Enforcing protective orders

Computer errors: Law to bar gun sales in domestic violence cases lacks critical data.

February 07, 2000

SOME 200 representatives of the courts, sheriffs' offices and local police will convene this week for training on how to enter domestic violence protective orders into the state's crime computer database.

It's only two years late -- a lapse that has led to at least one tragedy in which a misunderstanding by the Howard County sheriff's office allowed a man, now accused of shooting his children to death, to purchase a handgun.

Maryland State Police will conduct the meeting for District and Circuit court clerks and for 31 sheriff's and police departments responsible for logging these court-issued, domestic-violence restraining orders. The meeting will stress the importance of promptly logging orders, and understanding their significance.

Several quick studies of the system have exposed deficiencies statewide: Nearly half the protective orders issued were not entered into the database. There was an 80 percent error rate for orders that were entered. Sheriffs' offices had backlogs as long as 16 weeks in entering the orders.

County sheriffs claim they lack staff and training to do the job. They got emergency grants totaling $30,000 this year. But the sheriffs smell big money in the state's budget surplus and are talking about millions of dollars in aid.

That's far too much. Assuming 10,000 orders issued in one year, the clerical time to enter all of them would total about 3,500 hours. At a generous $20 an hour, that's only $70,000.

The state needs to invest in a new crime computer system. The current mainframe model is 25 years old, with clunky and noncompatible software, and is frequently out of service.

In 1997, citing a significant risk to public safety, the Maryland State Police applied for grants to train local law enforcement personnel in the new legal requirement. In two years, that state agency got $132,000. But there's no evidence of training, aside from a 16-page manual mailed to sheriffs. Only a quarter of the grant money was even spent by MSP.

There's much blame to share. Now's the time for everyone involved to see that the law is met before another oversight leads to another deadly encounter.

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