Blog of Rights

ACLU Seeks Accountability for Police Violation of the Rights of Domestic Violence Victims

By Katie Haas, Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at 1:53pm

In 2008, 66 year old Baerbel Roznowski sought a protection order to keep herself safe from her estranged boyfriend, Chan Kim, who had a history of violence. A court issued the order, which said that Kim must stay away from Roznowski and her home and stop contacting her. The order included instructions for law enforcement explaining that Kim did not speak English well and would need an interpreter to fully understand what was happening, and that Kim would likely react violently against Roznowski when he received news that they would be separated. Unfortunately, the police officer who brought the order to Kim didn't bother to read these instructions. He gave the order to him at Roznowski's home, did not bring an interpreter, and left them together without ensuring that they were safely separated. Just hours later, Baerbel Roznowski was dead. Her boyfriend had stabbed her 18 times, murdering her in her own home.

This tragic loss is just one example of a widespread and serious problem. Police in the United States frequently do not take domestic violence seriously. Gender-based violence, and domestic violence in particular, are often viewed as less serious crimes, with law enforcement believing that disputes can be resolved with no or minimal police intervention, even in situations where there is a protection order in place. This perception is more than just inaccurate; it is discriminatory against women, results in negligent behavior by law enforcement, and can end in serious injury, or even death.

That is why the ACLU and the ACLU of Washington filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting a lawsuit filed by Roznowski's daughters against the City of Federal Way for police negligence. After a jury found in favor of the daughters, the city appealed, saying that police had no responsibility to protect Roznowski from Kim, even though the officer elevated the risk she faced by serving the order in the way he did. The case has now reached the Supreme Court of Washington. The ACLU's brief explains that the police had a duty to protect Roznowski under Washington state law, and that finding such a duty is consistent with international human rights standards.

International human rights law recognizes that governments have an obligation to effectively respond to and prevent domestic violence. In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the United States had violated the human rights of Jessica Lenahan and her three daughters when the police in Castle Rock, Colorado failed to enforce her protective order against her ex-husband. He had kidnapped their children in violation of the order, but despite Lenahan's repeated pleas for assistance, the police took no action and the dead bodies of the girls were later found. The United States has made a commitment to uphold human rights standards related to gender-based violence, recently informing the United Nations of how it intends to improve its response to domestic violence to bring it in line with international human rights principles.

In a case like this one, international human rights standards can help inform our courts in interpreting the duty that is owed to victims and survivors. International human rights law clearly extends protections to domestic violence victims and holds government agencies accountable when they fall short. The Washington Supreme Court should do the same, and help to ensure that police misconduct won't lead to a tragedy like Roznowski's again.

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