Few cases of cops accused of domestic violence ever make it to court

Two officers who were given their guns back after being accused of domestic violence later killed their wives with those same guns
Two officers were accused of domestic violence, but got their guns back — and later killed their wives with those same guns. Reported & Edited by Brendan Keefe
Published: Jun. 19, 2023 at 1:59 PM CDT
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(InvestigateTV/Atlanta News First) - Amanda Perrault never had a chance.

The 44-year-old wife was killed by a single gunshot to the head six days after she called Putnam County, Georgia, 911 to report a case of domestic abuse.

“It’s my husband, he’s putting his hands on me,” Perrault told the dispatcher. “He’s a police officer for Eatonton.”

Officer Michael Seth Perrault told the county sheriff that he and his wife were in bed drinking and talking when she pulled his .380 Smith & Wesson Bodyguard pistol out of the nightstand and shot herself in the head. Perrault called his police chief to report his wife was dead.

This is part of a series looking at how police officers are sometimes given special treatment when they are suspects in family violence incidents.

Sheriff’s investigators said the scene didn’t match the off-duty officer’s story. The pistol was found near Amanda Perrault’s feet, and the gun’s magazine was found ejected on the bed closer to her hands, which were cupped close to her body.

After her initial domestic call six days earlier, Amanda Perrault had told a neighbor, “If you find me dead, I did not kill myself,” according to the trial transcript of Seth Perrault, who was charged with his wife’s murder in 2020 and found guilty on all counts last year.

The Georgia Commission on Family Violence, a state agency, reports the lethality of a family violence incident increases by 500% when a firearm is present in the home.

Given the nature of the job, a gun is present in many domestic cases involving a police officer as the primary aggressor.

Guns not taken away

Perrault was put on administrative leave without pay from the Eatonton Police Department after he was arrested for domestic violence on January 28, 2020.

The bond conditions did not include a prohibition on dangerous weapons. While not required by Georgia law, judges often restrict firearms possession by defendants accused of family violence while they’re awaiting trial.

Some jurisdictions print the firearms restrictions on the standard bond form. Putnam County does not, and the magistrate judge did not add any firearms restrictions to Perrault’s bond.

Perrault was at the gun range after his arrest, just two days before his wife was shot dead with one of his pistols.

In 2020, Police Chief Kent Lawrence told InvestigateTV Perrault’s training at a gun range after his arrest was appropriate because “he had not been terminated from the department.”

A 911 dispatcher told a deputy who was responding to the earlier domestic call, “He’s over there whipping on her a** now, and the chief, he’s going to know about him.” On the recorded line, the dispatcher said, “[Perrault’s] been out of work with his back and apparently he’s over there whipping up on her a**, and the chief kind of knows that he could have the potential to do that — talking Lawrence now — so y’all go and hook him up if that’s the case.”

In August 2021, Lawrence retired after more than 30 years of leading the Eatonton department while under investigation for an unrelated incident. He did not respond to interview requests from InvestigateTV.

‘Would prevent him from working as a law enforcement officer’

A Cherokee County, Georgia magistrate court judge allowed another cop accused of family violence to keep his guns in 2017. Roswell Police Det. Sgt. Chad Harris was arrested after his son called 911 to report he was hitting his mother.

“He’s pulled out a gun one other time,” Harris’ son told the dispatcher. “He’s hitting her.”

Prosecutors had not heard that call yet or read the incident reports, but they asked the magistrate judge to keep the officer from accessing firearms while awaiting trial.

Cherokee County’s standard bond restriction form includes a section reading: “Defendant shall not possess any dangerous weapons, nor be present at any location where same may be found.” But that section was crossed out by hand and signed by the judge, who also ruled: “The accused … works as a law enforcement officer, and that no weapon is alleged to be used in the accused crime. Further, to restrict the Accused access to or proximity to weapons would prevent him from working as a law enforcement officer.”

InvestigateTV reached out to the judge for comment. The magistrate court administrator said it is the judges’ policy not to comment to the media about rulings.

