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Domestic Violence: Police Have a Duty to Protect Victims

Ramya S.,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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October 23, 2013

Last week, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington took an important step forward in the fight to ensure the rights of victims of domestic violence. The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the daughters of the late Baerbel Roznowski, Carola Washburn and Janet Loh, who had filed a lawsuit against the City of Federal Way for police negligence that led to their mother’s death.

Roznowski was a 66-year-old woman who sought a protection order to keep herself safe from her estranged boyfriend, Paul Chan Kim, who had a history of violence. The police officer who served the order failed to heed the instructions that accompanied the order, which explained 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. Despite these instructions, the officer served the order to Kim at Roznowski’s home, did not bring an interpreter, and failed to ensure that the two were safely separated. That same day, Kim murdered Roznowski in her own home.

This past May, the ACLU and the ACLU of Washington filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting this lawsuit, arguing 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.

A jury found in favor of Roznowski’s daughters, but the City appealed, arguing that the police had no responsibility to protect Roznowski from Kim, even though the officer increased the risk she faced by serving the order in the way he did. However, in its opinion last week, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington disagreed with the City, and affirmed that not only did the City have a duty to serve the anti-harassment order on the abuser, but because it had a duty to act, it had a duty to act with reasonable care. Furthermore, the Court explained that “the City owed Roznowski a duty to guard against the danger she faced at Kim’s hands because Hensing’s actions created that danger.”

This decision is an important victory for domestic violence victims in the state of Washington. Police negligence and gender-bias in the handling of cases of domestic and sexual violence is a serious civil and human rights violation; yet, this decision stands out because courts in the U.S. have largely failed to address this problem.

No court decision can undo the tragic event that took place, but this decision is a critical step forward in creating a world in which tragedies like this one don’t happen again.

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