A quarter century ago this week, on June 28, 1980, a meeting was held in Washoe Valley at the ranch of Nevada women’s rights leader Maya Miller. The gathering led to the creation of the Nevada Network on Domestic Violence. On the eve of that anniversary this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a domestic-abuse case that police have no duty to protect people from harm.

The case involved a woman who called the police in Castle Rock, Colo., and told them her estranged husband had kidnapped their three small children. This was in violation of a temporary protective court order. A notice on the back of the order instructed police to arrest any offenders if the order was breached. The police didn’t act in response to the woman’s calls, and the husband later delivered the children’s dead bodies to the police station while brandishing a weapon. He was shot dead.

Joni Kaiser of Reno’s Committee to Aid Abused Women (CAAW) said, “I think the decision is saying basically now that it’s up to the states to make sure that the law’s being enforced. … The problem with the decision is that it obviously will discourage people from getting [protection orders]. They’ll think, ‘Why do I even bother?’ … I mean, I think it’s like the O.J. [verdict], it’s just extremely discouraging to people. … It just sends a terrible message.”

Reno domestic-abuse counselors have long complained that protective court orders are not respected. In one notorious April 1996 case, a Reno woman who was supposedly protected by a temporary protection order was doused by her former boyfriend in lighter fluid. He then stood over her flicking a lighter. He was never prosecuted for violating the order.

The court had ruled in 1989 that a failure by child-protective workers to protect a boy from abuse at the hands of his father didn’t violate any constitutional duty. But in that case, there was no protective order instructing anyone to make an arrest.

However, the court, on a 7-2 vote, said that while the protective court order required an arrest, that requirement is only an “apparent” requirement.

“We do not believe that … Colorado law truly made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. “A well established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes.”

In a dissent, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg said Scalia and the court majority were overlooking the intent of the Colorado Legislature to deal with chronic police reluctance to act in domestic-abuse cases by eliminating police discretion.

“In adopting this legislation, the Colorado General Assembly joined a nationwide movement of states that took aim at the crisis of police underenforcement in the domestic violence sphere by implementing ‘mandatory arrest’ statutes.”

Stevens and Ginsburg also said the case should have been left to the Colorado Supreme Court because the issues it presented were not federal.

Kaiser said three states—Montana, Tennessee and Pennsylvania—passed state laws even before the court decision making it a duty of police officers to arrest violators of protection orders and making them liable if they fail to do so.

Rebecca Thomas, former director of CAAW’s temporary-protection-order office, says she and other advocates lobbied similar language through the Nevada Legislature, and it’s now in state law.

Kaiser also said the court decision makes reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act more important, since it contains funds to train police in domestic-abuse cases.

The act expires on Sept. 30. U.S. Sen. Joe Biden introduced reauthorization legislation on June 10. One of the bill’s cosponsors, Sen. Orrin Hatch, said because of the act, “violent crimes against women have decreased by 40 percent since 1992, incidents of rape are down 60 percent. … And, importantly, more women are reporting domestic violence and receiving the necessary legal, financial, and social support they need for protection.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...