Leonard Tanski still can’t fathom what he heard a New Orleans police officer tell him almost two years ago.
He’d just received a 4:30 a.m. phone call that his daughter, Lauren, had been strangled and bludgeoned to death in an apartment where she was living on Urquhart Street. The suspect: her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, a probationer with a teardrop tattoo under his left eye and another on his chest that said “Suffer.”
The cop offered his condolences.
“He says, ‘Sorry, Mr. Tanski, but domestic violence isn’t at the top of our list down here in New Orleans, and your daughter was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ ” Tanski said Friday from his home in upstate New York. “My daughter was in a locked apartment.”
The grieving father would later piece together a narrative laden with police failures that is now etched in a federal lawsuit he filed in January against the city and the New Orleans Police Department.
Complaints to police about domestic violence and threats against Lauren Tanski’s roommate in the days before the January 2013 killing went nowhere, according to both the lawsuit and a police report in the murder case against Henry “Pie Boy” Dolliole.
Cops had been called to the apartment days earlier, and the roommate, Samantha Placek, “alerted the officers to the history of physical violence she suffered at the hands of Mr. Dolliole and attempted to display her previous injuries to the officers as proof,” the report said, citing witness accounts.
Fifth District officers escorted Dolliole, whose criminal history included arrests for stalking, criminal trespass and domestic violence, several blocks up the street, then “let him go without taking any official action.” Police fielded at least one other call, and possibly two, about threats from Dolliole against Placek, including one the day before Lauren Tanski’s killing.
No one appeared to direct Placek to where she could find help, local civil rights attorney Mary Howell said.
“What went wrong in the Tanski case we need to teach in the (police) academy and take the pledge that this should never happen again,” Howell said. “It’s almost at every level touching that case that there was system failure. It’s heartbreaking.”
If the case is a roadmap for lackadaisical official response to domestic violence, it is one among many over the years in New Orleans and Louisiana, which perennially ranks at or near the top among the states in the rate of men killing women, according to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
So it was a mix of skepticism and guarded hope that followed Mayor Mitch Landrieu to a podium in Gallier Hall last week as he announced an intensive, wide-ranging initiative to deal with domestic violence at all levels.
Modeled on an approach launched four years ago in St. Paul, Minnesota, the new “Blueprint for Change” lays out detailed protocols aimed at leaving little to chance in rooting out the risk to victims, protecting them from further harm and seeking swift justice for batterers.
The program, unveiled after three years of planning and coordination, includes elaborate scripts for 911 dispatchers and street cops to follow, with questions aimed at drawing out the “context and severity” of violent relationships and forcing more thorough documentation and accurate coding of complaints.
Under the new game plan, responding officers must ask specific questions of the alleged victim:
Do you think he/she will seriously injure or kill you, your children or someone else close to you?
How frequently does he/she intimidate, threaten or assault you?
Describe the time you were the most frightened or injured by him/her.
Have you ever been threatened or intimidated by the other party for seeking help from law enforcement, the courts or others?
Arresting both parties in a domestic dispute will be a last resort, and priority levels will be set and more details embedded in police reports that land in the hands of the judges who set bail amounts. New rules will make it harder to downgrade domestic violence reports.
Prosecutors will have their own detailed menu for decisions on whether to charge defendants, and the courts have pledged an elaborate monitoring program for released defendants.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office, meanwhile, is tasked with restricting visits by victims to jailed defendants and preventing inmates from making intimidating phone calls from jail. The plan also involves probation and parole officers, with tougher enforcement of stay-away orders.
“The intent is to get the right documentation, understand the risk and danger to the victim, so we put the systems in place to have it not happen again,” city Health Department Director Charlotte Parent said. “It’s a way to make sure everyone’s facing a victim’s case and being very direct about it.”
Parent said training of police commanders on the protocol will begin in the next few weeks and then move down the ranks. An NOPD spokesman said the department has overhauled its policies and procedures to make them “victim-centered” and that cops since 2011 have undergone beefed-up training on domestic violence to help them handle complicated, often volatile and dangerous interactions.
More training for officers is coming, both in the academy and in the field, led by the state Attorney General’s Office and domestic violence experts, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
Much of the change is mandated under a 2-year-old federal consent decree governing an array of Police Department reforms. Final sign-off on the new policies from U.S. Department of Justice officials is pending.
The announcement of the new initiative comes more than three years after a scathing 2011 Justice Department report on the NOPD cited a weak, understaffed system of reviewing domestic violence complaints.
The report cited a survey showing that fewer than one in five calls about domestic violence were assigned to Domestic Violence Unit detectives for follow-up, while nearly half were handled by district officers and about a fourth were reported missing.
Police almost never referred victims to the New Orleans Family Justice Center for services, and rarely did police track down suspects who had left the scene, the report found. “In most instances, efforts to find and interview witnesses were minimal,” the report said.
Despite the federal stick that is driving some of the changes within the NOPD, some of the reforms were in the works before the police consent decree took shape, advocates say.
The city developed the plan with a nearly $400,000 federal grant through the Office of Violence Against Women, under the same Justice Department that is pushing the wider NOPD reforms.
“It’s an amazing moment of unity that’s pretty rare,” said Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor who heads up Tulane Law School’s Domestic Violence Clinic.
“Domestic violence by its nature is about a pattern of violent crime. It’s more like torture than an individual bar fight,” she said. “But that’s not how criminal law tends to look at things.”
