Domestic violence cases raise questions

Phyllis Coleman holds an undated photo of her

Phyllis Coleman holds an undated photo of her daughter Santia Williams on July 16, 2012, in her lawyer's office in Hempstead. (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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'The brutality of their lives was surpassed only by the savagery of their murders . . . but Lydia Grohoski, Elizabeth Croff and April LaSalata achieved in death what they could not in life: By catching the attention of Long Island's justice system, they have forced changes in the official response to family violence."

The above quotation comes from a Newsday story -- one that was published almost 25 years ago after Grohoski of Southold, Croff of Central Islip and LaSalata of Brentwood died at the hands of husbands who also killed themselves.

The three were killed over a two-week period in 1988. Back then, reaction from residents and domestic violence counselors came swiftly -- as did significant reform, with newly elected Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin using his first executive order to make arrests mandatory in most domestic violence situations, whether or not there was court order of protection.

But now, there are two other cases -- involving Jo'Anna Bird of New Cassel and Santia Williams of Bay Shore -- that ought to spur a fresh look at how domestic abuse cases are handled by Long Island police.

In 2012, Nassau County agreed to a $7 million settlement with the family in a civil case arising from the 2009 brutal murder of Bird, who was tortured and killed by her boyfriend.

Peter Schmitt, Nassau's late presiding officer, was so angered by the incident that after a briefing on an internal affairs report on the case, he told a News 12 Long Island reporter:

"There are 22 police officers in this county who were mentioned in that confidential internal-affairs report who ought to be ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror every morning when they get up to shave, much less be wearing the badge . . . Orders of protection were ignored. Mandatory arrests were called for and not performed . . . "

Schmitt was later found to be in contempt of court for disclosing portions of the report -- which never has been made public. As a result, Nassau residents never learned the department's failures -- and thus have no way of independently assessing whether changes department officials said they made are enough.

Last week, a Newsday/News 12 Long Island report on Santia Williams of Bay Shore, who was shot to death by her former boyfriend in 2009, again raised questions about how police handle domestic abuse cases.

In that case, Suffolk police did not arrest the ex-boyfriend, although Williams had an order of protection against him and Suffolk police rules would have mandated an arrest. William's family has filed suit against Suffolk police and others in federal court -- which has become a major source for public information.

In fact, most of what Nassau and Suffolk residents know about police failures in the Bird and Williams cases has come from lawsuits, rather than from police departments themselves.

Which raises, perhaps, the most disturbing question of all: How many other police failures in domestic abuse cases are out there?