Witnessing the fallout of a drive-by shooting in downtown Baltimore is an event that remains crystallized in Jodi Finkelstein's mind, 16 years later.
"I could still tell you every detail about that night," said Finkelstein, the executive director of the county's Domestic Violence Center.
A social work intern at the University of Maryland, Baltimore at the time, she first mistook the shots for the sounds of a radiator popping, then realized what she had heard and left her desk to investigate, she recalled.
While she didn't see the shooter, she said, she was unsure if she was more horrified by the crime that had taken place or by the onlookers' reactions to the violence.
"There was complacency on the faces of the people on the street," said Finkelstein as she relived that night.
"Someone said, 'It's just another shooting; it doesn't really matter,' and someone else remarked that he sleeps in his bathtub as a safety measure" against random bullets, she recalled. "Soon after that, I began devoting myself to gun issues."
A couple of years after she began working with the now-defunct Build the Missing Peace, which worked to reduce gun violence, Finkelstein was offered a job with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, in Bowie. She said she accepted the position on the condition that she could continue her work on gun matters.
"I got sucked in by the new job," she said of her change in focus, "and I have worked on domestic violence issues ever since."
Finkelstein, who is 38 and lives in Olney, is leading the DVC as it marks its 30th year, an anniversary that will be celebrated by its 34-member staff Oct. 11 at the annual Hope Gala. But what has made the past year especially memorable for her has been the opportunity to work closely with her agency's new counterpart in the county Police Department.
The police officers of the 17-month-old Domestic Violence Unit were honored recently by the Association of Community Services at its annual Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards Luncheon. Finkelstein had nominated the police unit in the category of "Employee Team of the Year."
It wasn't for lack of trying that the county had never before received a grant to form such a unit, Finkelstein said. After three or four consecutive attempts, a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Justice Department came through in July 2006.
The unit's success in its short existence has prompted County Executive Ken Ulman to include funds in the budget for another detective to join the team, noted Finkelstein. The unit consists of Lt. Roland Denton, Sgt. Steve Martin and Detective Molly Gale, who are assisted by civilian administrator Katherine Turner.
During the first quarter of this year, Martin said, police officers responding to domestic violence calls conducted 188 lethality assessments, which are 11-point questionnaires given to the alleged victims at the scene to gauge the level of danger involved and the response required.
Of those, 77 victims spoke to a hot line counselor at the Domestic Violence Center, and 21 sought further services through May 21, said Finkelstein.
"All I can say is, Steve, who heads the unit, has been wonderful, wonderful, wonderful - as has the whole team," she added.
"And I can truthfully say that Jodi has been a great help to us in what we're trying to accomplish," said Martin, who previously spent 13 years in the narcotics division. "Domestic violence is totally new to me, and to see her passion is refreshing."
What's different for the nonprofit agency since the domestic violence unit was formed is that "police response is now much more uniform," said Finkelstein. "The DVU team has also trained all officers on the police force to handle domestic violence calls."
Martin, a 27-veteran of the county police force, agreed that training has been a major boost to police efforts. He further pinpointed the unit's ability to provide more in-depth follow-up with the victims as a reason for the "drastic improvements" in handling domestic violence cases.
"Every patrol officer's response to domestic assault comes across my desk, so I can review how each incident was handled" and make further suggestions for improvement where warranted, he explained.
"I ask Jodi all the time if she's getting more callers, and she says yes - that's what I want to hear," Martin said.
There is good reason to be energized by the number of victims requesting assistance from the center, Finkelstein said. But, some statistics remain the same, such as the figure showing that one in four women nationally are victims of domestic violence.
She recounted stopping by a post office recently to mail correspondence from the Domestic Violence Center when the postal clerk, noting the return address, thanked her for "all the good work" the center does. "I placed my hand on her arm and asked how we might be able to help her. She said, 'How did you know?' and I just said, 'We [at the DVC] all share this instinctual feeling.'"
Finkelstein said she "never gets a vacation" from picking up on the body language of women in need - once she even urged a woman taxi driver to seek help when she was a passenger in the back seat of the woman's cab.
"Since a lot of abusers are good people, the victims don't want to end their relationships - they just want the violence to stop," she said. "Asking for help is the most liberating thing they can do."
The Domestic Violence Center of Howard County is at 5457 Twin Knolls Road, Suite 310, in Columbia. For information, call 410-997-0304 or go to www.dvcenter.org. The 24-hour help line number is 410-997-2272.