Rural Minn. victim advocate says cops are failing to protect battered women

ADA, MINN. — The longtime sheriff of Norman County is under fire from a victim advocate who claims 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 they got court orders for protection, as officers failed to make arrests that are required under state law when police have reason to believe protection orders have been violated.

The sheriff, meanwhile, defends his deputies and said he's the target of a critic who's stirring up the community while openly supporting his opponent in the upcoming election.

"It's just nuts up here," said Jeremy Thornton, running for a fourth term as sheriff of this northwest Minnesota county of about 6,400 residents.

Heather Kirby was hired as the victim advocate in the Norman County Attorney's Office in 2020, and since then, the transplant from Portland, Ore., has been raising alarms about the treatment of crime victims, especially those who have been assaulted or threatened by family members or neighbors.

Sheriff's deputies too often fail to aggressively respond to reports of crime, Kirby said, especially those involving domestic violence. In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, Kirby said, she has served 612 crime victims of all kinds — 482 of them women.

Meanwhile, according to statistics from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), Norman County sheriff's deputies have made five criminal arrests so far this year.In Grant and Wilkin, similar-sized rural counties, sheriff's deputies have made 45 and 34 arrests this year, respectively.

"Law enforcement is supposed to serve and protect," Kirby said. "When you're not doing that, people are going to get hurt."

'Follow the court order'

One Norman County woman said her ex-husband has at least twice violated a protective order that required him to stay 500 feet from her. It was issued after he forcefully threw her from her car, according to court records. The woman said she later needed surgery. Both times she reported the violations to the sheriff's office.

State law leaves enforcement of these orders to police discretion, but requires them to make an arrest if they believe an order for protection (OFP) has been violated. In neither case did deputies arrest the man, the woman said.

In a court petition to further extend her one-year protective order, the woman wrote that she is "upset that the Norman County Sheriff has done little to none to enforce her OFP to protect her from [her ex-husband]. The county attorney for Norman County has decided not to charge any of these violations."

In one instance, said the woman, who requested her name not be published because she fears retaliation, a deputy asked her what she wanted to do about an alleged violation.

"And I said, 'Follow the ... court order!' " she said. "Don't ask me to make the decision!"

Failure to arrest for violating orders for protection "is a very common complaint across the state," said Suzanne Elwell, director of the Crime Victim Justice Unit in the state's Office of Justice Programs. Complaints about failure to file police reports on violations are also common, she added.

Elwell's unit fields complaints from crime victims who believe their rights haven't been protected. She said she can't comment on individual cases or reveal how many complaints have come from Norman County.

Kirby said she personally knows of at least 17 complaints that have been filed by Norman County residents. They include failure to investigate the sexual assault of a teenage girl by a family member and failure to provide mandated victim information to an elderly woman who was beaten and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her husband, Kirby wrote in a letter to Norman County commissioners.

Eleven months after the original incident when the woman was thrown from her car, the assault charge against her ex-husband was reduced to disorderly conduct by then-County Attorney James Brue, who left office in August after a decade in the job.

"When James called me and told me he wanted to reduce the charges, I cried," the woman said. "And he told me there was not an incident report made. He said he didn't have police reports."

Football teammates

Patricia Anderson got an order for protection after her son Travis sent texts threatening to murder her, according to court records.

But in the first weeks after it was in place, he texted her nearly 100 times. Anderson reported the violations, but said deputies showed little urgency in trying to enforce her order.

"I had one of the officers say, 'Yeah, Travis is a real good guy. I feel bad for him,' " Anderson said. Another deputy, who had played high school football with her son, told her she should just block him or get a new phone.

"They made me feel like what was happening to me was nothing, and that I didn't deserve help because it wasn't a big deal," Anderson said.

Thornton said Anderson's case was complicated because her son was living in the Fargo area, out of his jurisdiction. The second time Travis Anderson violated the protective order, Thornton said, his office contacted Fargo police, sent them the order "and they did nothing."

"We did the best we could," 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 thing about 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 her and beat her for 20 minutes, hitting her with a belt and a steel-toed boot, according to court records. She got it all on video and received an order for protection.

Yet it took police and prosecutors 15 months to convict her partner of misdemeanor domestic assault. In 2021, he pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 90 days in jail, stayed for one year, meaning he would serve no time if he abided by conditions. In July 2022, he was again arrested for domestic assault for allegedly beating his current girlfriend. That criminal case is pending.

Another woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation, said her longtime partner violated a no-contact order that was in place after he was charged with assault for punching her. He followed her to a local gas station, blocked her vehicle with his truck and started screaming 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 back from him.

"And I was thinking, maybe I'm being annoying," she said. "If they don't think it's a big deal, maybe it isn't.

"It wasn't until I started talking to Heather that I began to figure out that there's a lack of enforcement in the county and it wasn't just me."

Dark of night records requests

Kirby said her criticisms of the department have led to harassment and retaliation against her by county officials. After she spoke about crime victim issues to a community meeting this spring in Halstad, Minn., her job description was changed to remove community education and outreach from her official duties, according to correspondence between her attorney and Brue.

"Ms. Kirby has deep concerns about the status of crime victims' rights in Norman County," her attorney said in a letter addressed to Thornton, Brue and six other county officials. "Ms. Kirby's job description was changed on March 28, 2022. By all appearances, the change came as a result of the [Halstad] meeting."

Brue declined to comment on Kirby's job description or any of the cases his office handled.

Recently, the sheriff's office ran five record checks on Kirby through state and federal law enforcement databases at 3 o'clock in the morning, which she believes were done to seek damaging information on her.

Thornton said Kirby misinterpreted the record checks, and that it was simply the work of a dispatcher who was correcting confusion between Kirby's married and maiden names on some incident reports.

Earlier this year, Kirby sought a harassment restraining order against one of Thornton's five deputies. She alleged that he had harassed her through social media, creating a fake Facebook account in her name and revealing personal information about her.

A judicial referee denied the request, saying her allegations didn't 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 pause," Referee Tyler Annette wrote. "At a minimum, it is disturbing conduct."

Norman County deputies were not available for comment. In an email, Thornton said county employees have been ordered not to discuss Kirby with the media.

Thornton said he's not sure why Kirby has taken such an activist role.

"We've had other crime victim advocates in the past and they never had any problems," he said. "I don't think anything has changed. We've got mostly the same law enforcement officers, the same sheriff. ... They're good, honest people that work hard.

"They do what they can legally," he said. "There's just certain things people expect that they can't do. You can't act on hearsay."

He said all the controversy is a matter of election maneuvering. Kirby is backing his opponent, Tim Boe, a former deputy whom Thornton defeated four years ago with more than 75% of the vote.

"I haven't heard anything about my deputies until eight months ago, until the election came around," Thornton said. He noted that he's had requests for 250 more candidate lawn signs than he had four years ago.

"Their craziness, I think," he said, "is backfiring on them."