Thurman v. City of Torrington: Police Turn a Blind Eye to Domestic Violence

            Domestic violence is treated as a serious crime. “People who commit domestic abuse may be arrested and charged with numerous offenses, including homicide, assault and battery, criminal trespass, terroristic threats, stalking, and sexual assault” (Danis, 237). However, this has not always been the case. It wasn’t until 1971, when the first domestic violence shelter was opened by Erin Pizzey in Chiswick, England, that the issue of domestic violence really started to be recognized as a serious social issue (Finley, “Women’s,” 558). In the United States, feminist groups, such as Women’s Advocates, were inspired to rally against the societal acceptance of wife beating. That social movement, in combination with a few court cases filed by abused women against police and other government departments for their lack of proper response to complaints of spousal violence, spurred the United States Government into making policy changes (Finley, “Women’s,” 559). One of the most influential court cases to help reshape the legal system’s response to domestic violence was Thurman v. City of Torrington

The details leading up to this court case are, in my opinion, nauseatingly gruesome. Not only because of the intense violence inflicted on Tracy Thurman by her husband, but also because of the gross negligence of the Torrington Police Department. However, before delving into the particulars of this landmark case, I think it is important to establish a firm understanding of the history of domestic violence in the United States.

Today, domestic violence is defined as “acts committed in the context of an adult intimate relationship. It is a continuance of aggressive and controlling behaviors, including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks, that one adult intimate does to another. Domestic violence is purposeful and instrumental behavior directed at achieving compliance from, or control over, the abused party” (“Domestic,” 707). By this definition, the violent offender can be an adult male, female, or transgender and involved in heterosexual, homosexual, or any other form of intimate relationship. However, well into the 1900’s, husbands beating their wives as a form of punishment was not necessarily frowned upon by society, due to the fact that wives were viewed as property (“Domestic,” 707), whereas wives beating their husbands would not have been considered “normal” and homosexual relationships were unfortunately not yet recognized as legitimate by the bulk of society. In fact, “laws such as the “rule of thumb” (whereby it was legal for a husband to beat his wife with a stick not wider than his thumb) were still on the books” (“Domestic,” 708). An ingrained part of our culture, “from the first law of marriage proclaimed by Romulus in 75 BC through the early 20th century, legal and institutional support for wife beating can be found” (Danis, 237).

The truth, (which I find abhorrent), is that “historically, violence against a significant other or family member was not treated as a serious matter; it was commonly regarded as acceptable if done with the intent to discipline or correct one’s behavior” (Marganski, 329). Alison Marganski explains in “Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment” that domestic abuse was usually considered a private issue and police tended to remain uninvolved. Furthermore, the complaints of victims wouldn’t be taken seriously and court orders would be blatantly ignored. Essentially, women who were being abused by their husbands had no legal protection.

However, according to Laura L. Finley’s “Women’s Rights Movement,” after Erin Pizzey opened up that first women’s shelter in England, societal views on domestic violence started to shift across the globe. Finley reports that two years later, in 1973, the first United States shelter was opened in St. Paul, Minnesota and the number of shelters increased to over three-hundred by 1982. And, it was Erin Pizzey’s book, Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear (1975), that caught the public’s attention as the first book about domestic abuse written from the perspective of a battered women and subsequently inspired many other battered women to share their stories. “In 1976, Ms. became the first national magazine to put a battered woman on the cover and helped ignite the U.S. movement” (Finley, “Women’s,” 558). That same year, Pennsylvania became the first state to pass legislation that allowed abused women to file for orders of protection and Oregon was the first to mandate arrests for domestic violence and criminalize marital rape the following year (1977), (Finley, “Women’s,” 559).

With the influence and guidance of whom I consider to be brave, gutsy, inspiring women who were willing to stand up and speak out for their rights, the movement to stop domestic violence seemed to be making some serious headway. However, “by 1978, only nine states had legislations specifically prohibiting domestic violence” (Finley, “Women’s,” 559) and police, who had been trained to interfere as little as possible when it came to the “family matter” of domestic abuse, consistently failed to protect battered women throughout the nation (“Domestic,” 707). Regrettably, sometimes it takes a tragedy to provoke significant societal change.

