Police Unit To Handle Domestic Violence

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006

The Howard County Police Department is forming a unit to deal with a surge in domestic violence incidents after winning a $400,000 federal grant.

Department spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said the county has witnessed a surprising jump in domestic violence incidents over the past five years. In 2000, police recorded 668 domestic violence incidents. There were 750 incidents in 2004 and more than 800 in 2005, Llewellyn said.

"I think that we're seeing these incidents on the rise not just in Howard County but in most places," she said. "I don't know if there is a way to know whether it's an actual increase in cases or an increase in reporting."

Accurate statistics are difficult to obtain because the vast majority of domestic violence victims, including those suffering physical and psychological abuse, do not report their incidents to the police. In 2001, Maryland's Uniform Crime Report cited 20,688 cases of domestic violence; in 2004, there were 23,013 cases.

Michaele Cohen, the executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said the increase in attention to domestic abuse and the expansion of victims' services have made it easier and less dangerous to report incidents to police.

"We think the numbers going up is not necessarily a bad thing if it is people reaching out for help," Cohen said.

The county police applied for the grant from the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women several years ago, but the application was rejected, Llewellyn said. After the Police Department reapplied, the Justice Department approved the $400,000 grant, which will be used over two years for salaries, training and equipment for a team of two officers and a civilian.

Officers on patrol receive training on handling domestic violence calls. Though patrol officers will continue to make the initial response to these calls, Llewellyn said they will be able to bring the special unit in to help.

"The primary goal for this unit will be to protect victims of domestic violence," Llewellyn said. The unit will create and maintain a database of repeat offenders and tell victims where they can get help. It will work with the state's attorney's office in prosecuting cases as well as the Sheriff's Office, which enforces protective orders, and Howard County General Hospital, which notifies the police of domestic incidents.

The unit also will focus on improving service to foreign-born victims with limited English skills, who often are reluctant to report incidents to the police.

"I think where we're really still struggling is underserved populations . . . where they are afraid to call authorities, or they fear what the authorities will do," Cohen said.

The three job openings have been posted within the department, and the unit will begin operation as soon as the positions are filled and the officers trained, Llewellyn said.

Organizations that help victims of domestic violence praised the department's move, saying their agencies would benefit in reaching victims and offering support.

"That way things may not fall through the cracks as readily," said Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of the Howard County Domestic Violence Center.

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