Be a Bully and Get Away with It

SARA ENGRAM

June 06, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

We hear a lot of talk about crime in the streets. But the latest report from Mayor Schmoke's Domestic Violence Coordinating Committee is ample proof that crime-ridden streets may be safer for many women than their own homes.

Almost 80,000 times this year a 911 call in Baltimore City will report a case of domestic violence. That's about 8 percent of all 911 calls to police.

The majority of 911 calls result in a written report, but in cases involving domestic violence police officers seem to misplace their pens. Fewer than one in five of these calls will produce a report. In other words, the record will contain no evidence of the complaint.

It's not that officers arrive to find that the call was simply a misunderstanding. In three-quarters of these cases, victims had visible injuries -- evidence that a crime has been committed. Yet arrests are made in only 3 percent of these cases.

Occasionally men are the victims of domestic violence, but in the vast majority of 911 calls -- 86 percent -- it is a woman on the receiving end of the abuse.

National figures suggest that 95 percent of all victims of domestic violence are women, and some studies indicate that as many as one-third of women treated at emergency rooms are there for symptoms related to domestic violence.

Domestic violence is usually a pattern of behavior, rather than an isolated act. The abuser, usually a husband or boyfriend, uses physical abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, sexual assault, social isolation or deprivation to dominate the woman and establish absolute control over the relationship.

The statistics in the latest city report aren't perfect, but they're comprehensive enough to paint an alarming picture of domestic violence -- and, even more troubling, of the inability or unwillingness of the criminal justice system to take these crimes seriously.

The report provides stark evidence of the low priority given a problem that accounts for more than 10 percent of the city's homicides so far this year -- deaths that could have been prevented. From initial calls to the police through arrest rates, pretrial hearings, prosecutions, conviction rates, sentencing and supervision of parole or probation, men who batter or abuse their wives or girlfriends get off easy.

The message from the system is clear: Be a bully, and get away with it.

It doesn't have to be this way. In San Diego, to cite one example, domestic violence is recognized as a serious problem, and the criminal justice system has made a conscious decision to treat it as such. As of mid-May, that city had recorded no homicides this year that could be attributed to domestic violence.

In Baltimore City, the state's attorney's office has added another prosecutor for domestic violence cases. That is an important step, but it's not enough. The conviction rate for the office's Domestic Violence Unit is 30 percent, shamefully low. Again, it's a matter of priorities. San Diego's conviction rate is 88 percent.

Family violence is not often an isolated incident; it recurs in 90 percent of cases, and usually increases in frequency and severity. Many, maybe even most, of the homes afflicted by violence also have children in them. Most research on the subject shows that there is a 70 percent chance that a child in a home where a spouse is battered will also suffer abuse.

Addressing the pervasive and growing fear of crime in this society, Attorney General Janet Reno has taken a broad view of crime prevention.

Don't focus on prisons and punishment, she says. They're too expensive and that approach doesn't make society any safer. Instead, reach the children and teach them productive, non-violent ways to make their way in the world.

It's a compelling argument that brings some fresh air to the tired law-and-order debates of recent years. But if we intend to reach children it's clear we need to pay closer attention to the crimes of violence they are witnessing first-hand in their own homes. Until this problem is taken more seriously by the police, the courts, the politicians and the public, a lot of Baltimore children are learning that violence, intimidation and harassment carry no real penalties.

"Be a bully at home and get away with it." It requires only a small step to carry that behavior to the streets.

If this city is serious about preventing crime, an obvious place to start is to see that the criminal justice system takes domestic violence as seriously as it does drug offenses.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each Sunday.

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