and it is currently under review by the district attorney's office.
In a phone interview, Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua was not at liberty to say much. "Domestic violence is a very serious matter," he said, with a note of concern in his voice, "and we are investigating this case very closely as we do any allegation of domestic violence."
Male police officers are two-to-four-times more likely to batter their domestic partners than are other men, according to a 1992 report published in the the FOP Journal, a quarterly publication from the Fraternal Order of Police based in Nashville, Tenn.
Possession of a gun appears to be correlated with violence against women and be one explanation for the higher incidence of battering by male police officers. According to a study in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health, men's access to firearms increased the risk of femicide by a factor of five. According to the article, abusers who possess guns also "tend to inflict the most severe abuse."
Male police officers are fiercely loyal to the team and loath to tell authorities on each other, says Diane Wetendorf, founder of the Chicago-based Confronting Abuse of Power, an advocacy group for women abused by members of law enforcement.
"When an officer is in trouble on the job or in trouble with his wife or girlfriend at home, he counts on his buddies to cover for him" says Wetendorf. "He gives them a story that explains why he 'had to do' whatever he did. They repeat his version of the story and they stick to that version."
In July, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an intensive five-month investigation of 41 officers accused of assaulting, stalking, threatening or harassing their wives, girlfriends or children. The reporters found that "police departments are falling short on a number of fronts in the way they handle domestic violence allegations against officers." Cover-ups, according to the reporters, were common.
"This batterer is walking the streets with a loaded gun!" says an exasperated Brannan, referring to Lubiszewski. But California Highway Patrol Captain Larry O'Shea emphasizes that Lubiszewski has not be convicted of hurting anyone and therefore cannot be disciplined by his employer. That is not a universal view throughout the department, however. Bonnie Stanton, an assistant chief in the Sacramento California Highway Patrol office, says a conviction is not required by California Highway Patrol policy.
"It depends on the evidence," says Stanton.
California Highway Patrol's Lieutenant Dan Moore conducted the first review of the initial investigation by Sergeant Scott Bartelson, a close associate of Lubiszewski's. Moore considered the investigation adequate.
Penny Harrington, founding director of the Feminist Majority's National Center For Women and Policing, says that despite a model policy developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1997, departments nationwide "don't do the things they need to do to prosecute the officer."
Stephanie Hiller, a free-lance writer in Occidental, Calif., is the editor of Awakened Woman, online at awakenedwoman.com.
"Settlement Reached in Domestic Violence Trial":
When the Batterer is a Cop:
National Center for Women and Policing: