Citing a "tremendous increase" since 1982 in in reports of spouse and child abuse, Prince George's County Police Chief Michael Flaherty announced yesterday that the department has formed a domestic violence unit, the first of its kind in the Washington area.

The 10-officer unit, which begins its duties next week, will investigate all types of abuse cases, Flaherty said, including spouse abuse, child abuse, abuse of the elderly and abuse of the physically or mentally handicapped. The unit also will investigate cases of missing children.

According to police statistics, the number of cases of spouse abuse in the county rose from 372 in 1982 to 665 in 1984, the last year for which statistics are available. The cases of child abuse in the same years rose from 251 to 426.

Creation of the police unit follows the formation in September of a similar unit in the state's attorney's office. Both grew out of a report issued last April by a county task force on domestic violence that said one of three families in the county is affected by domestic violence.

County Executive Parris Glendening repeated at yesterday's news conference the task force finding that domestic violence is a recurring problem in many households. The new unit is necessary to "break the cycle" of violence, Glendening said. "Just enforcing the law but not addressing the problem at its source means that chances are very good that the problem will occur again."

In the past, Glendening said, Prince George's police did not have a systematic way of working with the myriad of social service agencies that become involved in abuse cases.

"So often, victims of these crimes slip through cracks in the system," he said. "This program is designed to close those cracks and bring desperately needed aid as quickly as possible."

Flaherty estimated that as much as 25 percent of all homicides in the county are a result of domestic violence and said the new unit will also help identify potentially serious situations and try to defuse them. "If we can intervene in those situations early enough," he said, "hopefully we can prevent further abuse or useless deaths."

Flaherty said the new unit will become part of the department's Criminal Investigation Division and will be formed by adding five detectives to the existing five-member child abuse unit. The change is expected to cost $175,000, he said.

The addition of the unit will not drastically change the way the department investigates abuse cases but will "provide a better flow of information between agencies and a quicker reaction to problems," Flaherty said.

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Christine Felker hailed the creation of the unit, saying it "signals a recognition within the police department that domestic violence cases are a special kind of case and require special handling."

Social service caseworkers already work with police, she said, but with a team of officers devoted exclusively to domestic violence cases, "we should be better able to press charges and make them stick."