How Police Department views domestic violence

December 21, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

BALTIMORE City Police Department Col. Margaret Patten sat in one of her office chairs, right beside the pest of a columnist who offered his theory on why some police officers might abuse their spouses or girlfriends.

"We ask officers to be the ultimate Type A personalities," the pest pontificated. "For eight hours we want them to be on the street, handing out orders, expecting them to be obeyed, controlling the criminal element for us. In fact, if we get any other type of cop on the street, we may as well not have any. When they go home, we expect them to turn off that personality."

Much to the pest's surprise, Patten said there might be something to the theory.

"When we had to deal with domestic violence issues my question was 'Why are we even hiring these people?'" Patten responded. "We looked at our hiring practices and found that the best cops know how to control situations. We teach officers in the academy how to control crowds, how to control an interview." For that reason, police departments must be especially leery of officers prone to domestic violence.

"An abuser is all about power and control," Patten continued. Lately Baltimore police have been working with a Johns Hopkins Hospital psychologist, Dr. Robyn Gershon, to develop a test that might identify potential abusers.

"If red flags go up, we will go further into the potential candidate's past," Patten said. But the test may take a long time to develop, Patten cautioned, "and we may not find anything."

Abusers typically have certain characteristics. They want their wives or girlfriends to be dependent. Abusers use pregnancy, money or marriage - perhaps a combination of the three - to keep the women dependent. That, Patten insists, is the mark of a true batterer. She knows of one man - a deputy sheriff in the Midwest - who admitted he had only six months to make a woman dependent on him.

"He said that after six months, he couldn't keep up the facade," Patten recalled. The facade was the Mr. Nice Guy and Sweetness image the guy was cultivating. It seems this character couldn't go more than six months without bashing a woman.

"When he made comments in front of his supervisors about beating his wife and they said nothing, he knew he had allies," Patten said, explaining how such attitudes are allowed to fester in law enforcement agencies.

"The same goes true for sexist and racist comments," she added. The key to eliminating all from police forces is for other officers not to be allies. In the civilian community, men must not be allies to other men who abuse women.

Patten said it's been a struggle to get the department to even realize domestic violence is a problem. It was four years ago that she started - covertly, she hastened to point out - the department's first domestic violence unit.

"Domestic violence was not a high priority in the Police Department," Patten said. " I was not encouraged." Even today, she gets letters from police chiefs in other cities, challenging her to explain why Baltimore police have taken such a strong stand against domestic violence.

" In order to deal with a problem, you have to acknowledge the problem," Patten answered. "Domestic violence is a crime. We don't want criminals on the police force."

It's all a question of balance, Patten said. Abusers on the police force can't be objective. They may go overboard and arrest someone who shouldn't be arrested or not arrest someone who should.

Patten said she found a supporter when Commissioner Thomas Frazier came to town. He ordered domestic violence units to be set up in every district. His commitment to ending domestic violence on the police force started then, she said, not in the wake of Officer Charles Smothers shooting James Quarles outside Lexington Market in August.

Smothers was fired Dec. 5 for an April 1995 incident that has been depicted as a classic domestic violence case.

"Officer Smothers fired his departmentally issued handgun in a domestic violence incident at his girlfriend and another man," Frazier said in explaining why Smothers was fired. "This type of domestic violence has not and will not be tolerated by this Police Department."

The facts of the April 1995 incident Smothers and his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Linda, vigorously dispute. They both insist the incident was not a domestic violence one, and that Charles Smothers doesn't even remotely fit the profile of a batterer. Linda Smothers shot down the "economic control" theory quickly. She was working at the time of the incident and works now, she said.

But redefining domestic violence in the case of Smothers isn't the least of the issues that nag at those of us who - despite all the fine rhetoric about being against domestic violence - still smell something rotten in the canning of Smothers, who is black. The issue of trial boards - and whether black police officers are disproportionately punished within the department - has surfaced anew.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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