With Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon maintaining a public hands-off stance for now, some are waiting to see how she handles assault charges that have been filed by two city officials who previously were romantically involved.
Beyond reiterating Wednesday that she has "a no-tolerance level for domestic violence," Dixon declined to comment further on the accusations that Elizabeth C. Smith, a liquor board commissioner, and Demaune Millard, her chief of staff, have made against each other.
"This is a private matter - I want to give them that privacy to move through that process as we move forward," Dixon said. "I also understand and have been assured by both that they are taking appropriate steps." But Carole Alexander, executive director of House of Ruth Maryland, said Dixon "has an obligation to get to the bottom of this.
"We have allegations of domestic violence here," Alexander said. "Until they're resolved, it seems to me that she would want - as just a strategy, just a business decision - to let Mr. Millard sit down for a while until this gets sorted out."
Smith filed two second-degree assault charges against Millard on June 7, citing an argument they had the day before on an Inner Harbor cruise ship, as well as a previous incident in April 2008, when they were dating and when, she alleged, he punched her in the face.
On June 8, Millard filed a second-degree assault charge against Smith, saying she "grabbed my arm" during the cruise and later "attempted to hit me." Smith and Millard dated for about 3 1/2 years, said her attorney, Anthony I. Butler.
In addition to her role on the liquor board, Smith has worked as director of community services for the Department of Housing and Community Development, a position paying $71,760 a year, since January, according to Scott Peterson, a Dixon spokesman.
Alexander said the perceived lack of action against a city official accused of assault could lead victims of domestic violence to think, "Don't call these people; these people ... have abusers around.
"It has a chilling effect," Alexander said.
At least one previous city official was fired when, among other things, he was accused of domestic violence.
Police Commissioner Kevin Clark was dismissed in 2004 while being investigated in an alleged assault on his fiancee. The abuse claims against Clark were ultimately deemed unfounded, and Clark has sued to regain his position. In a statement Wednesday, Butler said that Smith "wrestled" with filing charges in light of "the increased potential for media coverage due to Mr. Millard's status in city government. ... She chose that course of action in lieu of suffering in silence."
Millard's attorney declined to comment Wednesday.
Victims of domestic violence are often reluctant to pursue criminal charges or protective orders - and don't always take immediate action, said Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
The very "real consequences" of criminal charges can also deter them: Someone's job might be at stake, Cohen added.
"It can be muddied because you're having an argument, and it's not clear always that this is a domestic abuse situation," Cohen said.
"Your first thought is not necessarily, 'Go to the police.' "
Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.