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Power and Control 

Long before he donned a police uniform, Kevin Harralson had a history of domestic violence allegations. Why did Rio Dell give him a badge and a gun?

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Rio Dell police officer Kevin Harralson had a history of domestic violence allegations years before he allegedly punched his girlfriend twice and ordered her out of his home at gunpoint with his service weapon in late March. In fact, when district attorney investigators summoned him to the Rio Dell police department on June 5 with an arrest warrant, it was the sixth time Harralson had been contacted by police investigating a domestic abuse report, according to court documents in his case file.

In addition to new details in the current charges facing Harralson — two counts of domestic battery and another of brandishing a firearm — the documents also paint a picture of an alleged abuser with a more than decade-long pattern of behavior that includes allegations of physical and verbal abuse, directed at both his intimate partners and his children. In a state that strictly governs the hiring process for police officers, the documents — and specifically a six-page affidavit prepared by a district attorney investigator who interviewed Harralson's girlfriend, ex-wife, daughter and others — raise questions about how Harralson became a police officer, whether he was given preferential treatment in the process and whether local agencies did all they could to protect alleged victims in the case.

Many of those questions swirl around Rio Dell Police Chief Graham Hill, Harralson's brother-in-law, who promoted Harralson to the position of police officer in June of 2009, about three years after Harralson completed probation.

Through his attorney — Michael Robinson — Harralson has pleaded not guilty in the current case and denies all the allegations facing him, saying he hopes to be exonerated and return to work.

A local product standing 6 feet, 220 pounds, Harralson, 35, started dating his now ex-wife when he was just 18 years old and she had yet to turn 16. By the time the pair married eight years later, in April of 2006, they had two children. Harralson also had a domestic violence case on his record.

According to court documents, Harralson's now ex stopped by his house after she got off work one day in 2002 to retrieve their son, then a toddler. When she found Harralson had a female companion over, an argument ensued and Harralson reportedly refused to turn over their son. When his ex went into the house to get the boy, Harralson allegedly grabbed her by the neck and began choking her. When she hit him and wrangled free, Harralson allegedly went out to her car, punched out her windshield, grabbed her car keys and threw them into a nearby park. The ex grabbed their son and left, walking home, according to the court documents.

The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office eventually charged Harralson with battery, false imprisonment and misdemeanor vandalism. He pleaded guilty in July of 2003 to a single count of disturbing the peace and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and three years' probation, and mandated to attend a 52-week domestic violence course.

But by the time that case had worked its way through the system, Harralson had again been contacted by police, this time in Rio Dell after he allegedly walked into his ex-wife's place of work and punched her in the head. A police report was taken, according to court documents, but officials took no further action.

There were other contacts, as well: One for suspicion of child endangerment in 1999; another for battery on a cohabitant in 2002 and a third for vandalism in 2003. No charges were filed in any of these cases.

Meanwhile, court records indicate Harralson had a hard time following through on the requirements of his guilty plea. Bench warrants were issued for his arrest after he failed to appear for court in November 2003 and then in May of 2004. In July of that year he got a job with the Rio Dell Public Works Department, though he skipped a pair of court appearances that same month, resulting in more warrants for his arrest.

Court minutes also indicate Harralson didn't begin his mandated domestic violence courses until six months after his guilty plea, with a May 2004 update in his court file noting he was making "excellent progress" four months into the year-long course.

Harralson finished his probation in July of 2006. A couple of years later — in April 2008 — he was hired as a police services and animal control officer in Rio Dell, where Hill, his brother-in-law, had served as chief since 2004 and worked since 1995. About a year later — on June 12, 2009 — Harralson became a full-fledged police officer.

"(Harralson's ex-wife) told me that when Kevin was going through the process to become a police officer he failed his first psychological test," a district attorney investigator wrote in the affidavit for Harralson's most recent arrest. "Kevin told her that it was his fault that he failed. (She) remembered that after failing this test Graham Hill came over and helped him study and he passed the next psychological test."

