John B. Patton, chief deputy with the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office, remembers the day he left a battered and frightened woman at her home while her attacker, her estranged husband, was on the loose.
Patton had helped the woman file criminal charges and urged her to find shelter with family or friends, but there was little more he could do. Not long afterward, the woman's husband followed her and beat her again.
Now, Loudoun officers have another option in assisting such victims.
Police in Loudoun and Vienna this month joined the growing list of localities that offer victims of stalkers and domestic violence a free cellular phone programmed to call 911. There are similar programs in Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties and Alexandria. Victims are directed to keep the phones with them at all times so they can call the moment they need help.
The phones used in Loudoun and Vienna--part of the nationwide "Call to Protect" program--also provide round-the-clock access to a state-run counseling hot line and a police nonemergency line. Motorola donated 35 phones to police in Loudoun and five to Vienna authorities. Cellular One is donating the air time.
"A wireless phone can provide a victim with a sense of security," said Julie A. Carlson, coordinator for Loudoun's Victim Witness Program. "It's about taking back control. Someone may feel that they have to stay in their home because . . . they may worry they won't have access to a phone."
In fast-growing Loudoun County, program workers this year handled about 250 domestic violence cases through September, compared with about 230 cases overall in 1998, Carlson said. Officer Virginia Palmore, of the Vienna police, said officers there handle as many as 150 domestic violence calls each year.
Carlson, who already has promised phones to a handful of victims, said she can think of numerous instances in which a cell phone could make a difference in a victim's daily life.
In one recent case, a woman who did not have phone service in her home sought refuge in an emergency shelter after her assailant was released from jail. Having the free cell phone could have given that person another option, Carlson said.
Although the phones don't replace other precautions, they can be an important tool for domestic abuse victims, said Cindy Atkins, director of the sexual assault program at the nonprofit Loudoun Abused Women's Shelter.
"Hopefully, it allows the person to call police before something happens," Atkins said. "One time, I had a woman who picked her children up from school and was able to use the phone to call and say, 'Somebody is following me--what should I do?' "
Vienna officers have given away one phone since they began the program early this month, Palmore said. The recipient, a woman who has been in an abusive relationship, hasn't had to use it yet, but she has told police she feels safer just having it in reach.
Call to Protect, a partnership launched in 1996 among Motorola, the Wireless Foundation, cellular carriers and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, has distributed about 9,000 phones nationwide, according to Cellular One spokeswoman Elissa Lumley.
Fairfax County, which started its program in 1998, has been held up as a national model for other jurisdictions that might want to begin the program.
To date, the county has given out 70 phones. The victims "keep it as long as they need it," said Officer Ed O'Carroll, who coordinates the cell phone program in Fairfax. "Unfortunately, some of the phones we gave out a year ago are still in the hands of those victims. They still live in a world of violence. They need that phone as their lifeline to the police."
Police in Alexandria started their program in 1996 with eight donated phones. Today, the department has more than 100 phones in its arsenal, about half of which are in the hands of women who feel threatened.
There have been several instances, police said, in which women involved in the program have probably been spared from violence because they had the cell phone.
"In one case, the victim was waiting in a car, and [her abuser] got her around the neck through an open window and started to strangle her," said Sgt. Scott Gibson, coordinator of the Alexandria Police Department's Domestic Violence Unit. "She was able to pull out her phone, and the sight of it made him run away."
Arlington started giving out phones in 1997. Since that time, the popularity of the program and a wealth of donations has boosted the county's cache of phones to more than 100. About half of those phones are on the street. Officials there said they have so many phones that they encourage users to keep them indefinitely.
To qualify for the program, victims just "need to want one," said Karen Crane, a domestic violence specialist in the Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney's Office. "We don't prioritize because we have an ample supply."
Prince William started its program in 1998 with 45 donated phones. Today, the county has passed the 100 phone mark.
To obtain a phone in Prince William, a victim must have current assault charges or other action pending in court against someone or a history of being abused. So far, the county hasn't turned anyone away.
"We've even loaned phones to Stafford County residents because there is no cell phone loan program there," said Patricia Allue, director of the Prince William County Victim Witness Program. Allue said that at least five women have used their phones to call for help in the last year. "We tell them to keep the phone for as long as they might need it, until their safety is no longer an issue."
CAPTION: In addition to helping with cell phone distribution, Julie A. Carlson, coordinator for Loudoun's Victim Witness Program, is involved in getting packages of clothing and toiletries to hospitalized domestic violence victims.