Along with 911 dispatchers digging out records of prior visits to the house where a complaint arises, the biggest change will be with police, Tetlow said.
“We’re going to be asking police officers — and this is no small thing — to ask not just about the crime they’re responding to but about background information to help determine how dangerous the situation is. This is a lot of work for officers, and it’s going to require a fair amount of training,” she said.
“The reality is, this is a big part both of the violent crime problem and the murders that are most easily prevented. Most drug dealers killing each other on the street, you don’t know when it’s going to happen. If we’re going to reduce the murder rate, this is the best way to start.”
Killings are down
Mary Claire Landry, director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, said the seeds of reform started after Hurricane Katrina. Though the numbers are sketchy, she said, domestic violence-related homicides before the storm consistently numbered in the 20s each year. Now “we see less than five” a year, she said.
“It’s clearly making a huge difference being able to identify high lethality,” Landry said of the progress so far.
Each year, she said, about 11,000 calls about domestic disputes pour into the NOPD. About 4,000 lead to arrests. Just how many lead to convictions is unclear. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, which beefed up prosecutions in domestic violence cases beginning in 2009, did not respond to a request for updated figures.
“All of these systems are made up of human beings,” Landry said. “I’d like to be able to say the system is going to be effective every single time, but in terms of trends, we’re making tremendous progress.”
In some high-profile cases, however, the system appears to have failed at different points, with grave consequences.
Among them: Alfred Andrews, 78, allegedly gunned down his 31-year-old wife and her sister two days after being acquitted of misdemeanor battery in 2010. Andrews died in jail a year later before facing trial.
Keith Tate, 48, still awaits trial in the 2011 murder of Kywanda Butcher and her son after Butcher reportedly sought help but didn’t get enough of it from a Civil District Court judge or police.
Damian Jordan, 26, received an 80-year prison term in 2011 for killing his uncle’s girlfriend, her two children and her sister. Much of Jordan’s lengthy history of domestic violence was reportedly tucked away in the records system at Municipal Court, unseen by a Criminal District Court judge who earlier handed him a suspended sentence for belting his girlfriend in the face with a rifle butt.
Evidence was obvious
In the case of Tanski, a 26-year-old waitress, evidence of Dolliole’s past alleged abuse of Placek seemed there for the discovery.
There were death threats heard or seen in public, witnesses later told police, and Placek had been subjected to regular beatings, NOPD homicide Detective Joseph Jefferson testified at a preliminary hearing.
“He would repeatedly and severely beat her, drag her around the house by her hair, choke her out until she lost consciousness, and when she woke up, he would beat her some more,” Jefferson said.
“Were police ever called?”
Before the detective could say how many times, a magistrate commissioner sustained an objection that the question was irrelevant.
The NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau is reviewing the incident. Ursula Price, of the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor’s Office, said it remains unclear whether there were two or three domestic violence-related calls about Dolliole before the killing.
As Dolliole sits behind bars, showing signs of what forensic psychiatrists describe as “severe and active psychosis,” Leonard Tanski is beside himself.
“This guy had just got released from jail on a probation violation. He had 10 different priors, everything you can think of. I have witnesses who said (police) were there all the time. (Placek) was showing them her bruises, and they just took him seven blocks down the street and let him go,” he said. “This is ridiculous. They never did anything they were supposed to do. They just didn’t care.”
Price said the monitor’s office fields about a half-dozen complaints each year claiming an inadequate police response to domestic violence calls. Most never result in officer discipline, she said.
“The patrolman is a very big gatekeeper. They have the attitude: If there’s no blood or bruising, it’s not domestic violence,” Price said. “Bruising doesn’t happen instantly. They need to return. They also need to understand the psychological impact of these things.”
Among other lingering troubles, Price said, is the questionable handling of domestic violence complaints against officers themselves.
The new initiative has specific procedures in place for handling cases involving public employees, as well as public figures. The rules will require police supervisors to be on the scene.
“The nightmare is you have a cop respond to the scene who’s beating his own wife,” Tetlow said. “It is an ongoing issue to make sure there is zero tolerance for this in the Police Department.”
Numbers will rise
New Orleans is among three cities that won grants for similar initiatives based on the St. Paul model. Memphis, Tennessee, and Duluth, Minnesota, are the others. Praxis International, a federally funded resource center, is guiding the program.
Among the challenges in New Orleans are ensuring follow-up from police and reducing the time it takes to charge defendants, Praxis program director Denise Eng said. Abusers, she said, “have figured out, if they leave the scene, the chances of anything happening are reduced.”
Parent said the new program should initially result in a higher number of reports of domestic violence, as police more accurately categorize incidents.
The hope is that the focus on domestic violence cases will help put a dent in the city’s bloated homicide rate, although “there’s an awful lot of harm that can be done to people short of homicide,” Eng noted.
“It’s not going to be any kind of magic solution,” she said. “One thing I’m seeing is a huge commitment by NOPD to really do right by these cases.”
Parent, the Health Department director, said the deployment of body cameras on police officers should help better assess how officers are responding to complaints.
Whether there are enough cops to investigate the complaints, however, remains doubtful.
Howell noted a decided lack of manpower devoted to domestic violence investigations. The NOPD’s Domestic Violence Unit is staffed by one sergeant and three detectives, a spokesman said.
That needs to change, said Landry, of the Family Justice Center.
“You need a full force,” she said. “You need officers who have the time to really investigate when they go on scene and are not trying to respond to 12 different calls at the same time.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.