Domestic violence targeted Advocates troubled by handling of cases

July 29, 1996|By Jal Mehta | Jal Mehta,SUN STAFF

Despite efforts by the county's top prosecutor, victims' rights advocates and health agencies to get tougher with men who abuse women, domestic violence has increased 60 percent over the past five years.

Frank R. Weathersbee, Anne Arundel County state's attorney, formed a county task force a year ago of clergy, emergency medical personnel, social workers and educators to marshal forces against domestic violence.

Weathersbee said he hoped that the group would bring attention to the issue and coordinate the agencies that work with domestic violence victims and abusers.

Between March and September 1995, county police received more than 250 reports of domestic violence.

"We know domestic violence can no longer be viewed simply as a private issue," Weathersbee said. "We know it is a crime and it must be treated as such as it has a significant effect throughout our community."

Victims of domestic violence may have difficulty dealing with the police and the court system.

The case of Sandra Owens highlights the problems that such victims face.

The Glen Burnie woman said she returned one day from running errands three minutes later than expected. Her then-husband responded by grabbing her by the hair and slamming her against a living-room wall, she said.

In the six preceding years, said Owens, 35, she had been badly beaten many times and had called police, by her recollection, at least three times. But the violence continued.

"The police officer came and said, 'You have such a nice home, can't you work it out?' " Owens said. "Inside I was like, 'Please, go arrest him,' but I was too afraid to say [it]."

The attitude of the officer is fairly common among patrol officers, domestic-violence workers say.

"Most of the victims that I see have had bad experiences with the police," said Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County delegate who as a lawyer interviews victims for the Anne Arundel state's attorney's office. "The officers do not appear sympathetic," Grosfeld said. "They do seem to take the side of the offender in ways that are completely irrelevant to what is going on."

Police officers in Maryland may arrest abusers if they have "probable cause," which leaves the decision to the officer's discretion.

Grosfeld's views are echoed in a report from the state Family Violence Council to be published later this year. The council is chaired by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

"Arrest is seldom used by officers," a preliminary version of the report reads. "Reasons for not arresting vary officer to officer and among jurisdictions, but lack of arrest when probable cause exists is a problem statewide."

Local officers say that the decision to arrest is rarely, if ever, clear-cut.

"Let's say we get a call from neighbors in an apartment complex, and the parties say that they are just having a disagreement," said county police spokesman Cpl. Ron Hines. "We say, 'OK, good-bye.' People are entitled to do that."

But victims' rights advocates say their problem with the methods used by police officers goes beyond that.

Lorraine Chase, president of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence and coordinator of the Arundel YWCA domestic violence program, said victims tell her that police officers often get alarmingly friendly with the abusers.

"A lot of the officers are born and bred here," said Chase. "Police show up and say, 'Hey, man, how you doing, how you been, we should run some ball sometime.' "

Local police officers defended their actions by saying that it is often difficult to decide whether to make an arrest.

"If there is evidence to suggest that both parties have been assaulted, it's not for us to determine who is at fault," said Hines. "That's for the courts to decide."

But state police Superintendent David B. Mitchell, one of the authors of the state report, disagrees.

"I don't know how you could make a case about arresting both," Mitchell said. "Imagine calling the police only to find yourself arrested."

Theoretically, the situation for victims has changed for the better. Under the 1994 Domestic Violence Act of Maryland, several laws intended to protect victims were strengthened or changed. Most significant among the new laws was a provision that allows the state to compel victims to testify against their spouses upon the report of a second offense.

Anne Arundel County has carried the state statute a step further by instituting a "no-drop" policy on domestic-violence cases. Victims no longer have the option of withdrawing charges, a choice they had often made in the past under pressure from a spouse.

"More and more, we are going forward on cases even if we don't have the testimony of the victim," said Assistant State's Attorney Maureen Gilmer.

"It used to be that prosecutors would say that if she wouldn't testify against him, there is no case."

Four victim advocates in the state's attorney's office are responsible for tracking victims and providing information to prosecuting attorneys.

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