More than that of perhaps any other public employee, the process of hiring a police officer in California is stringent and closely governed by the state Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training. There's a strict process agencies must follow that includes comprehensive criminal history checks, background investigations and literacy tests, as well as physical and psychological examinations. In addition to the basics — showing they are 18 years old with a high-school degree or a GED and no felony convictions — candidates must demonstrate they are of "good moral character."

The reason the process is so tightly controlled is simple: The stakes are high, with successful candidates walking away with government-issued firearms and the power of the state behind them.

"This is a unique profession," says Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills. "We invest a lot of power in the police to take someone's liberty, to use high levels of force, to search and seize property. We want to make sure we get this right."

Mills and a couple of other local chiefs took time recently to walk the Journal through their respective hiring processes, which were very similar. First, candidates are required to complete an almost 50-page questionnaire that details their work, personal, financial and legal histories, and includes questions asking if they've ever committed an act of domestic violence or hit a child.

Then, there's a criminal history check, which takes two forms. First, as Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman explains it, departments run candidates' fingerprints through several systems, checking to make sure they are who they claim to be and pulling up any records of their being convicted of a crime or booked into jail. Departments are especially careful to look for records of disqualifying convictions: Those for felonies or misdomeanors that would prohibit a candidate from possessing a firearm.

In addition to the fingerprint checks, departments also must contact police agencies in any city or area where the candidate has lived, gone to school, worked or spent any prolonged amount of time. These letters ask departments to provide a record of all law enforcement contacts with the candidate, which would include any time they were the subject of a police report, detained by the agency or the focus of a criminal investigation. So, if the candidate got a noise complaint from a large party, got cited for walking a dog off leash or was investigated for a sexual assault, all of that should come up.

Evidence of a misdemeanor offense isn't in and of itself a deal breaker, Chapman and Mills say, noting that getting caught in possession of a joint or being involved in a fight as a teenager shouldn't in and of itself prevent someone from being a cop. But, both said there are certain crimes and classes of crime that would make them very leery. The key, they said, is to gather enough information to put the incident into the context of the candidate's life.

"For me — and I can only speak to my agency — temperament, maturity, empathy, decision making, and especially decision making under pressure, are all things that I'm really mindful of," Chapman says, adding that it's important to determine if that dog-without-a-leash citation was a momentary lapse or part of a pattern of disregard for the law. "Any violent, assaultive behavior would be very concerning for me."

Departments are also required to do background checks, talking to candidates' references, family members and neighbors, and do extensive interviews designed to determine how candidates think on their feet and whether their philosophies fit with the community and agency in question. Then there's the psychological suitability examination, in which a certified psychologist evaluates candidates and whether they are mentally and psychologically fit for police work. If a candidate fails this test — as Harralson reportedly did — the government code allows him or her to seek a second opinion, at his or her own expense, to submit to the department.

In its entirety, a police officer hiring process takes months to complete and can be stressful for those with the ultimate say on whether to give a 20-something-year-old a gun and send them off into the field. Chapman said it's hard to overstate the stakes when it comes to hiring decisions: Mistakes expose cities to liability and put lives at risk. Mills said it's imperative for agencies to be thorough.

"We're really trying to look at the whole person," Mills says. "How do they treat people? Are they people who have respect for others? Do they discriminate? Do we have someone who's an abuser of other people? ... I want to know what kind of person this is. Is this the kind of person I want to have over to dinner or to come babysit my children?"

Already with the Rio Dell department, Harralson applied for a police officer position with the Fortuna Police Department "in the recent past," according to court documents, and began the background investigation process. "Harralson withdrew from the process shortly before he was failed," according to court documents. The investigator writes that he believes that abuse allegations from interviews with both his current partner and ex-wife were the reason Harralson withdrew from the process, and that the allegations were passed on to Hill.

The Rio Dell chief declined to comment on what, if any, information he received from the Fortuna Police Department. He similarly declined to comment on what he knew of past allegations facing Harralson when he hired him, other than to say Rio Dell follows the "uniform state standards" for hiring. Fortuna Police Chief Bill Dobberstein similarly declined to comment on Harralson's application to work for his department, noting that the background investigation process is "completely confidential," adding that disqualified candidates aren't even informed specifically what derailed their candidacy. Speaking generally, Dobberstein said if a criminal allegation were to come up during background investigation interviews, the department would likely refer the person making the allegations to file an official report with the agency of jurisdiction over the alleged crime.

