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The Murder of Claire Joyce Tempongko . . .
Turning Tragedy Into Change

Tanya Brannan

Claire Joyce Tempongko and daughterOn October 21, I gave a talk at an event sponsored by Prison Radio in San Francisco called "How to Radically Transform Policing." My talk was about the need for the police accountability movement to embrace and prioritize holding police accountable for their failure to protect women from the violent men who brutalize them. Otherwise, more women will die.

This has to happen at the same time that we take them to task for the brutality the police themselves wreak on our communities, particularly communities of color. This is not a contradiction, but a response to the differing faces of oppression.

The room was filled with antipolice brutality luminaries, many of them people whose work I am frankly in awe of. Not surprisingly, their reaction to my message was somewhat skeptical.

What happened next, however, made that message impossible to ignore. Two days after my talk, banner headlines in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle announced the murder of Claire Joyce Tempongko by her ex-boyfriend, Tari Ramirez. Even those early reports alluded to Joyce's multiple previous contacts with police and district attorney representatives, and hinted at bureaucratic bungling and "miscommunication."

The Homicide That Law Enforcement Enables
Recently San Francisco's Commission on the Status of Women, designated by the mayor and board of supervisors as the city agency responsible for conducting an investigation into Claire Joyce's murder, held a press conference and public hearing. To say it was disappointing is an understatement.

Seven months after the murder, the press conference was little more than a photo op for Mayor Willie Brown and Supervisor Gavin Newsome to pat themselves on the back for how much they care about domestic violence, and how many millions of dollars they're going to put into computer software and better communication systems ... as if that's really what killed Joyce Tempongko.

The Purple Berets attended that press conference, armed with our own investigation of Tempongko's prior contacts with San Francisco police. That investigation outlined law enforcement failure that had begun 18 months before Joyce's death and continued, escalating with every contact, until the night Tari Ramirez drove a knife into her heart in the presence of her two young children. (For the full report, go to: "The Murder of Claire Tempongko" )

It was a familiar litany of dropped charges and unfinished investigations; of charging every crime except the domestic violence; of reckless plea bargains and irresponsible sentences. It eloquently illustrated the deadly consequences of domestic violence probation repeatedly violated with minimal consequences to the batterer and with appalling consequences to the victim.

And when we confronted D.A. Terence Hallinan (whose office really mishandled the case and whose conviction rate on domestic violence is the lowest in the state), Hallinan responded defensively.

"This [failure of Joyce Tempongko to follow through on prosecution] is just an example of the etiology of the disease," he said, as if getting Ramirez prosecuted for his crimes was Joyce Tempongko's responsibility rather than the D.A.'s; and as if domestic violence were a disease rather than a crime ... and a disease of the victim at that!

Needless to say, we were not a popular presence that day -- not with the mayor or the D.A., and not with many of the "domestic violence professionals" whose jobs would be history if they dared to tell the truth of what they see every day.

But we were an effective presence that day, as I was to learn a week later when I picked up the Purple Berets phone to find Terence Hallinan on the other end. He first wanted to know where we'd gotten our information about his low conviction rate (SF Chronicle, "D.A. Weak on Domestic Violence," 10/8/99), and then what we thought his office could do to turn that around.

Our extended conversation was interspersed with comments to and from Susan Breall, Linda Moore and a third person, all of whom run the D.A.'s domestic violence team. Talk ranged over the entire handling of the Tempongko case, the ways their deadly mistakes could be corrected, and the probability that a lot of other cases in their office look exactly like this one.

Hallinan admitted they had made mistakes, and to the ridiculousness of his defensiveness at the press conference. ("I was an asshole," he said, "I mean the woman's dead!"). He also let slip that, "You guys have kicked everybody off — [the cops too] are reviewing their policies and procedures from top to bottom."

Hallinan's Commitments
By the end of the conversation, D.A. Hallinan had agreed to both our initial demands: 1) that he immediately bring his domestic violence conviction rate up; and, 2) that he enforce a policy that, when domestic violence probation is violated with another violent incident, the prosecution will move to revoke the probation and file new felony charges on the latest incident.

But Hallinan went even further. A key incident in the Tempongko case was a devastating beating Claire Joyce suffered just a month and a half before her murder. San Francisco PD's domestic violence investigator Sgt. Al Lum unilaterally decided only to file this as a probation violation so, according to Hallinan, the D.A.'s office never even saw the report. When I pointed out that it was the D.A.'s job to decide how to charge crimes, not Sgt. Lum's, Hallinan agreed to set a policy that all domestic violence probation violations be sent to his office for charging.

At the end of the conversation, we came back to the likelihood that a lot of other domestic violence cases are being handled by his office exactly like the Tempongko cases were. How will he identify and correct those cases so that more women don't die? I suggested random spot-checks of cases in the office, starting with all domestic violence probation cases. Hallinan agreed.

It remains to be seen what will come of the Tempongko investigation — whether it will end in a dastardly cover-up, a few cosmetic reforms, or in truly fundamental change in how law enforcement takes their responsibility in domestic violence protection.

But once again we've shown that these needless and tragic homicides offer communities a rare opportunity to make real change in a system that systematically kills women by denying them protection.

And we've also shown that a few people, armed only with the truth, can change the world. But I have to ask: why did it take our investigation and its exposure of law enforcement's failure to shake things loose?

Correcting the Problems That Killed Claire Joyce Tempongko

What the District Attorney Must Change:

  • Immediately institute a policy that any violation of domestic violence probation involving a new violent incident must result in a motion to revoke probation and the filing of felony charges on the new incident.
  • Institute a policy with police that all violations of domestic violence probation are to be sent to his office for charging.
  • Implement a review process within his office that randomly spot-checks how DV cases are handled. To begin, check all violations of domestic violence probation.
  • Bring his domestic violence conviction rate, currently the statewide low at 26.8%, up to the statewide average of 60.2

What the Police Chief Must Change:

  • Immediately devote the resources necessary to find and arrest Claire Tempongko's murderer, Tari Ramirez, who is still at-large.
  • Institute a policy that all violations of domestic violence probation are to be sent to the district attorney for charging.
  • Remove Sgt. Al Lum from SFPD's domestic violence team. Lum's irresponsible handling of the Tempongko case contributed to her murder.
  • Evaluate members of the domestic violence team based on the conviction rate on their cases. This would force police to do good investigations and to fight for their cases with the DA's offic


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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