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Bill seeks to shield domestic violence victims

Some fear it also protects abusers

When police Chief Thomas LaCroix of Waltham was arrested last year on charges he assaulted his wife, the story made headlines, he was suspended from his job, and his neighbors expressed shock.

LaCroix was convicted last month and resigned from the force on Wednesday.

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But under a bill pending in the State House, that arrest would have been kept secret, public police reports devoid of his name or any identifying information about him.

The idea behind the legislation is to protect the privacy of domestic violence victims by keeping their names shielded from public view, much the same way as rape victims are treated.

Yet the bill goes further than that. It also requires that the names of those accused of domestic violence be kept secret.

Supporters say it is important to keep victims’ identities hidden to encourage them to report the attacks.

Others, however, question whether the legislation goes too far; they say that in working to ensure victim confidentiality, proponents are limiting the public’s right to know about those who have been accused of crimes in their community.

“It’s a chipping away of basic freedom of information,” said Peter J. Caruso Sr., an attorney specializing in media law who read the bill.

The idea for the legislation came after a high-profile domestic violence arrest in Weston several years ago. Police Chief Steven F. Shaw starting hearing that subsequent domestic violence victims in Weston were hesitant to pursue their cases out of fear their names would be publicized.

“The women said to my guys, ‘I’m not interested in pressing charges. We saw what you did to the other people with their names [showing up] in the paper,’” Shaw recalled.

He spoke to his state representative, Alice Peisch, who introduced the bill.

Keeping the name of the accused confidential, Shaw said, is important because it is often too easy to link the victim and the attacker in a domestic violence case.

“If you put only the name of the abuser in the paper, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots,” he said. “I’m just looking to make sure that the people who need help, feel comfortable calling for it.”

Robert A. Bertsche, a longtime Massachusetts-based media lawyer, analyzed the legislation and said it is troubling in that it “keeps all information out of the logs and out of public hands” at least until an arraignment.

“If we want to combat incidents of domestic violence, we want people to know about how much it happens, under what circumstances it happens . . . when it is a repeat incident,” he said. “I think it goes far, far further than it needs to in order to achieve its laudable aims.’’

Michael J. Sullivan, a former federal and Plymouth County prosecutor, agreed that parts of the bill could be “problematic.”

On the one hand, he said, it is important to protect victim confidentiality: “You want to encourage victims to come forward.” But, he said, it is also important for the public to know about domestic violence incidents.

Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, acknowledged such concerns were legitimate.

But, she said, “I believe that the reality at the moment is too many victims don’t report, so there is never any record at all and there is no opportunity for it to go through the criminal justice process.”

Maureen Gallagher, director of policy at Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts-based coalition against sexual assault and domestic violence, said her organization supported victim confidentiality but did not yet have an official stance on the legislation.

The bill has been introduced in previous years without gaining much traction and may meet the same fate again this year.

Former Middlesex County district attorney Gerard T. Leone lauded the intent of the legislation because, he said, domestic violence cases are “so underreported.”

He cautioned, however, that it might limit important disclosures.

“There should be something that covers the public’s right to know,” he said.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.
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