Whatever happened — or did not happen — with the information turned up during Fortuna's background investigation, it wouldn't be long before Harralson again found himself accused. At some point in late March, "Jane Doe" — who said she'd dated Harralson on and off for about two and a half years — went to his Rio Dell home to confront him about an affair she thought he was having with a Humboldt County correctional officer. During the ensuing argument, Harralson punched her twice in the leg, according to court documents, and then asked her to "take of her clothes because he had become horny." When Doe refused, Harralson "retrieved his duty pistol from his duty belt and pointed it at her face," telling her to leave.

Harralson's girlfriend also told the district attorney investigator of another incident in Fortuna this past August, when she and Harralson had been arguing over a series of text messages to another woman that she'd found on his phone. "This led to (Jane Doe) confronting him about the other woman and he grabbed her around the neck and choked her," the affidavit states.

On March 31, the girlfriend sent a Facebook message to Sgt. Charles Ellebrecht of the Fortuna Police Department, who she'd known for about 10 years, asking about a hypothetical domestic violence situation. Ellebrecht then went to her place of work and spoke with her for about 30 minutes, and listened as she reportedly relayed the allegations against Harralson. The Fortuna sergeant then notified the district attorney's office, which immediately launched a formal investigation.

Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming said Hill was notified "very early on" of the existence of criminal investigation targeting Harralson "but was not aware of the extent of the investigation" until Harralson's arrest. Harralson remained an active member of the Rio Dell Police Department until June 5, when he was summoned to department headquarters and taken into custody. He's remained on paid administrative leave since.

If domestic violence is a problem in California, it's an epidemic in Humboldt County, which boasts rates about 50 percent higher than the state average. According to the California Department of Justice, Humboldt County averages about 6 calls to local police reporting domestic violence annually per 1,000 county residents, while the state average is 4 such calls for every 1,000 residents.

And that's just what gets reported. Nationally, 75 percent of intimate partner assaults are never mentioned to police, according to a study by the National Institute of Justice. "I think it's actually a lot higher than that — there's a lot of fear associated with reporting," said Brenda Bishop, executive director of Humboldt Domestic Violence Services, which took more than 2,600 crisis hotline calls from July 2014 through June 2015, including more than 1,100 from first-time callers. Additionally, over the same time period, the organization provided people with more than 1,700 nights of emergency shelter.

Bishop said Humboldt's domestic violence rates are alarmingly high, and posited a number of reasons: its rural nature; high rates of drug and alcohol abuse; and a shortage of mental health, addiction and domestic violence services. "It hits across all genders, all economic segments of our community," Bishop said. "The thing about domestic violence is it's about power and control — it's a cycle of violence."

It's also a cycle, Bishop said, that's dangerous for all involved: abusers, the abused and first responders. And, it's a cycle that grows even more dangerous when the abuser is a police officer, she added. A trio of national studies from the 1990s found that 24 to more than 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10 percent for the general population, Bishop said, adding that those rates appear to hold locally. Bishop said she couldn't offer any data to help quantify local rates, saying it would "put those survivors, their children and their families at risk because, ultimately, I believe, the officers are known in the community and in their departments for this conduct."

Instances of domestic violence involving officers are inherently more dangerous, Bishop said, because officers have guns, know the locations of emergency shelters and are aware of how to manipulate the system, avoid detection and shift blame to their victims. This all makes victims more fearful of reporting, Bishop said, as many are afraid a 911 call will result in a dispatch call that goes out to all their partner's co-workers and friends. There's also the fact that a felony domestic violence conviction would end an officer's career, which poses a substantial hurdle for victims who just want their loved ones to get help. In the power-control spectrum, Bishop said, it's a dynamic that makes it inherently difficult for victims to break away.

