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Editorial: Police must take domestic violence seriously

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

Santia Williams pursued every legal avenue she could in her attempt to protect herself and her two daughters from ex-boyfriend Jason Jenkins.

She repeatedly called the police when Jenkins began threatening her after the couple, who had a child together, broke up. She went to court and took out an order of protection against him when he didn't let up. And after she had the order, she continued to plead with the Suffolk County Police Department to enforce it, but got little help. Jenkins continued to terrorize Williams and her family, even snatching their baby daughter from Williams' Bay Shore apartment building and disappearing for more than 24 hours.

Williams, 26 and a graduate of Malverne High School, took many steps but none helped, because the Suffolk cops didn't help.

On July 12, 2011, Jenkins -- a convicted criminal who had orders of protection taken out on him by at least three other people -- killed her with a shotgun with both of her children in the room, then took his own life with another blast.

According to strict Suffolk police rules, Jenkins should have been arrested for harassing Williams on several occasions.

Even without an order of protection, arrests have been mandatory for nearly every domestic abuse report since Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin issued an order to that effect in 1988. But cops never arrested Jenkins for harassing Williams. Further highlighting the lax way the department approached the case, no police internal affairs investigation was done until after lawyer Frederick K. Brewington filed a lawsuit on behalf of Williams' family a year after the killing.

Now, case documents obtained by Newsday and News 12 Long Island show Suffolk County has admitted police made mistakes, but has declined to release the internal affairs report and has not justified that secrecy.

The case echoes that of Jo'Anna Bird of New Cassel, killed by a boyfriend in 2009. Nassau police refused to enforce an order of protection despite repeated complaints by Bird that he was threatening her. This is about a part of police culture that needs to change.

Williams' story also reminds us that the public never saw the Nassau police Internal Affairs Bureau report in the Bird case. No information was ever released on whether officers in the Bird case were disciplined. The county eventually paid Bird's family a $7.7-million civil settlement.

Victims of domestic violence often are portrayed as being weak or foolish because they don't leave, or call the cops, or take out an order of protection. But Williams broke up with her boyfriend, called the cops, took out an order of protection and kept on calling the cops. She did everything she was supposed to do.

But she was still killed, and may have died because the police did not do everything they were supposed to do.

Violence against women is a national problem. Long Island, where more than 30,000 orders of protection are taken out each year, is no exception. But the tragic deaths of Byrd and Williams remind us that police officers often flout rules when it comes to taking violence against women seriously, and this attitude seems to be more prevalent when the women in danger are poor and from minority groups. Cops who don't react properly to such complaints often aren't disciplined. State law prohibits the public from finding out whether cops were disciplined. This must change.