Internal records show Roswell police sought to immediately remove any department-issued weapons from Harris.

“Captain Bates wanted to make sure Harris did not have access to those weapons so I have deactivated his access to the police department,” an internal affairs detective wrote the morning after Harris’ arrest.

According to the internal affairs file, Harris’ wife asked Roswell police to take his personal guns as well. “She gave us a tub filled with handguns” and “numerous long guns,” a Roswell lieutenant wrote.

After prosecutors discovered in the family violence incident report that, “Chad has previously pulled his weapon,” they asked the judge to modify the officer’s bond. This time, the judge agreed and modified the bond to restrict weapons possession by the officer. Harris resigned from the Roswell Police Department while under investigation.

An inventory attached to the internal affairs file shows 25 personal weapons were turned over by Harris to Roswell police, including 13 handguns and 12 rifles.

According to the incident report, Harris’ wife told police “he never actually hit her.” Police took photos showing redness on her neck, chest and face. Harris’ wife said he had grabbed her by the throat to get her attention, aggressiveness she attributed to his law enforcement work.

Prosecutors dropped the family violence charges because the “victim has expressed her desire to have case dismissed multiple times and attempts to gain additional information regarding the case have been unsuccessful,” the solicitor wrote in the dismissal.

Harris pleaded guilty to the remaining disorderly conduct charges under Georgia’s First Offender Law, which dismissed the charges after a probationary period. He was banned from possessing weapons until the probation was complete, but the judge allowed him to use a firearm on the gun range to keep his police certification.

Another domestic call was made at his home in 2021; no arrests or charges were made. Harris did not respond to multiple messages from InvestigateTV.

The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) found probable cause of domestic violence but put Harris on its own administrative probation, effectively suspending the agency’s decision to revoke his certification.

Harris is not currently working for any police department, but remains a certified officer, according to Georgia POST.

Half of officers accused of family violence kept police certification

Of the 67 cases provided to InvestigateTV by Georgia POST, 18 officers kept their jobs. Two were promoted after their arrests for domestic violence. One in four officers was terminated by their department, while another 29 resigned.

The data is limited to only those cases that were reported to Georgia POST either voluntarily by officers and departments, or in which there was an arrest.

InvestigateTV had asked Georgia POST for two years of data on officer-involved family violence investigations — 2019 and 2020 were chosen because more recent cases may not yet have been adjudicated.

The spreadsheet included only the officers’ names and the dates investigations were initiated by POST. InvestigateTV looked up all 67 cases individually to see if we could determine the outcome of each officer’s POST investigation and criminal case.

Most criminal cases against officers are dismissed

InvestigateTV was able to determine the outcome of criminal cases for 37 officers arrested for domestic violence during those two years. Of those, 87% saw their cases dismissed by prosecutors or the courts.

Prosecution statistics for domestic violence among the general public vary widely by jurisdiction, and some cases get dismissed after suspects are arrested but before they’re officially charged. That makes it difficult to track the true number of dismissals for officers and civilians alike.

While the lack of reliable tracking complicates comparisons with officer arrest data from POST, defense attorneys say family violence cases are dismissed 80-90% of the time when victims change their original statements.

That tracks with the 87% dismissal rate for Georgia officers InvestigateTV observed were arrested for family violence.

The POST data shows just five guilty pleas among 37 arrests. Only one of those officers pleaded guilty to his original charges. Four others pleaded to reduced charges or under the First Offender Act that later dismissed their convictions.

But Georgia POST determined there was probable cause to suspend or revoke officers’ certifications in 96% of cases for which there is a completed investigation report on file.

Of those, 11 officers had their certifications revoked, eight were suspended, and four were denied initial certification as cadets. Two officers were cleared by POST and the agency took no action.

Former Eatonton officer Michael Seth Perrault was not included in the data, but POST revoked his police certification when he was convicted of murder last year.

The largest group in the data included 30 officers who were put on POST probation. In those cases, the agency’s Probable Cause Committee voted to revoke the officers’ certifications but suspended the revocations for 12 to 36 months. Some also received public reprimands.

