City officials, under pressure from victims' rights advocates, are considering legislation to force D.C. police to make arrests in cases of domestic violence and to keep track of family disturbances to identify repeat offenders.
For more than two years, the D.C. police department has had a policy that officers "should" make arrests when they believe domestic violence has occurred.
But victims' rights advocates say most police officers still don't make arrests and frequently don't even write up reports of domestic violence. They say police are hesitant because they tend to view domestic violence as personal disputes and not crimes, and because they think prosecutors won't take the cases seriously.
A year after the police department imposed its arrest policy in 1987, the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence interviewed 300 people, mostly women, who were victims of domestic violence.
The study reported that D.C. police made no arrests in many cases when victims suffered broken bones or spent the night in hospitals. They also failed to make an arrest in 86 percent of the cases in which victims were bleeding.
"If police make arrests for domestic violence, then the batterers will quickly learn that the community means business, and the victims will no longer be alone," said Karen Baker of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is lobbying for the law.
Victims' rights groups began pushing for the legislation 18 months ago after they said it was clear that the police policy wasn't working.
The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives is urging police departments throughout the country to devise tougher policies on domestic violence arrests.
More than a dozen jurisdictions have set up comprehensive strategies to deal with domestic violence. The city of Alexandria two years ago adopted an arrest policy and also created a multi-agency progam to prosecute and counsel offenders.
In the first two years of the program, Alexandria police made about 1,700 arrests and filed about 2,000 domestic violence reports.
In contrast, D.C. police in 1988 received 18,264 family disturbance calls and made only 44 reports, according to police statistics.
Two months ago, D.C. police created a task force of members of the U.S. Attorney's Office and representatives of social service and other city agencies to reform the way the criminal justice system handles domestic violence cases. The new emphasis is already reflected in police statistics this year: Sources said from Jan. 1 to May 20 of this year, police received 7,159 domestic calls, filed 250 reports and made 150 arrests.
Victims' rights groups say one problem in the District is that federal prosecutors don't follow through, and they are essential to any reform.
When an offender is not prosecuted, he gets the message that he hasn't done anything wrong, said Mary Pat Brygger, executive director of the National Woman Abuse Prevention Project.
"These guys do it over and over again and there is never any record, never any punishment. There is nothing that ever says, 'Stop!' "
She said offenders are less likely to repeat crimes if they are prosecuted and receive a suspended sentence on condition that they get counseling.
The bill was sponsored by council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large) and has six co-sponsors. But at a public hearing, police Inspector David W. Bostrom, speaking for the mayor and the police, said he backed the spirit of the legislation, but felt it was basically a codification of existing policy.
Staff writer Jane Ashley contributed to this report.