ADA, MINN. – The longtime Norman County sheriff is under fire from a victims’ attorney who says the sheriff’s office and other local law enforcement agencies are failing to protect victims of domestic violence.
Several victims say they were repeatedly threatened and abused even after obtaining protective orders from the court because officers failed to make arrests required by state law when police have reason to believe the victims protection orders have been violated.
The sheriff, meanwhile, defends his deputies and says he is the target of a critic who is stirring up the community while openly supporting his opponent in the upcoming election.
“It’s just crazy here,” said Jeremy Thornton, running for a fourth term as sheriff of this northwestern Minnesota county of about 6,400 people.
Heather Kirby was hired as a victims’ attorney at the Norman County District Attorney’s Office in 2020, and since then, the Portland, Oregon, Registry has been sounding the alarm about the treatment of crime victims, especially those who were assaulted or threatened by the family. members or neighbours.
Sheriff’s deputies too often fail to respond aggressively to reports of crimes, Kirby said, especially those involving domestic violence. In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, Kirby said, she served 612 victims of crimes of all kinds, including 482 women.
Meanwhile, according to state Bureau of Criminal Arrest (BCA) statistics, Norman County Sheriff’s Deputies have made five felony arrests so far this year. In Grant and Wilkin, similarly sized rural counties, sheriff’s deputies have made 45 and 34 arrests this year. year, respectively.
“Law enforcement is meant to serve and protect,” Kirby said. “When you don’t do that, people are going to get hurt.”
“Follow the court order”
A Norman County woman says her ex-husband at least twice violated a protective order that required him to stay 500 feet away from her. It was issued after he forcibly threw her out of his car, according to court records. The woman said she needed surgery later. Both times, she reported the violations to the sheriff’s office.
State law leaves enforcement of these orders up to police, but requires them to make an arrest if they believe an order of protection (OFP) has been violated. In neither case did deputies arrest the man, the woman said.
In a court motion to extend her protective order for another year, the woman wrote that she was “angry that the Norman County Sheriff did little or nothing to enforce his OFP to protect her. of [her ex-husband]. The Norman County prosecutor decided not to charge any of these violations.”
In one instance, said the woman, who asked that her name not be published because she feared reprisal, an MP asked her what she wanted to do about an alleged breach.
“And I said, ‘Follow the court order!’ ” she says. “Don’t ask me to make the decision!”
Failure to arrest for violation of protective orders “is a very common complaint across the state,” said Suzanne Elwell, director of the Crime Victims Justice Unit at the Office of Justice Programs at the OHIM. State. Complaints about failure to file police reports of violations are also common, she added.
Elwell’s unit receives complaints from victims of crime who feel that their rights have not been protected. She said she could not comment on individual cases or reveal the number of complaints from Norman County.
Kirby said she was personally aware of at least 17 complaints filed by Norman County residents. They include the failure to investigate the sexual assault of a teenage girl by a family member and the failure to provide mandatory victim information to an elderly woman who was repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted by her husband. , Kirby wrote in a letter to Norman County Commissioners.
Eleven months after the initial incident when the woman was ejected from her car, the assault charge against her ex-husband was reduced to disorderly conduct by then-county prosecutor James Brue, who left office in August after a decade of work.
“When James called me and told me he wanted to reduce the charges, I cried,” the woman said. “And he told me there was no incident report. He said he didn’t have a police report.”
Patricia Anderson received a protective order after her son Travis sent text messages threatening to kill her, court records show.
But in the first weeks after setting it up, he sent her nearly 100 texts. Anderson reported the violations, but said deputies showed little urgency in trying to enforce his order.
“One of the officers said to me, ‘Yeah, Travis is a really good guy. I feel bad for him,'” Anderson said. Another assistant, who had played high school football with her son, told her she should just block him or buy a new phone.
“They made me feel like what was happening to me was nothing and that I didn’t deserve any help because it was no big deal,” Anderson said.
Thornton said Anderson’s case was complicated because her son lived in the Fargo area, outside of her jurisdiction. The second time Travis Anderson breached the protective order, Thornton said, his office contacted Fargo police, sent them the order “and they did nothing.”
“We did our best,” he said.
Other victims also said the lack of response from law enforcement made them question whether their fears were legitimate.
“That’s the whole point of being a victim – you don’t know what to do,” said Arlene Bushman of Twin Valley. Bushman was violently assaulted in 2020 by her longtime partner. He punched and beat her for 20 minutes, striking her with a belt and a steel-toed boot, according to court records. She had it all on video and received a protective order.
Yet it took police and prosecutors 15 months to convict her partner of misdemeanor domestic assault. In 2021, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, with a one-year stint, meaning he wouldn’t serve any time if he met the terms. In July 2022, he was again arrested for domestic assault for allegedly beating his current girlfriend. This criminal case is ongoing.
Another woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal, said her longtime partner breached a no contact order that was in place after he was charged with assault for the having hit. He followed her to a local gas station, blocked her vehicle with his truck, and started yelling at her.
She reported it to the sheriff’s office. A deputy came to talk to her and she asked him to enforce the no contact order. He said he would look into it, according to the woman, but she never heard from him.
“And I thought, maybe I’m boring,” she said. “If they think it’s no big deal, maybe it’s not.
“It wasn’t until I started talking to Heather that I started to realize there was a lack of enforcement in the county and it wasn’t just me.”
Dark of night recording requests
Kirby said her criticism of the department led to harassment and retaliation against her by county officials. After speaking about the issues of victims of crime at a community meeting this spring in Halstad, Minn., his job description was changed to remove community education and outreach from his official duties, according to correspondence. between his lawyer and Brue.
“Ms. Kirby is deeply concerned about the status of crime victims’ rights in Norman County,” her attorney said in a letter to Thornton, Brue and six other county officials. “Ms. Kirby’s job description was changed on March 28, 2022. By all appearances, the change occurred as a result of the [Halstad] Meet.”
Brue declined to comment on Kirby’s job description or any of the cases handled by his office.
Recently, the sheriff’s office conducted five records checks on Kirby against state and federal law enforcement databases at 3 a.m., which she says was done to seek out damaging information about her. .
Thornton said Kirby misinterpreted the records checks and that it was simply the work of a dispatcher correcting the confusion between Kirby’s married and maiden names on some incident reports.
Earlier this year, Kirby filed for a harassment restraining order against one of Thornton’s five deputies. She alleged that he harassed her via social media, creating a fake Facebook account in her name and revealing personal information about her.
A judicial arbitrator denied the claim, saying her allegations did not meet the legal requirements for a harassment order, but expressed concern about the alleged behavior.
“The Court will say that the information presented causes the Court to pause,” arbitrator Tyler Annette wrote. “At a minimum, it’s disturbing conduct.”
Norman County deputies were unavailable for comment. In an email, Thornton said county employees were instructed not to discuss Kirby with the media.
Thornton said he doesn’t know why Kirby took on such an activist role.
“We’ve had other crime victim advocates in the past and they’ve never had a problem,” he said. “I don’t think anything has changed. We mostly have the same law enforcement officers, the same sheriff. … They’re good, honest, hard-working people.
“They are doing what they can legally,” he said. “There are just certain things that people expect they can’t do. You can’t act on hearsay.”
He said the whole controversy is about election manoeuvres. Kirby is backing his opponent, Tim Boe, a former MP whom Thornton beat four years ago with more than 75% of the vote.
“I only heard about my MPs eight months ago, until the election,” Thornton said. He noted that he had received applications for 250 more candidate lawn signs than four years ago.
“Their madness, I think,” he said, “is turning against them.”
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