A story yesterday misstated the Fairfax County police policy on making arrests in domestic assault cases. The department's policy, which took effect July 1, states that police should make arrests if there is probable cause to believe an assault has occurred. (published 7/10/90)
An Alexandria man who used to beat his wife has a couple of words for the police who arrested him: Thank God.
"When I was arrested, that was the beginning for me. Thank God. I obviously was just crying out for help," he said.
He got arrested in Alexandria, and got help with the drug addiction that was behind his violence, because the city's police are required to make arrests in domestic cases when they believe an assault has occurred.
Alexandria was the first area community to adopt such a policy, in early 1988, and many other local police departments now operate under rules that encourage arrests in domestic assault cases.
But some communities -- notably Fairfax County -- still don't have such policies. And although District police are supposed to make arrests in domestic cases, critics say that usually doesn't happen.
Tomorrow, the D.C. Council will vote on legislation that would require police to make arrests when they believe a domestic assault has taken place.
The Alexandria man -- who agreed to talk about his experience on the condition that his name would not be used -- learned about the policy there when his wife called police one angry night just weeks after it was adopted.
What happened next was the same thing that has happened in 83 percent of the domestic assault calls received by Alexandria police since April 1988: an arrest. By comparison, the arrest rate for such calls in Maryland in 1988 was 21 percent, according to the Uniform Crime Report for the state.
During that same year, District police received 18,264 calls for assistance in domestic situations. Police made reports in only 44 of those cases, and not all of them resulted in arrests.
When the violence started for the Alexandria couple, they thought it was just an escalation of their shouting matches. But they had been using cocaine, and now say they believe the drug fueled his physical attacks on her.
Neither of them could see a way out of the downward spiral of drug addiction and abuse. "When we lived in Prince George's County, we tried at least six agencies for drug treatment," said his wife. "But even with our combined insurance, we couldn't afford the treatment."
After several years of turmoil, she left him, taking their daughter with her to live in Alexandria. But he followed and eventually moved in.
The violence continued, and soon he was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail. He was told he could go into a drug abuse treatment program, combined with 10 weeks of psychological counseling on dealing with anger, or serve the jail time. Like most defendants convicted in Alexandria, he chose the counseling.
"Being arrested broke my cover," the husband said. "It happened right in the neighborhood, and I hated the judge for it."
But the hatred turned to gratitude once the treatment started. "It was the concern of the counselors that made the difference for us," he said.
The couple are now living happily together, and, like most of Alexandria's domestic assault defendants sentenced to counseling, he has not repeated the crime.
Victims' rights advocates say making an arrest is the most effective way to break the cycle of violence. During the first two years of Alexandria's program, 14 percent of its convicted spouse abusers were arrested again. The national rate for repeat arrests is 41 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 1987, Alexandria had four domestic homicides. From 1988 to 1990, there was one such death.
When arrests are not made, the violence often is repeated. The Police Foundation studied domestic assaults in Kansas City, Mo. The study found that in half the cases of domestic assaults or homicides, police had responded to at least five calls during the previous two years involving the same people.
In an experiment by the Minneapolis police department, officers were assigned randomly to respond in one of three ways when handling a domestic violence call: counsel the parties (the traditional police practice), order the suspect to leave the home for eight hours, or arrest the suspect.
Thirty-seven percent of suspects counseled by police, and 33 percent of suspects ordered out of the home, committed another assault within six months. Only 19 percent of the suspects arrested repeated their crimes.
Even with a 1987 policy that says D.C. officers "should" make arrests when they believe a domestic assault has occurred, statistics suggest that police rarely do so. A 1988 study by the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Women's Law and Public Policy Fellowship helped prompt the proposal now before the D.C. Council.
The study found that arrests were made in only 5 percent of 300 domestic assault cases studied in the District. The groups said arrests usually were not made even when injuries to the victims were serious enough to require hospitalization. The most common reason cited for an arrest was insulting an officer.
D.C. Police Inspector David W. Bostrom has said he backs the spirit of the legislation, but believes it basically would put the department's existing policy into law.
But victims' rights advocates say more than laws must change; the attitudes of officers applying the laws also must change.
Some officers are reluctant to make arrests in domestic assault cases because they believe the victim will be unwilling to testify against the attacker once the initial anger has passed.
"Historically, if the person doing the assault is the sole breadwinner, eight times out of 10, the case will never come to trial," said Cpl. Chuck Cooke of the Prince George's County police.
Some officers also say that what happens in the home is private, and somehow immune from the usual rules.
"If there were a public fight at a 7-Eleven store, I'd probably make an arrest because the situation might impede business," said Lt. Preston Blackwell of the Fairfax County Police Department.
"In the home, there's not anybody involved other than the kids."