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Kansas' capital city repeals domestic violence law

Leaders in Kansas' capital city have repealed a local law against domestic violence under a controversial plan sparked by budget concerns.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Suspects in Topeka domestic violence cases are leaving jail without being charged, and advocates for abuse survivors say victims are growing more scared amid a public squabble over who should pay to prosecute the crimes.

The mayor and council of Kansas' capital city made a dramatic move Tuesday night in their ongoing clash with county officials by voting to repeal the city's ordinance against domestic violence.

The intent is to force the county's district attorney to back away from a budget-driven decision to stop prosecuting misdemeanors committed inside the city limits — including domestic assault and battery not involving a weapon.

Advocates for victims of abuse slammed all sides of the debate. They're angry with the district attorney over his decision, furious with the mayor and City Council for repealing the ordinance and frustrated that officials can't resolve the budget dispute.

It's been a month since new prosecutions of domestic violence stopped in Topeka.

"It's a slam in our face," Claudine Dombrowski, an abuse survivor from Topeka, told the council. She showed her frustration by throwing dice down on the podium as she spoke, saying, "Roll the dice — that's what we're playing here."

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor contends the county commission forced his decision to cut the budget by 10 percent in 2012, with his office still swamped by felony cases. The city's leaders argue that it can't afford to create the services for domestic abuse victims and rent jail space from the county for suspects.

Also Tuesday night, the City Council authorized Dan Stanley, the interim city manager, to negotiate with county officials over the prosecution of domestic violence cases. He advocated repealing the ordinance, arguing it will help the city in talks with the county.

"I think it draws a line in the sand," he said. "It says we will remove all ambiguity from this question, and we will negotiate from a position of strength."

Taylor's spokesman, Dakota Loomis, called the city's decision "drastic and unprecedented" but said Taylor would re-evaluate his position.

"It just means there is a new dynamic in play," Loomis said.

Topeka has had at least 35 reported incidents of domestic battery or assault since early September. With those cases not being pursued, as of Friday, 18 people jailed have been released without facing charges, according to Topeka police.

Prosecutors and police have refused to discuss details of the cases out of concern for victims' privacy, making it difficult to assess in what situations suspects aren't being prosecuted. The use of a weapon in an assault or battery makes a crime a felony, which would be handled in state court.

"I absolutely do not understand it," Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said after the vote. "It's really outrageous that they're playing with family safety to see who blinks first. People could die while they're waiting to straighten this out."

It also didn't help that the repeal came during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. City and county officials reported receiving hundreds of emails in just days from people upset over the situation.

"Just the fact that it was on our agenda gave us a black eye," said City Councilwoman Denise Everhart, one of the three votes against repealing the ordinance.

Taylor has said he knew his decision would upset people but added that the cuts his office faces will force him to lay off 11 of his 63 employees. He said he considered employee furloughs and "every angle" before making his announcement in early September.

In a memo issued just days before the county commission finalized his budget for next year, Taylor's office said the cuts would force it to drop its prosecution of misdemeanors occurring within Topeka's city limits and "of greatest concern are domestic violence cases."

Topeka officials feared the city's ordinance against domestic violence could have forced the city to take over prosecuting cases and file them in its municipal court. Local officials said Topeka couldn't handle the $74-a-day cost per inmate of renting space from the county to jail several hundred suspected abusers or hiring additional staff to handle prosecutions.

The city already handled misdemeanor cases of simple assault and battery, and incidents of assault or battery against its police officers. Domestic assault or battery involves a person in the same household, and victims often need additional services or shelter.

For years, the city and county agreed that the district attorney's office would handle domestic violence prosecutions in the better-funded state courts. City officials also note that municipal court convictions can be appealed to state courts, anyway.

About two dozen protesters gathered outside the Shawnee County Courthouse to protest Taylor's decision Tuesday. Then, many of them went to the City Council meeting to show their opposition to its actions.

"Everyone's just saying, 'Oh, it's not us you need to be talking to. It's this other person,'" said Hannah Rucker, a University of Kansas student among the protesters. "And it's just going in this circle of, 'It's not my fault.'"