Advocates laud progress, look for more changes

March 06, 2000


Police officers in Washington County have made great strides in dealing with domestic violence cases, but shortcomings remain in the Hagerstown City Police Department, according to police and advocates for victims of abuse.

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City Police handle the majority of all domestic violence calls in Washington County, but have no clear mechanism for tracking the cases and trail other police departments in making arrests and helping victims, according to city, state and county statistics.

Maryland State Police and the Washington County Sheriff's Department each have special task forces to handle domestic violence, paying special attention to cases and victims.


City Police until early this year did not have any officers specifically assigned to domestic violence issues.

Detective Steve Hoover has been acting as the department's domestic violence coordinator, and the department has applied for a grant for a full-time coordinator, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said in February.

Having one officer oversee domestic violence cases, making sure that none "fall through the cracks," has already proven effective, Smith said.

"We did catch a few foul balls that way," he said.

Officers on the state and county task forces create detailed reports on domestic violence and track victims from the initial call for help, through court proceedings and after.

Tracking city police cases is difficult because department records are not clear.

Records show that police handled 590 family disturbance calls and 279 domestic violence calls from Jan. 1 to Oct. 20, 1999. But Officer Randy Rourke said some domestic violence calls are labeled as family disturbances and visa versa.

Computerized tracking of domestic violence cases "is one problem we don't have solved yet," Smith said.

As far as city records can say, city police make an arrest in one out of every six calls specifically classified as domestic violence.

The ratio is higher for domestic assaults: one arrest in every two calls. There were 59 domestic assaults reported by city police to the Uniform Crime Reporting program.

State police and county police, both of which track domestic violence cases more closely, show a higher arrest ratio.

State police make an arrest in one out of every two domestic violence calls and county police make an arrest in one out of every five.

County and state police compile specific reports on domestic violence, including such details as the relationships of the people involved and the number of incidents involving substance abuse, weapons and assaults.

City police do not have such records. Each investigating officer enters data after completing paper reports, Rourke said.


Better training

People involved in helping abused women said there have been major strides in how police deal with domestic violence in Washington County.

Since 1996, all law enforcement officers in Maryland have been required to complete a domestic violence training program, Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said.

Officers learn about new legislation as well as investigative and interviewing techniques tailored for domestic violence scenes, according to police.

Continuing seminars keep officers updated on law and policy changes, they said.

Such training has made officers more aware of the dynamics and scope of domestic violence, said Trooper Daniel Hoffman, regional family violence coordinator for the Maryland State Police in Frederick, Md.


On the scene

In Washington County, all three area police agencies try to send two officers on calls for domestic violence.

At each scene, they separate the couple, conduct interviews, record observations, collect evidence, remove any weapons they see and make arrests, police said.

They also refer victims and abusers to shelters and agencies that can help them, although that link is weakest now with city police.

Vicki Sadehvandi, the executive director of the Hagerstown shelter for women, said city police refer fewer victims to their services than other departments, something she expects will change.

Chief Smith said in February that the department has been working with Sadehvandi's agency, known as CASA or Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, to develop a victim referral sheet.

CASA helped state police develop a form that alerts the shelters here and in Frederick, Md., to new domestic abuse cases, according to Hoffman.

Sadehvandi said she was seeing "tremendous results" from the initiative, and expected similar success with "tear sheets" CASA helped design for county deputies to give to victims and abusers.

In another initiative, county and state police have representatives on the Washington County Family Violence Council, which was formed last July to develop a strategic plan to deal with the crime.

City police have not been steadily represented on the council, perhaps because the agency was in transition before Smith took over as chief in November, Sadehvandi said.


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