Quintana: Abused or Abuser?
Quintana denies abusing former fiancée
It is no doubt important to weed out domestic violence from the ranks of police agencies. As made apparent in last week's testimony from former Austin Police Department Officer Leonardo Quintana and his former fiancée, APD Officer Lori Noriega, it is also difficult, especially when it's unclear who is the abuser and who is the abused – or whether any abuse happened in the first place.
Abuse did happen, according to Chief Art Acevedo, who twice fired Quintana last year. "Here's a police officer who tells the chief of police that he forced his way 'right through'" his former girlfriend and into her home," Acevedo said during testimony last week. "That's a really scary thought, that a police officer believes [he] can force [his] way through a woman and into her house."
Quintana became a household name in 2009 when he shot and killed Nathaniel Sanders II, though he was only reprimanded for failing to turn on his in-car video camera during the incident. But in early 2010 he was fired after he was arrested and charged with drunken driving that January. He appealed that termination and won; less than a week later, Acevedo fired him again, this time for allegedly assaulting Noriega in October 2009. Quintana is again appealing his termination, and last week both Noriega and Quintana testified about their rocky relationship before independent arbitrator Thomas Cipolla.
According to the testimony, that night Noriega had invited Quintana to her home (which they had once shared) after attending a Leander High School football game. They drank and watched the MTV Video Music Awards, but eventually argued about a photo Noriega had hung in the home and text messages Quintana received during the game. Noriega threw Quintana's jacket (with his gun in the pocket) and a handheld video recorder out the front door, demanding that he leave, and he initially complied. What happened next is in dispute: Noriega testified that Quintana forcibly tried to re-enter the home – ostensibly to retrieve his keys, although she'd told him they were in his jacket pocket – and pushed Noriega backward so roughly that she fell and her head went through the Sheetrock wall behind her. Noriega called 911, and on the tape she is clearly emotional: Crying, she repeats several times, "Get out of my house" – presumably referring to Quintana – before hanging up.
When police arrived, she at first wouldn't open the door; later, she told them that the disturbance had only been verbal. Nonetheless, Noriega subsequently went to the hospital, where she was told she likely had a concussion. Noriega told the arbitrator that, aside from a 2006 incident with Quintana involving a fight over cruise tickets for which both officers were disciplined, she had not reported any of a number of physical disturbances – primarily because although the relationship was dysfunctional, she still loved Quintana and did not want to see him in any trouble. "I didn't want to cause any problems for him or for me," she testified. "I was embarrassed by all of it."
According to Quintana, however, the incident at the core of his termination – the assault that night at Noriega's home – did not happen as she has described. Quintana said Noriega had a history of "manhandling" him in order to get her way and that "walking through her" was really nothing more than his attempt to free himself from her clutches and retrieve his keys. When he left the house, he said, there was no hole in the wall. In fact, he suggested that she may simply have staggered and fallen on her own – after all, he said, she had been drinking and staggering around the house even before the argument began. Quintana agreed that his relationship with Noriega was volatile but said he had never hurt her. Instead, it was Noriega who was unpredictable; her mood would turn on a dime, he said – one minute she was loving and affectionate; the next, striking out at him verbally and emotionally.
Quintana also denied any abuse in a previous interaction in 2008, when the two broke off their engagement. After a nice, late-November day spent together in San Antonio, the couple returned to the home they then shared, and Noriega told Quintana she wanted to break up. Quintana asked that she return her engagement ring, but she refused. Noriega said Quintana put his hands around her throat, pinning her against a door in the garage. She got away only because she was able to reach and release the door handle, giving her an escape back inside the house.
Quintana denied her account. He tried to pull the ring from her finger – a bad judgment call, he admitted – but then stopped. Still angry, he did knock over her computer – after he was unable to get on the Internet (she'd changed the access code, he said) – but he insisted he wasn't being violent toward her. Quintana's position appears to be that he was not the abuser but the abused – at least emotionally.
The department sees things differently, and Acevedo reiterated last week the stern opinion he'd given in October 2010: Any man who felt he could push around a woman was not welcome in the department. Nonetheless, the case relies entirely on perception and credibility. APD Sgt. Justin Newsom, whose investigation into the 2009 domestic disturbance provided the basis for Quintana's second termination, admitted there was no physical evidence that Quintana had pushed Noriega into the wall, but he said that he believed Noriega's account of the abuse. She had only come forward to report it after Internal Affairs compelled her to do so. She was subsequently interviewed three times, and in the end, Newsom testified last week, Noriega's accounts were coherent and consistent, lending them the air of truth. Quintana's chain of command agreed with the conclusion.
There is little doubt that domestic violence often goes unreported. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, just 60% of family violence "victimizations" in 1998-2002 were actually reported to police (data is fairly consistent for both male and female victims); 34% of those failing to report shied from doing so because they considered it a "private/personal matter," while another 12% wanted to "protect the offender." According to the National Center for Women & Policing, domestic violence specifically involving police officers is also underreported: Two studies have found that "at least" 40% of "police officer families" experience domestic violence, compared to 10% of nonpolicing families.
Unfortunately, determining whether domestic violence has actually occurred often comes down to pinpointing which party in a he said, she said situation is more credible. In this case, Noriega's account has ultimately been deemed more credible – largely, it would seem, because of the troubles Quintana has had with the department over the last two years. And given those troubles, starting with the Sanders shooting, it may in fact be difficult for an arbitrator to find his account credible enough to send him back to work.
Assistant City Attorney Mike Cronig asked Acevedo last week if he would feel comfortable putting Quintana back out on the street, where he would inevitably answer domestic violence calls. No, Acevedo said, he would not put Quintana back on the street. Then what, asked Cronig, would Acevedo do with Quintana if he got his job back? Acevedo responded: "Hopefully we won't have to deal with that issue."