Police Officers Accused of Domestic Violence Can Plead Down Charges — and Keep Their Guns - Voice of San Diego

Public Safety UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Police Officers Accused of Domestic Violence Can Plead Down Charges — and Keep Their Guns

A VOSD review of domestic violence-related cases involving police officers in San Diego County over the last decade found that prosecutors often find themselves on the opposing end of orders allowing cops to go back to work with their guns. Sometimes, though, prosecutors put up no fight at all.

As an SDPD sergeant, Anne O’Dell helped create a unit dedicated to domestic violence, despite a great deal of internal resistance. She remembers being told by one officer, “I like my women battered, not fried.” / Photo by Megan Wood

This project is a collaboration of news organizations throughout California coordinated by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and the Bay Area News Group. Reporters participated from more than 30 newsrooms, including MediaNews Group, McClatchy, USA Today Network, Voice of San Diego and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Before becoming a San Diego police officer, Carlos McManus had been a sharpshooter in the Marines. He preferred a military style of discipline when parenting his teenage son, who’d come to live with him at age 6. A criminal complaint shows that the boy was forced to hold outstretched plates of food for lengthy periods of time as punishment.

The district attorney’s office also alleged that McManus had repeatedly crossed a line over the years by hitting the boy with various objects — a broom, a cup, a Bible — and threatened to throw him off a balcony and make it look like an accident. McManus, a prosecutor said, had headbutted his son and once threatened to shoot himself with his own service weapon.

Things got so tense in the household that a family friend stepped in. The friend drove off with the boy one day to put some distance between him and his father.

McManus didn’t take it well. He called police to report a kidnapping. Instead, SDPD charged him with corporal injury and cruelty to a child in 2013.

McManus was prepared to argue in court that his behavior toward his son had not exceeded the bounds of reasonable parenting. His son was troubled, he said, and he accused SDPD of conducting a biased investigation against one of its own officers.

In the end, McManus agreed to plead guilty to child endangerment — for not calling the police on the boy after learning that he was selling marijuana. As a result, McManus went back to work with his firearm. He stayed on the force for another three years, and eventually moved out of the state.

Being the suspect of a domestic violence-related crime normally requires you to give up your firearm. Unless you’re a cop in California. The people who carry a badge and swear an oath to serve and protect the public often get special exemptions in the Golden State to keep their service weapons after they’ve committed certain crimes.

When courts issue a restraining order, attorneys for police officers can cite sections in either the Family Code or Code of Civil Procedure. They must prove, for instance, that their employer is unable to reassign them to a role that doesn’t require a firearm. They can also hang on to their weapon while off duty if the court concludes through a psychological evaluation that they don’t pose a threat to others.

Those exemptions no longer apply when the officer pleads guilty to domestic violence-related offenses in criminal court. There is no employment exemption for a felony, because a felony conviction carries with it a lifetime ban on firearms, as does the more serious misdemeanor offense of corporal injury to a spouse. Other misdemeanors in California come with a 10-year prohibition on firearms.

But any officer in California convicted of certain corporal injury or stalking crimes can nevertheless make a case that their job and livelihood depend on the ability to legally possess a firearm. There’s a tension here between the state and federal government. Despite attempts by Congress to take weapons out of the hands of convicted abusers, an officer who beat his wife in California could continue responding to emergency calls with his firearm so long as a judge signs off.

A VOSD review of domestic violence-related cases involving police officers in San Diego County over the last decade found that prosecutors often find themselves on the opposing end of orders allowing cops to go back to work with their guns. Sometimes, though, prosecutors put up no fight at all.

San Diego County’s lead domestic violence prosecutor, Tracy Prior, said it’s disappointing to see people in positions of authority violate the law, but the profession of the person whose case makes its way to the Family Protection Unit, which she oversees, has no bearing on their process. She said her team weighs the evidence of cases — thousands every year — on an individual basis, and considers the removal of firearms from domestic violence offenders a top priority.

