Sheriffs lag on restraint orders

System to restrict gun sales falters for lack of funds, staff

November 13, 1999|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

As Maryland tries to keep handguns from people accused of domestic violence, the major obstacle is poor recordkeeping by sheriffs' offices, whose workers are ill-equipped to handle the staggering volume of files.

Sheriffs place a low priority on logging domestic violence restraining orders -- often entering them incorrectly or not at all -- into the state police database that blocks the sale of a handgun to a person accused of domestic abuse, according to court documents and interviews with law enforcement officials.

Some sheriffs use 911 dispatchers to log the orders between calls. Others struggle to find space to store the orders, with one sheriff piling them in his shower. In several jurisdictions, records are destroyed before they should be.

"I have a very small office, and the person I have in charge [of logging the orders] is also the detective and the crime lab person," said Kent County Sheriff John F. Price.

The sheriffs say they did not receive adequate funding or staff after the General Assembly passed legislation in 1995 requiring them to enter the restraining orders into the state police database.

As a result, the troubled system puts at risk many of the 17,000 people -- most of them women -- who ask the courts each year to protect them from abusive spouses and acquaintances. Thirty percent of the orders are not being logged into the system, according to a recent study by Maryland's U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia.

"One can say it should have been done back in October 1996, and I'm not going to argue," said Michael F. Canning, executive director of the Maryland Sheriffs Association. "There are no solutions to the immediate cracks in the armor. But, we are not going to blame anyone, and we want to get things fixed."

An error by the Howard County Sheriff's Department prompted a meeting of the Maryland Sheriffs Association to discuss the problem.

A clerk in the Howard County sheriff's office incorrectly recorded a protective order against Richard Wayne Spicknall II, which allowed him to purchase a 9 mm handgun at a College Park pawnshop on Aug. 25. The state police charged him in September with using the gun to kill his 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter as they sat strapped in their car seats.

"Without direction and support, there are going to be events like this," said Wicomico County Sheriff Hunter Nelms. "They cannot be prevented."

At the meeting last month, the sheriffs learned that the Maryland gave state police $132,000 in a series of grants to train sheriffs and audit their logging of domestic violence orders.

The state police grant application, filed in March, asked for the funds because "many local jurisdictions have not entered ex parte or civil protective orders, and the accuracy and validity of the existing entries has not been verified by an audit."

The application also stated that "a low level of priority" has been placed on recording the restraining orders by many jurisdictions.

Several sheriffs said they were angry that they were not informed of the grant money.

"The catch is we have the state saying shame on you for not getting them in timely, but whoops, we don't have time to train you," said Allegany County Sheriff David A. Goad. "We are putting these in off the seat of our pants, as best we can."

"After we have a screw-up in Howard County, then we find out they have the money," said Somerset County Sheriff Robert N. Jones.

The time limit for using some of the $132,000 expired in June, which further angered the sheriffs. Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent, said that "just because we did not spend money does not mean that the issue became dormant."

Last year, the state police gave the sheriffs a 16-page manual on how to log a protective order. They also established a hot line for questions, which was "underutilized," according to one state police official.

The grant money was not used because of staff turnover, and the last grant was not awarded until two months before it expired.

Mitchell said his agency will support the sheriffs and has $97,000 to spend on audits and training during the next year. The state police also plan to hire a person to oversee the logging of the protective orders.

But "it is a responsibility that I cannot assume," Mitchell said.

"If Mitchell is like me, he is a guy with his finger in a dike," said Baltimore City Sheriff John W. Anderson. "Each year, a number of laws come out and they want you to do this and that. We just do not have the people."

Several counties continue to rely on 911 operators to log the orders, which can cause significant errors and delays, according to law enforcement officials.

Sitting in a windowless basement, Tiffany Jones spends her shift fielding more than 200 emergency calls. In her spare time, after dispatching paramedics, police and firefighters, she also types domestic violence restraining orders into the Caroline County Sheriff's Department computer.

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