Mills, who took over EPD a little more than a year ago after a decades-long career with the San Diego Police Department, said he's not sure if domestic violence rates are really markedly higher in law enforcement families. But Mills said it's clear domestic violence is vastly underreported everywhere, and that victims in law enforcement families are in a terrifying position.

"I do believe there is a problem, especially when you mix alcohol and alcoholism with people with firearms and what can be a very stressful job where you're living in a world of violence all the time," Mills said.

In addition to the employee assistance program that offers counseling services to all city employees, both Mills and Chapman said they've taken to asking their officers to read Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, a book by Kevin Gilmartin that counsels officers on how to deal with the "internal assaults" they experience personally over the course of their careers that can transform them from idealistic public servants into angry, cynical people, taking a huge toll on their families.

Hill declined to comment on what — if any — counseling and support services are available to officers in Rio Dell and their families.

While Bishop seemed somewhat guarded in her comments about instances of police domestic abuse locally — saying repeatedly that HDVS has a great working relationship with local agencies — she made clear that there's simply no middle ground for officers and departments. "A police department that has domestic violence offenders among its ranks will not effectively serve and protect victims in the community," she said.

At his arraignment last month, Harralson pleaded not guilty to all three charges facing him. Reached this week, his attorney, Michael Robinson, made clear Harralson disputes the accuracy of the allegations and "expects to litigate this issue in court." Robinson said he's in the process of gathering evidence in the case and interviewing witnesses — including some the prosecution hasn't talked to — and "working to build the defense case to hopefully exonerate (Harralson) of these charges and return him to work, if possible."

But there's some indication the case against Harralson may expand. The affidavit in support of a search warrant includes statements from a number of people alleging that Harralson has repeatedly punched his 14-year-old son, and an allegation that he pushed his 10-year-old daughter's face into a car window and held it there while calling her a "cocksucker" over and over again. Asked about the allegations regarding Harralson's conduct with his children, Fleming declined to comment, saying the matter remains the focus of an ongoing investigation.

For his part, Robinson said, "Harralson disputes any allegations of untoward treatment of his children and, if such allegations were provable in the district attorney's mind, I'm sure they would have pursued charges against him."

Meanwhile, it seems fair for Rio Dell residents to wonder what happened, and why an alleged abuser was given a badge and a gun and tasked with keeping them safe. Was it simple nepotism? Did Hill ignore all that smoke circling his brother-in-law's candidacy because of family ties? Or, did he thoroughly investigate the list of allegations facing Harralson and, with as many facts as he could gather, conclude there simply wasn't any fire beneath all that smoke and Harralson was the best candidate for the job? And, perhaps more importantly, did Hill act appropriately when he learned of criminal allegations facing his brother-in-law months before his ultimate arrest? Should he have left him in the field, or should he have pulled his gun and badge, placing him on administrative leave as the process played out?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, Hill will have to live with them. After all, a police chief has few responsibilities greater than hiring officers and entrusting them with the power of the state.

Editor's Note: This story was updated from a previous version to correctly identify Fortuna Police Sgt. Charles Ellebrecht as the officer contacted by "Jane Doe" on March 31.

By the Numbers

3 - The average number of women killed every day in the United States by a current or former intimate partner

4 - The average number of domestic violence reports in California per 1,000 residents annually from 2004 through 2013

6 - The average number of domestic violence reports in Humboldt County per 1,000 residents annually from 2004 through 2013

25 - Percentage of women who have experienced "severe physical violence" at the hands of an intimate partner at some point in their lives

26 - Percentage of all violent crimes against women in 2009 in the U.S. that were carried out by a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend

857 - Domestic violence reports to Humboldt County law enforcement in 2014

$5.8 billion - What intimate partner violence costs the nation annually, including $4.1 billion in health care costs

$13 billion - Amount U.S. employers lose annually to domestic violence due to absences and lost productivity

Sources: California Department of Justice, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Bureau of Justice and the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

For Help

Humboldt Domestic Violence Services provides a 24-hour support line (443-6042) to offer confidential, emergency support services for people in or transitioning from domestic violence situations. For more information on the nonprofit and other services it provides, visit

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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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