Unfortunately for Tracy Thurman, her story was exactly the kind of change inspiring event that the United States needed. In “Thurman, Tracy Case,” Laura L. Finley accounts that Tracy met Charles “Buck” Thurman in 1979 at age 18 and moved with him to Florida after her mother passed away from lung cancer. He started beating her shortly after they were moved in together and Tracey left him, moving back to her hometown of Torrington, Connecticut. It was then that she discovered she was pregnant. Buck followed her back to Torrington and apologized, convincing her to marry him so that their child could have both parents. After they were married, they moved around some more and the cycle of abuse started all over again. “Tracey lived in constant fear, never knowing when or why Buck would attack her. She left him several times, only to return when he apologized. She recalled one time when Buck returned home from being out with some friends and, ‘in the middle of my sleep, he choked me. My tongue was hanging out of my mouth, and I was gasping for air. If I didn’t kick him, he would have killed me. The look on his face—it was like a blank look. I knew I had to get out’” (Finley, “Thurman,” 499). That incident pushed Tracey to take their son, C. J., and run back to Torrington to escape him in October of 1982.

I wish I could tell you that the story ended there, but I’m afraid that Tracey’s situation only worsened. Finley goes on to report that Tracey and her son stayed with friends, Judy Bentley and Richard St. Hilaire. Buck started stalking her. He would call her upwards of twenty-five times per day and find her when she went out. Buck attacked Tracey at the home of Bentley and St. Hilaire in October, 1982 and the home-owners filed a complaint with the police department asking that he be banned from coming onto their property. Buck came onto the property again in November of 1982 and he had to be forcibly removed. Tracy and Mr. St. Hilaire attempted to file a formal complaint with the Torrington police department, but the police would not accept the complaint. A few days later, “Police Officer Neil Gemelli watched as Buck broke Tracey’s windshield while she sat in the car. He was arrested and convicted the following day for breaching the peace. Buck received a suspended sentence of six months and a two-year “conditional discharge,” during which he was ordered to stay completely away from Tracey Thurman and from the Bentley-St. Hilaire residence and was ordered to commit no further crimes” (Finley, “Thurman,” 500).

I find it upsetting that this man was allowed to beat, stalk, harass, and terrorize this woman and when he finally got arrested, the legal system didn’t bother to lock him up. What upsets me even more, is how the police continued to ignore the situation even after the arrest. Finley explains that Buck Thurman disobeyed that court order, when he returned to the Bentley-St. Hilaire residence on New Year’s Eve, 1982, and threatened Tracey. She reported the violation of Buck’s court order to the Torrington Police Department but they did not arrest Buck. Between January, 1983 and May, 1983, Tracey filed multiple complaints with the Torrington police against Buck, but again, no action was taken. On May 4th, 1983, Buck threatened the lives of both Tracey Thurman and Ms. Bentley. Both women went to the police station to file a complaint, but Detective Storrs of the Torrington Police refused to file it. Several violations of the restraining order were made by Buck and several reports of the violations were made by Tracey, but the police continued to refuse her any valid protection. According to Finley, the Torrington police did not care to be involved.

Given Buck’s previous behaviors, what happened next is unsurprising. “On June 10, 1983, Buck showed up at the home of a friend Tracey was visiting. He demanded to speak to Tracey. Her son was napping at the time. When the police did not respond after about 15 minutes, Tracey went outside to speak to Buck to dissuade him from hurting their son. She called the police to report the violation of the restraining order, but by the time an officer arrived on the scene 25 minutes later, Buck had stabbed his wife 13 times in the face, neck, and shoulders. Police found Tracey on the ground, bleeding profusely. Buck stood nearby, holding a bloodied knife. Still, the responding officer did not move to arrest Buck. Buck even kicked Tracey in the head, breaking her neck in front of the officer” (Finley, “Thurman,” 500). Finley reports that it took over forty-five minutes after Tracey called the police for Buck to actually be arrested. It wasn’t until the paramedics arrived and loaded Tracy into the ambulance that the officer bothered to place Buck in custody, and by then Buck had ran into the house and “grabbed his young son, C. J., and screamed, ‘I killed your f—ing mother” (Finley, “Thurman,” 500). I personally can’t imagine standing by and watching this horrific scene unfold and not doing anything to stop it.

Amazingly, Tracy did survive. Although, her body would never function as it did and her life would forever be changed. According to Finley, after seven months of hospitalization, the left side of Tracey’s body remained paralyzed. She testified against Buck and he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Next, she filed a lawsuit against the City of Torrington police for failing to provide her equal protection (Finley, “Thurman,” 501). You see, according to section one of the Fourteenth Amendment, a state cannot “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Basically, assault is a crime, and to deny someone the protection of the police simply because the person assaulting them is their significant other, is denying them equal protection. Not protecting a woman because she is a wife and her husband is the perpetrator is discrimination against a person based on gender and social class, therefor it is unconstitutional. In 1985, Tracey Thurman won the case and was awarded nearly two-million-dollars to be paid by the City of Torrington (Finley, “Thurman,” 499). It was “the first federal case in which a battered woman sued a city because police failed to protect her from her husband’s violence” (Finley, “Women’s,” 560). Thurman v. City of Torrington prompted Connecticut to pass the “Thurman Law”, which made arrests in domestic violence cases mandatory in the State of Connecticut (Finley, “Thurman,” 499). Fifteen more states plus Washington D.C. had followed suit by the mid 1990’s (Finley, “Women’s,” 560). In the end, Tracy Thurman’s story was an painful moment in human history that was an eye opening slap in the face for our legal system. It was exactly the kind of tragedy our nation needed to take domestic violence seriously.

