Legal experts and advocates for victims of domestic violence say the violation of restraining order procedures by two Boston police officers last year is an exception to the strides the legal system has made in dealing with domestic violence in recent years.
The officers responded to a domestic violence call in Hyde Park last November from a woman who wanted police to take away her ex-boyfriend, who was the subject of a restraining order filed by the woman. Instead of arresting him, as departmental procedures called for, the officers dropped him at a detox center.
A day later, he allegedly beat the woman to death.
“If you go into a domestic violence situation, the first order of business is to establish whether or not there’s an outstanding restraining order — they teach that in police 101,” said Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College.
Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans has said that the two officers, Robert C. Boyle and William R. Hubbard, are facing “appropriate discipline” and are currently on administrative duty. A dispatcher is also facing discipline.
According to a department spokesman, Hubbard and Boyle responded to Stephanie McMahon’s River Street apartment twice on Nov. 16, 2014; she told them she wanted Randall Tremblay removed and said she had a restraining order against him. However, both McMahon and Tremblay were intoxicated, police said, and McMahon showed police hospital paperwork instead of a restraining order.
Rather than confirming the restraining order with a simple computer check, the officers took Tremblay to detox, where he checked out the next morning. Tremblay is now awaiting trial, charged with beating McMahon to death and violating the restraining order she had against him.
“These guys would have had to go out of their way completely to disregard protocol and procedure and turn this into a removal, a detox,” Nolan said.
Nolan supervised Boyle on and off for about 10 years when he was on the force, he said; he did not know Hubbard.
Typically, when police arrive at a domestic violence call, Nolan said, the police dispatcher should tell the officers whether the caller has a restraining order; officers can also look it up. The fact that McMahon could not produce a copy, he said, should not have affected their handling of the situation.
“It’s not at all unusual to walk into a situation involving domestic violence where the people are not cooperative, they’re intoxicated, they’re belligerent,” said Nolan. “It’s clearly the responsibility of the police to ensure that no one is injured. And that if somebody has committed a crime, a violation of a restraining order, that person is placed under arrest and removed from the scene.”
However, Nolan said, an arrest means lots of paperwork — something some officers try to avoid.
But Nolan said the incident did not reflect on the force as a whole: “Ninety-nine percent” of officers who respond to a domestic violence call are focused on nothing but the safety of the victim, he said.
“It’s part of the culture to take these incidents extremely seriously,” said Nolan.
Chapter 209A of the Massachusetts General Laws, which deals with abuse prevention, states that officers “shall” arrest someone who they have probable cause to believe has violated a restraining order.
According to Boston police daily journal records — a log of incidents officers respond to each day — there were 10,311 reports of possible domestic violence in 2014.
Advocates say that the moment a domestic violence victim decides to leave the relationship — for example, the point someone gets a restraining order — is among the most dangerous.
“You’re trying to take control of the relationship away from the abuser, and that can often be lethal,” said Stephanie Brown, chief executive of Casa Myrna, an organization that seeks to end domestic violence. Police, she said, should expect victims to be uncooperative, because they fear their abusers more than the police.
While most victims never call the police at all, Brown said, the survivors she’s worked with who have called Boston police generally describe positive experiences. Police cadets conduct self-defense training for survivors in shelter programs, and Boston’s community policing model also builds good relationships, she said.
“It’s good for the department to look at their policy and procedure, to make sure everyone is trained. Not that they’re not doing that, but it doesn’t hurt to double-check,” Brown said.
“Domestic violence homicides are among the most predictable of all homicides, and therefore the most preventable,” said Toni K. Troop, director of communications and development at Jane Doe Inc., a statewide sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy organization. “The training for this needs to run from the desk sergeant, the dispatcher, all the way up the chain.”
Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said it is not yet clear how the breakdown that allowed Tremblay to escape arrest occurred.
“Clearly, there was some sort of neglect in this case. It resulted in the loss of a life,” he said. “I would think that there’s going to be some serious implications that are going to occur as a result of this failure of Boston police officers to follow their own protocols and procedures.”