She pointed to county data showing that firearms were involved in 45 percent of intimate partner homicides between 1997 and 2018.

“Guns and domestic violence do not mix,” she said. “But that’s a court’s decision, and I think that’s a tough decision position for the court to be in.”

Every case, she stressed, has its own evidence and personal dynamics, and prosecutors argue against the restoration of firearm rights when the facts make it appropriate.

State laws lay out a clear process for evaluating whether a cop is worthy of getting his or her firearm rights restored.

“But in reality,” said attorney Christopher Morris, who defended McManus, “when a police officer walks in … they’re going to get their gun back.”

Personally, Morris said he doesn’t care for California’s firearm exemptions. Earlier in his career, he worked as a San Diego deputy city attorney and prosecuted police officers himself.

Christopher Morris / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“If you can’t separate your power and control dynamic in your job from the dynamic you have at home, then you shouldn’t have a gun, because that’s a very volatile situation,” he said. “It’s the antithesis of what domestic violence law should stand for.”

Morris did, in any case, help McManus get his service weapon back. Morris said his client was an exasperated parent trying to keep his child from acting out, not an abuser who couldn’t be trusted with a gun.

McManus took the plea deal — which included a non-violent misdemeanor — so that he wouldn’t automatically be fired by SDPD and would have a chance at repairing his relationship with his son in the future, Morris said. Court filings show that if the case had gone to trial, McManus planned to portray his child as a liar.

But because McManus was still prohibited in how he could interact with his son, the court needed to decide whether to give McManus his service weapon back. The judge agreed he could keep it.

On the official notes for the hearing, a clerk created a handwritten box on one of the forms that said “Firearm authorized for work” — then wrote in a check mark.

The Superior Court restored officer Carlos McManus’ firearm rights in 2014 by creating and checking off a new box on the official notes.

High Rates of Domestic Violence in Policing

The question of whether police officers should be awarded special rights because of their profession is a particularly important one considering the rates of domestic violence among law enforcement families. Although there’s not a great deal of research on police crimes and convictions across the United States, one study out of Bowling Green State University in 2016 called domestic violence “a major problem” within the ranks.

About one-third of the cases reviewed by researchers — they relied primarily on press reports between 2005 and 2011 — ended with the officer losing his or her job. But the odds of being punished in the courts depended on the nature of the relationship. If the victim was a spouse or intimate partner, the officer was less likely to be convicted.

The researchers also said they were seriously concerned that federal firearm prohibitions were being widely ignored in officer-involved domestic violence cases.

Other research has suggested that cops commit domestic violence at a much higher rate than other professionals. One often-cited figure comes from an Arizona State University professor who in the 1990s surveyed more than 700 officers. She testified to Congress that 40 percent had admitted they’d “gotten out of control and behaved violently against their spouse and children” in the last six months.

More recently, advocacy groups and academics have put that figure closer to 28 percent of officers. Among the general population, the rate of domestic violence is estimated between 10 and 16 percent of families.

These numbers are particularly distressing when one considers a couple factors that make policing a unique profession. Researchers point to a fear of retaliation among victims and a lack of trust in the system because the perpetrator is not just a family member but well-versed in the law and may work for the agency conducting the investigation. They also may know where the battered women’s shelters are located if the victim needs a place to hide.

“I can’t tell you how many calls we’ve gotten over the years from women married to police officers who are in fear for their lives, because he’s trained to use a weapon, has a weapon in the household and also knows how to inflict physical injury without it showing up so quickly,” said Kathy Spillar, who runs the National Center for Women & Policing. “And frequently these women are told, ‘Who’s going to believe you? It’s my buddies that are going to protect me.’”

To improve its own relationship with victims of domestic violence, SDPD in the early 1990s created a special unit of detectives, one of the largest in the United States.

