Combating domestic violence

December 31, 2007

Artesha Moses called Baltimore police one night last March when her ex-boyfriend punched and kicked her after she refused to give him money for drugs. But the arrest warrant for James Summerville was never served, and three weeks later he was arrested for killing her.

Domestic violence calls don't always end so tragically, but police who respond should act as though they might. A professional approach to investigating domestic violence cases can help prevent serious crimes and save lives.

That's the best reason to support a proposal by State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Baltimore police Lt. Vernell Shaheed to have specially trained detectives handle serious domestic violence incidents. Under the plan, counselors also would be available around the clock to help victims apply for protective orders, find another place to live or get treatment.

Patrol officers in the city now handle domestic violence calls - and they apparently lack the skills to properly investigate a serious case that could result in serial abuse or murder. City prosecutors say some aren't even up to the basics, such as taking down a witness' address and phone number, having a victim sign a statement, collecting as evidence the piece of wood used to crack open a woman's skull - and their cases reflect those failings. If a detective is assigned to the case under the present procedure, it may be a day or two before he or she gets around to it, and victims may be hesitant to cooperate.

A city domestic violence fatality review committee recommended a quick-response team when it found that charges were being reduced or dropped because of problems with cases. The new approach is expected to begin in the Northeast district, which has the highest number of domestic violence calls to police, on Feb. 1.

Of just under 300 murders in Baltimore this year, at least 12 were domestic-related. But a better indication of the problem would be the 1,084 final protective orders that city judges granted to domestic violence victims in the year ending June 30, 2006, the most recent for which data are available. More recently, about 7,000 women in Baltimore sought help from the House of Ruth, an advocacy group for victims of domestic violence.

Early intervention and astute law enforcement investigators are good ways to provide help for domestic violence victims - and spare families the tragic consequences of this crime.

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