Get tough on domestic violence to prevent another Buffalo Grove tragedy

There were red flags beforehand in the Buffalo Grove case. Could it have been prevented? That is still debatable, but certainly more could have been done.

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Buffalo Grove Police work the scene where multiple people were found dead inside a home Wednesday evening, Nov. 30, 2022, in Buffalo Grove, Ill.

Buffalo Grove Police work the scene where a woman, her two daughters and her mother-in-law were killed by her husband, who then killed himself, in November.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Since the brutal domestic violence murder in Buffalo Grove a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about what could have been done about a tragedy that could only be called predictable and, to some degree, preventable.

I have served, along with other talented people from law enforcement and other professions, on two governor-appointed, statewide domestic violence committees: the Illinois Domestic Violence Fatality-Review Commission and the Domestic Violence (Colton’s) Task Force. I spent 37 years in law enforcement and served on other domestic violence committees and advisory panels.

Based on my experience, there were red flags beforehand in the Buffalo Grove case.

Could it have been prevented? That is still debatable, but certainly more could have been done.

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First: Any time police are called to a home for a domestic dispute, domestic violence has usually been going on in the household for a long time. Victims of domestic violence call police as a last resort.

In the Buffalo Grove case, the husband had been arrested before, been in civil litigation over his divorce and had two attorneys drop out from representing him. This is a very important point, as it rarely happens and indicates the husband was extremely volatile, unreasonable and did not listen to legal advice.

His wife, one of the four murder victims, was from Belarus and had no family living in the United States. Imagine what it is like to be a domestic violence victim with small children, relying on an abuser for financial support with no support system or family of your own. That would be extremely alienating: Domestic violence victims need support and help.

For those of you who wonder why the wife let the husband back into the house, the answer to that is partly because she was isolated. I am sure she wanted to see if she could mend the marriage, support her children and continue to have financial support — and she likely had no one to turn to for advice.

Mandatory arrests, risk assessment

In Riverside, where I was police chief for 13 years, we established a mandatory arrest policy for domestic battery cases, including that supervisors must accompany their officers to all domestic violence calls to ensure they are properly handled. We also gave victims a Domestic Violence Rights sheet, plus additional information on free legal services and domestic violence advocates in the area.

But this point is crucial: Police officers must be held responsible for making the arrest. The domestic violence battery law in Illinois now states an arrest shall be — not may be — made when evidence presents itself.

Judges and state’s attorneys then need to take the cases seriously. Years ago, domestic violence advocates persuaded legislators to change the statute so that domestic battery, even though only a Class A misdemeanor, is one of the only statutes under which arrestees cannot bond out from a police facility. All domestic battery and domestic violence suspects must appear in front of Bond Court judges.

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But what usually happens at Bond Court is that judges, seeing someone in front of them charged with just a misdemeanor, typically set bond at $5,000 or under — so a suspect only has to post $500. I have observed some judges lean over their bench and actually ask the defendant, or his family members, how much money they have on them at that particular moment — then set the bond at that amount. Ridiculous.

I am usually not an advocate for creating new felony statutes, but I believe domestic battery should be a felony in Illinois. The impact of that could be uncertain, given the new SAFE-T Act going into effect Jan. 1.

But domestic violence suspects should be held in custody until a risk assessment is completed. Illinois court systems and police agencies also need a better risk evaluation tool, to assist not only in prosecution but out in the field when the arrest is made. At a minimum, Illinois’ domestic violence statutes need to be evaluated.

Attitudes about the gravity of domestic violence must be brought into the spotlight and changed. If not, another Buffalo Grove will happen, again, again and again.

Tom Weitzel retired as chief of the Riverside Police Department in 2021 after 37 years in law enforcement.

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