Policing the Police
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JIM LEHRER: Now domestic violence and the law. The Denver Police Force is grappling with some unexpected fallout from the new federal gun control law. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Every police officer knows one of the most powerful weapons against crime is a gun. But under a new amendment to the Federal Gun Control Act, two Denver police officers have been forced to turn in their guns because they both have domestic violence convictions. Passed by Congress in September of last year, the amendment makes it illegal for anyone convinced of a domestic violence misdemeanor to possess a firearm. But it didn’t become clear until last month when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms sent out a letter to all law enforcement agencies that the law also applied to them.
MAN: Congress approved the ban on firearms ownership for persons convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Denver Police Department responded almost immediately, becoming the first in the nation to bring its force into compliance. The two officers had to surrender their guns and take temporary desk jobs.
LT. JOHN LAMB, Lawyer: Those two particular officers were reassigned to non-line functions and at this time they’re not allowed to possess a firearm or ammunition, either on duty or off duty.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lt. John Lamb, an attorney who heads the Denver Police Department’s Civil Liability Bureau, says the law is too new to determine its complete impact, but jobs may be in jeopardy.
LT. JOHN LAMB: We’re waiting to get some more direction nationwide, and we’ll see how this works out among law enforcement and the military nationwide. Ultimately, if something does not change, the bottom line is you can’t be a police officer if you cannot possess a firearm. So ultimately it could be job ending.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s not clear how many police officers could lose their jobs nationwide because most departments have not taken action yet. But what is very clear in Denver is the unpopularity of the new law among rank and file cops. Eight-year veteran Mike McCafferty rides the 3 to midnight shift in one of Denver’s most dangerous neighborhoods. He sees domestic violence all the time. In fact, his first call on the day “we” rode with him was to assist in the arrest of a man suspected of wife beating. McCafferty says police officers feel unfairly penalized by the law.
OFC. MIKE McCAFFERTY, Denver Police Department: I think most of ‘em think it’s unfair for the fact that it does take our livelihood away. You know, if you’re a plumber, or if you’re a carpenter, or if you’re in another job like that, you’re not going to lose your livelihood over this. We should be held to a higher standard, but then again we’re also human. And things happen.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Denver Police Union says it may challenge the constitutionality of the law in court because it applies to past domestic violence convictions. Detective John Wyckoff is a union board member.
DET. JOHN WYCKOFF, Denver Police Department: I joined the Denver Police Department 27 ½ years ago. And at that time the requirement was nothing–had nothing to do with a conviction for domestic violence. Now, if in that 27-year career, if I would have been–had a problem with domestic violence, you’re going to tell me today that I can’t be a police officer; that I have to change my occupation? That was not the hiring requirement that I was hired under. And I think you’re changing midstream.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wyckoff and other union members say police officers who’ve been convicted of domestic violence have gone through the court system and paid their dues. They argue the new law, in effect, amounts to retroactive double jeopardy.
DET. JOHN WYCKOFF: I think that if a person in the Denver Police Department has a problem with domestic violence, not one time in their life but as a pattern, just like in the rest of society, if you have a pattern problem, they need to be dealt with very strongly, if not terminated. But I don’t think because a person has a problem one time in their life that they should be painted with the tattoo that lasts forever.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the person who will have to prosecute cases under the new law doesn’t see it that way. Henry Solano is a U.S. attorney in Denver.
HENRY SOLANO, U.S. District Attorney: We don’t take the view that it is retroactive. I mean, what it does is it takes a person whose current status and condition based upon prior conduct is now precluding them from possessing a firearm.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lani Gibbs of the Colorado Domestic Violence Coalition also has no problem with the law being retroactive.
LANI GIBBS, Colorado Domestic Violence Coalition: The law shows some understanding that domestic violence is characterized by repeat offenses; that–and that there is a lot of danger attached. We worry about women being killed, and that’s one of the things that we have seen with domestic violence because it’s a repeat offense. And the more oftentimes that it’s repeated the lethality increases.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Spousal abuse was in the headlines in Denver last month when a man who had been arrested repeatedly for beating his wife allegedly shot and killed her, his two stepchildren, and himself. Even though the man was not a cop, Gibbs says it shows the importance of getting guns out of the hands of anyone who physically harms their loved ones.
LANI GIBBS: This law should apply across the board to every profession, et cetera, whether you carry a firearm for professional reasons, or personal, recreational, et cetera. I think that we need to be very proactive and very clear that domestic violence is a crime and it has criminal sanction. And you, yes, you may lose your job if you are convicted of domestic violence.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gibbs is working with her coalition to force all police departments in the state into compliance.
LANI GIBBS: The Pueblo sheriffs and police department want to–are saying that they are not going to abide by this law. So what do you think we need to do? Where do we need to go with it?
WOMAN: I think we need to call the ATF to find out what the directive was that was sent to the police stations and law enforcement personnel.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Police Departments are hoping to get the law changed before they have to comply. Representatives of national police organizations are meeting with the White House staff to discuss possible legislative changes. But U.S. attorney Solano says that Congress knew what it was doing when it passed the legislation the first time.
HENRY SOLANO: It is very clear that provision as adopted by Congress to make sure that members of law enforcement are covered by this new provision so that there’s no exemption. It would be our desire and our wish that as members of law enforcement charged with the responsibility of enforcing the laws, that they would do the responsible thing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The law also applies to the men and women of the armed forces, but no action has been taken by any of the services. Instead, the Department of Defense has asked the attorney general’s office whether there is an exception for members of the military.