‘Honor system’ allows domestic abusers to ignore court orders

CREATED Oct 25, 2012 - UPDATED: Oct 25, 2012

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  • Image by Steve Chamraz

MILWAUKEE- When Radcliffe Haughton bought a revolver the day before storming into a Brookfield salon and killing three women, he was violating a court order that said he cannot possess a firearm.
Dick Petarius was under the same kind of court order Tuesday when he stole a shotgun from his son, confronted his wife with the weapon and then fired on Waukesha police who responded to the scene.
Both men are examples of a weakness in the system designed to protect victims of domestic violence.
It is largely an honor system prescribed to men who have already proven themselves far less than honorable.
"On some level it requires some degree of trust," said Milwaukee County Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers.
In an interview Wednesday, Kremers fought the notion that the current court orders are not worth the paper they are written on.
He pointed to the fact most abusers hit with restraining orders and firearm restrictions learn their lessons.
But Kremers admitted the system was easy to abuse by someone determined to cause damage.
"At the heart of a lot of orders in the criminal system is the notion that we expect people to follow the law, right," Kremers said.
So how many abusers do follow the law?
The I-TEAM looked through every request for a restraining order heard in Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties since the beginning of 2012.
We discovered thousands of cases, including many where women were clearly in fear for their lives.
In Waukesha County, courts issued 71 restraining orders that include a firearm restriction.
In Milwaukee County courts, that number is 716.
Chief Judge Kremers is confident not all 716 offenders are complying with their orders.
"I'm sure that that's probably the case," Kremers said.
That is because the court's orders are nearly impossible to enforce.
Since only the abuser knows if he has a gun, he is on his honor to turn it in to the county sheriff.
So judge for yourself if that honor system is working.
In Waukesha County, 71 people were ordered to hand over their guns. The number who did is nine.
Of the 716 firearm restrictions issued in Milwaukee County, the sheriff has six.
At the Sojourner Family Peace Center, Carmen Pitre helps walk women through their escape from abuse.
She is as frustrated by this as anyone.
"I want the sheriff's department, police department, the district attorneys -- I want everybody to be working to take those guns away from people who want to hurt other people," said Pitre.
Pitre hopes these two examples in one week force the system to change.
"Those are the things that we have to tighten up," she said. "How do we track and take guns away from abusers in a way that doesn't interfere with gun access or gun ownership.
When we asked Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke to weigh in, the usually outspoken sheriff turned and ran.
In a statement through his spokeswoman, Sheriff Clarke said the I-TEAM's questions about a flawed system are an attempt to "...squeeze more juice out of the orange out of the tragic domestic violence issue that occurred in Brookfield."
Victims' advocates like Carmen Pitre wishes the sheriff would be more open to addressing this problem.
"It has to be an opportunity for us to do better," she said.
The alternative, she said, is one she sees far too often.
"It's an opportunity for us to look at what we can do stronger to prevent the next incident," Pitre said. "We have to turn it into an opportunity."
A number of state lawmakers are seizing on this week's events to jump start legislation that would give these court orders some teeth.
But even if the law gets tougher -- experts admit abusers will always be able to find a way to hurt women -- if they're determined enough to do it.
Much like Radcliffe Haughton and Dick Petarius managed to get their hands on guns despite the court's strongest available effort.
Data analysis performed by Jeff Janca, Tim Meulemans, Stephanie Graham, Lindsey Morone, Sarah Hauer and Faith Lenard.