Something I find disturbing, is that domestic violence is still an issue in the United States. Even though “by 2012, every state had enacted legislation defining domestic or intimate partner violence” (“Domestic,” 708) and even with today’s policies that allow police to arrest someone that they suspect of committing domestic violence even if the police officer didn’t personally witness it, domestic violence still happens every day in the United States (“Domestic,” 708). In fact, it is estimated that there are “5.9 million incidents of physical assaults against women annually, with approximately 76 percent of those incidents perpetrated by current or former husbands, cohabiting partners, or dates” (Danis, 237). Also, “domestic violence incidents needing emergency room treatment [are about] four times higher than the [number] of domestic violence [cases] that come to the attention of law enforcement agencies” (Danis, 237). We’ve managed, as a nation, to recognize that domestic violence is a serious problem and to enforce laws that criminalize it, but we still have not found the root of the issue. What else can we as a society do?

Some feminists speculate that the source of domestic violence lies within the larger societal issue of gender inequality and that the only way to solve the issue is through providing education on the subject (Finley, “Women’s,” 560). It is also a debate whether or not mandatory arrests are the best way to deal with domestic violence. Especially since there can sometimes be unintended consequences. Two of which are: the abuser retaliating against the victim for getting them arrested and police arresting both the abuser and the victim because they happen upon a situation in which the victim is actually fighting back in self-defense (Danis, 237). Furthermore, since mandatory arrests mean that the police have to arrest the violent offender even if the spouse does not wish it, some feminists argue that it is taking the power of choice away from the victim (Finley, “Women’s,” 560). It is thought that the lack of choice in whether or not to have their significant other arrested, may be preventing some victims from calling the police for help (Danis, 237). And, given the fact that there are so many more incidences of domestic abuse flooding the emergency rooms than are getting reported to the police, I can’t help but agree that the system is flawed. However, I will say, that at least the bulk of our society no longer sees domestic violence as a “private matter” and it is now considered unacceptable for a man to beat his wife by the majority of our society. Personally, I’m grateful that domestic violence is considered a crime. I believe it should be a crime for one person to attack another person, no matter their relationship. Perhaps, it is the fashion in which our country deals with criminal offenders that needs to be called into question. Could more be done to rehabilitate violent offenders? It’s true that we don’t have it all figured out and there is still much work to be done, but in my opinion, the case of Thurman v. City of Torrington certainly helped to put us on the right track.

Work Cited

The Constitution of the United States of America. American Civil Liberties Union, 2016.

Danis, Fran S. “The criminalization of domestic violence: what social workers need to know.”

Social Work, vol. 48, no. 2, 2003, p. 237+. Popular Magazines, Accessed 12 May 2017.

“Domestic Violence.” Gale Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 

1: American with Disabilities Act to First Amendment Law, Gale, 2013, pp. 707-711. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 12 May 2017.

Finley, Laura L. “Thurman, Tracey Case.” Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence and Abuse, edited 

by Laura L. Finley, vol. 2, ABC-CLIO, 2013, pp. 499-501. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 12 May 2017.

Finley, Laura L. “Women’s Rights Movement.” Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence and Abuse

edited by Laura L. Finley, vol. 2, ABC-CLIO, 2013, pp. 556-561. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 12 May 2017.

Marganski, Alison. “Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment.” Encyclopedia of Domestic 

Violence and Abuse, edited by Laura L. Finley, vol. 1, ABC-CLIO, 2013, pp. 329-333. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 12 May 2017.

One comment

  1. Jean – wow!

    This in-depth wife abuse article is very eye-opening and comprehensive. You have really written a dynamic piece here! It amazes me that the first domestic violence shelter was opened such a relatively short time ago in 1971. I did not know this. That the 19th Amendment was passed only 100 years ago, shows you the mentality that lingered in American culture (and others) that women were treated as property. My only concern about not charging an abuser with a crime of violence is the mental abuse that women go through. If given the choice, they may let the man go and this may be a mistake. This is a complex issue.

    But thank you for writing about this. You are very skilled and gifted in your communication. I appreciate reading your articles.

    Love – Dad

    Liked by 1 person

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