The vast majority of those officers were ordered by POST to attend domestic violence counseling at their own expense.

Officers’ families reluctant to testify against them

POST leadership told InvestigateTV that probation and counseling allowed the agency to take some positive action in cases where a revocation would not likely survive an appeal by the officers because their families are often reluctant to testify.

That’s what happened to Lt. Melvin Echols, who is currently employed with the Union City Police Department after his family called 911 to report he had pulled knives and was chasing them around the night of July 4, 2019. His charges were dismissed.

Missing from the data are any cases where responding officers chose not to arrest a fellow cop. Under Georgia law, those incident reports would not be public record, so there is no way to track how many such cases occur, if any.

The Georgia General Assembly passed the law to respect the privacy of family arguments that don’t result in violence or other crimes, but they may have unintentionally created a perverse incentive for officers not to charge fellow officers. If no arrest is made, even if there was probable cause, the incident would remain secret.

Georgia law and federal law disagree

Georgia is one of only 10 states that haven’t passed laws to take guns from people convicted of misdemeanor family violence.

Federal law already does so — but it’s rarely enforced by local authorities in Georgia.

The Lautenberg Amendment was passed in the 1990s.

“If you’ve got a conviction, not just an arrest, but a conviction for domestic violence, you can’t possess a firearm,” said retired Montgomery, Alabama, Police Lt. Steve Searcy, describing the federal law.

Searcy responded to multiple domestic calls over his 40-year career, oftentimes returning to homes of previous domestic violence calls only to find the victims dead.

In one case, he said fellow officers had given a cop a break by not writing reports of domestic violence.

“They thought they were helping him,” Searcy said, “and then a few months later, he committed suicide.”

Searcy ran the Montgomery Police Domestic Violence Bureau, which he called the Homicide Prevention Unit, “because every day, if we did our job to the best of our ability, we were probably preventing a domestic violence homicide,” Searcy said.

Alabama and 39 other states passed laws to mirror the Lautenberg Amendment, empowering police and courts to take guns from domestic violence offenders, including officers convicted of family violence.

Senate Bill 119 was introduced this year in the Georgia General Assembly to bring the state in line with others and with federal law. The bill, sponsored by 22 state senators, didn’t make it out of committee. Because Georgia is in the middle of a two-year legislative session, SB-119 is still technically alive and could be brought up again next January.

According to the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, 190 Georgians were killed as a result of family violence in 2022. In 81% of those cases, a firearm was the cause of death.

“This gap, between Georgia and federal laws, makes it more difficult for local law enforcement to act when they encounter a prohibited abuser in possession of an illegal firearm, forcing Georgia law enforcement to either take no action or depend on federal officers for a response,” the Georgia Commission on Family Violence wrote in its latest report.

Officer-involved policies vary by department

As InvestigateTV discovered in Echols’ case — sometimes the suspect outranks the responding officers. In Echols’ case, two lower ranking patrol officers were sent away by a lieutenant who was the scene commander. Lt. Barry Walker called a captain to the scene, but no arrest was made and Echols was allowed to stay in the home while his family was asked to go to a hotel.

Searcy said every department needs a policy for officer-involved domestic violence calls.

“Every agency needs to have a policy that directs their officers, so if they’re confronted with a supervisor or even the chief of police, they respond to his house and he outranks them, there needs to be in a policy that directs them how to handle that situation,” he said.

Searcy developed such a policy for the Montgomery police department. Other departments across the nation have taken Searcy’s model policy and adapted it to their own.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) now recommends each department have a policy for treating all domestic violence suspects the same, even if they’re police officers. That involves making sure an officer of a higher rank than the suspect is present to supervise. The IACP also says a suspect should be arrested if there’s probable cause even if the alleged victim doesn’t want to press charges.

“Bottom line, that’s the starting point,” Searcy said. “There has to be a policy. Everybody’s got to be trained on it. Everybody’s got to understand it and everybody’s got to be held accountable to it.”