Facing Cuts, a City Repeals Its Domestic Violence Law
By A. G. SULZBERGER
TOPEKA, Kan. — The startling vote came up at a City Council meeting here on Tuesday, provoked by a run-of-the-mill budget dispute over services that had spun out of control: decriminalize domestic violence.
Three arms of government, all ostensibly representing the same people, have been at an impasse over who should be responsible for — and pay for — prosecuting people accused of misdemeanor cases of domestic violence.
City leaders had blamed the Shawnee County district attorney for handing off such cases to the city without warning. The district attorney, in turn, said he was forced to not prosecute any misdemeanors and to focus on felonies because the County Commission cut his budget. And county leaders accused the district attorney of using abused women as pawns to negotiate more money for his office.
After both sides dug in, the dispute came to a head Tuesday night.
By a vote of 7 to 3, the City Council repealed the local law that makes domestic violence a crime.
The move, the councilors were told, would force District Attorney Chad Taylor to prosecute the cases because they would remain a crime under state law, a conclusion with which he grudgingly agreed. The Council also approved negotiations to resolve the impasse.
Several victims of domestic violence spoke against the proposal at the meeting, questioning whether it would succeed in forcing the district attorney to resume prosecutions. “It is your responsibility to protect these people, and you’re failing,” said Matthew Agnew, 24, one such victim.
Eighteen people have been arrested on domestic violence charges since September and released without charges because no agency is accepting new cases. That has raised concerns among advocates for victims of domestic violence, some of whom gathered Tuesday outside government buildings to express outrage over the gamesmanship.
“To have public officials pointing fingers while victims of domestic violence are trying to figure out who will protect them is just stunning,” said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Though Kansas and its capital city have fared better than much of the country in this struggling economy, they are not immune to fiscal strains. The district attorney’s budget of $3.5 million was cut by 10 percent, which would force about a dozen layoffs. Meanwhile the office is dealing with what Mr. Taylor describes as a “recent uptick in violent crime,” which he attributed to increased gang activity.
“At the end of the day, I feel like my office and public safety are a priority,” Mr. Taylor said.
But the decision by Mr. Taylor to respond to the budget cut by immediately refusing to prosecute misdemeanors in Topeka — though the cuts do not go into effect until next year — caught people off guard, especially given that he had written that the city “does not have the staff or infrastructure to provide victims of domestic violence with the level of service they have come to expect.”
But Mr. Taylor said the county “forced my hand.”
Shelly Buhler, chairwoman of the Shawnee County Commission, said she did not expect Mr. Taylor to actually go through with his threat to stop prosecuting domestic violence.
She said that all departments were asked to propose 10 percent cuts and that he asked for an increase. “We had hoped that he would not put that group of victims at risk, that he would find some other way to absorb the cuts,” she said.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said that around the country, prosecutors are being forced to prioritize certain types of cases, but that these decisions are rarely discussed in public.
“Usually no one comes out and says that starting today I’m not going to prosecute that crime, which sends a message of failure and tells the community you’re free to commit that crime,” he said.
The city, which had already completed its budget, would have to spend $1 million more to pay for the additional prosecutions, said Dan Stanley, the interim city manager. “Its wholly inappropriate for him to lay it at the lap of the county,” he said.
Under the current arrangement, the district attorney is still responsible for prosecuting misdemeanors in the rest of the county as well as all felony domestic violence cases. Almost half of the misdemeanors that were prosecuted last year — 423 cases — are domestic battery cases, and most of the rest are shoplifting, drugs and assault.
Some critics pointed out that even as local governments are cutting deeper into important services, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, is preparing a sweeping tax cut plan.
Becky Dickinson, a program director with the Y.W.C.A., which is the primary provider of services for victims of domestic violence in the county, said there was concern that the lack of charges for those being arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence — which could include verbal threats, pushing or slapping — would encourage retaliation.
“Our biggest concern is the safety of the victims,” she said. “We need to get this resolved as soon as possible.”
Even those who agreed that the district attorney’s office was better positioned to handle such cases worried about the symbolism of a city that decided to decriminalize domestic violence, if only symbolically, rather than prosecuting the offenders.
Michelle Moorman, 21, a college student at the nearby University of Kansas who showed up to protest the cuts with her roommates, said she was surprised and embarrassed by the standoff.
“Budget cuts are totally understandable, especially today,” she said. “What’s upsetting is this game of chicken between the city and the county.”