Sgt. Anne O’Dell lobbied for its creation after discovering early in her career that male officers treated domestic violence like civil disputes — sometimes they didn’t even respond to calls. It was her job to train and supervise the new group, and she found plenty of resistance from within the department, especially when its own officers were being accused of crimes.

“I’d never experienced such vitriol and bullshit,” she said. “They would call me a feminazi.”

She’d go on to advocate for better hiring practices that could use simple questions — like, who makes the decisions in your home? — to identify applicants with a bias against women. She thought the culture of the police department needed changing and heard her fair share of jokes in those years, none of which she found funny. She remembered one: “I like my women battered, not fried.”

Even if SDPD filed charges against an officer, getting a domestic violence case to trial was another obstacle, O’Dell said.

In a 1992 report, she teamed up with Casey Gwinn, who was then supervising the San Diego city attorney’s own domestic violence unit, to identify what they called “victim-blaming policies” in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors were routinely requesting that courts put uncooperative victims in jail for contempt and refusing to press ahead with charges — effectively putting control of domestic violence cases in the hands of abusers who could intimidate their loved ones.

By 1998, the city attorney’s office was prosecuting 72 percent of all domestic violence cases but only 42 percent of the ones involving police officers, the Union-Tribune reported at the time. Gwinn told the newspaper that the conviction rate for cases against law enforcement personnel was only 28 percent.

Criminal attorneys and prosecutors say that before body cameras came along, juries tended to give instant credibility to cops on the stand, even when they were the defendant. Morris said he noticed during his years as a deputy city attorney that jurors would change their posture and look as though they felt bad for the officer — like something had gone wrong in the criminal justice system and someone must be out to get an authority figure.

“Every prosecutor who’s ever prosecuted a police officer will tell you they’re the toughest cases to win,” Morris said.

At one high-profile trial in the mid-1990s, a dozen SDPD officers turned up to testify on behalf of their colleague, Michael Breckenridge, who was accused of beating his wife. Previously, Breckenridge had pleaded guilty to spousal abuse. But he was allowed to withdraw that plea after showing that he’d been wrongly promised he could keep his job. After hearing from his many fellow officers, a jury acquitted Breckenridge.

Years later, then-Police Chief Jerry Sanders acknowledged to the U-T that domestic abuse had been handled “internally instead of criminally,” but he said times had changed. Every officer with “sustained” allegations of domestic violence on their record had been disciplined under his watch, he said.

Such a claim, however, was difficult to verify. Then and now, police personnel records are not easy to obtain and are only available to the public in limited circumstances.

Over the past 30 years, Gwinn has become a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence for helping to pioneer a form of prosecution that relies less on the cooperation of victims. Sometimes they recant because they don’t want to see their loves ones punished, or are afraid of retaliation. Sometimes they don’t want to subject themselves to hostility on the stand. Instead, Gwinn relied on other pieces of evidence, including 911 calls and crime scene photos, to make his case.

This practice was curtailed in 2004, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that statements made out of court couldn’t be used unless the witness was confronted at trial and subject to cross-examination.

“We have to be … smart about how we use our evidence codes to be able to go forward and prosecute these cases,” said Prior, the county’s lead domestic violence prosecutor. “They’re very difficult to prosecute because they’re not like regular crimes where the jury gets to hear from the victim who wants the prosecution and says, ‘You stole my set of steak knives.’ It’s a lot more complex than that.”

Over the last five years, the DA’s office has prosecuted between 27 and 34 percent — roughly a third — of all domestic violence complaints that it reviewed.

One of the cases it passed on in 2018 involved Timothy Romberger, an SDPD officer accused of physically abusing his girlfriend. The previous year, he’d also been investigated for vandalism after an incident with his then-wife.

Prosecutors did not file charges in either case, so the details are sparse, but court records show that SDPD wound up punishing Romberger internally. He was suspended for 30 days without pay and assigned to the centralized telephone report unit.

Then came another complaint. In January 2019, Romberger’s girlfriend texted his ex-wife to say he’d choked her and held a gun to her head, demanding a reason why she shouldn’t die.

“He can never know what I’ve told you,” the girlfriend wrote. “I think he’ll kill us.”

Court documents show, however, that the girlfriend has been uncooperative with the DA’s office at various points, and even requested that the court go easier on Romberger so the two could continue to contact one another. She told SDPD internal affairs investigators that she’d fabricated domestic violence allegations against Romberger in the past.

But there appears to have been physical evidence backing up the claim she made in text messages. When police went to retrieve Romberger’s firearm, a sergeant found a clump of human hair that looked like the girlfriend’s. It was lodged in the recoil spring below the barrel.

After pleading to one count of assault, a judge in October sentenced Romberger to 180 days in jail, starting on Jan. 2, 2020. The girlfriend asked the judge to lift a no contact order so Romberger could continue to see his 4-year-old son, but her request was denied.

NBC San Diego reported that on her way out of the courtroom, the girlfriend “made an unfriendly gesture toward the prosecutor.”

SDPD confirmed that Romberger is no longer working for the department.

When Domestic Violence Becomes Property Damage

Because domestic violence crimes are difficult to prosecute, the accused are often able to secure plea deals to lesser crimes that don’t necessarily trigger a prohibition on firearms.

Three domestic violence cases in San Diego County in recent years have ended with police officers pleading down to property damage crimes.

Matthew Tobolsky, then a deputy with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, was arrested in 2016 after a domestic dispute with his wife and was charged with two misdemeanor counts of corporal injury to a spouse. Internal Affairs and the courts had difficulty substantiating the allegations because his wife refused to cooperate. He was later charged with 14 felony counts of insurance fraud seven months later in a separate case.

Roel Tungcab, a current San Diego police officer, was arrested in 2011 after his wife hit her head on the floor and went unconscious during an argument, according to prosecutors. She was trying to console their two crying children when he broke phone. While the prosecutor pushed for a full protective order, the judge went with a more lenient no negative contact order, “given the defendant’s occupation.”

A similar situation played out for Mark Geelan, a California Highway patrolman, who in 2015 was accused of bloodying his wife’s nose inside their Alpine home after a neighbor heard yelling and called 911.

From the start, the prosecutor on the case pushed for the removal of firearms from the home and asked for a full protective order over the objection of Geelan’s wife, April, who was also a cop. Geelan’s attorney argued at one hearing that there’d been no prior instances of domestic violence between the couple and no further disputes since the arrest, even though they continued to live together.

He also offered an explanation for the injury that was passive and devoid of details. April had heard items breaking in another part of the home and “got a bloody nose because she ran after Mr. Geelan,” the attorney said.

Even after the two sides struck a deal — Mark Geelan admitted to destroying property in exchange for the DA’s office dropping a charge of corporal injury — the firearm issue kept coming up.

Geelan lost his job with CHP, but was seeking work at another police agency and in private security. He didn’t immediately need access to his firearms, which were being transferred to his father through a local gun store.

“I don’t have possession and I can’t get them back,” Geelan told the court. “I don’t want them back.”

Audio recordings of the hearings suggest that the court was not only sympathetic to Geelan’s situation — it was intent on restoring his gun privileges.

“You know, I’m not distrusting you,” said Judge Roger Krauel. “I’m not thinking I’m dealing with some crook that I need to worry about what he’s gonna do when he turns around and leaves.”

They all met again the following summer for an update on Geelan’s probation requirements. A different judge, Ronald Frazier, presided over that hearing. Again, the firearm issue came up and the tone of the conversation was deferential.

Frazier told Geelan he was willing to waive the firearm restriction if Geelan found a new job in law enforcement.

“The gun restriction will be lifted for employment reasons,” Frazier said. “If you want to come back and let me know, OK. Just letting you know it will be.”

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